The Columbine High School massacre was a school shooting which occurred on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, an unincorporated area of Jefferson County in the State of Colorado. In addition to shootings, the complex and highly planned attack involved a fire bomb to divert firefighters, propane tanks converted to bombs placed in the cafeteria, 99 explosive devices, and bombs rigged in cars. Two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered a total of 12 students and one teacher. They injured 24 additional students, with three other people being injured while attempting to escape the school. The pair then committed suicide.
Although their motives remain unclear, the personal journals of the perpetrators document that they wished their actions to rival the Oklahoma City bombing. The attack has been referred to by USA Today as a “suicidal attack which was planned as a grand, if badly implemented, terrorist bombing.” The Columbine High School massacre is the deadliest mass murder committed on an American high school campus, and is noted as one of the first and most serious of a series of high profile spree shootings which have since occurred.
The massacre sparked debate over gun control laws, the availability of firearms within the United States and gun violence involving youths. Much discussion also centered on the nature of high school cliques, subcultures and bullying, in addition to the influence of violent movies and video games in American society. The shooting resulted in an increased emphasis on school security, and a moral panic aimed at goth culture, social outcasts, gun culture, the use of pharmaceutical anti-depressants by teenagers, teenage Internet use and violent video games.
Preliminary activities and intent
In 1996, Eric Harris created a private website on America Online. Harris initially created the site to host gaming levels of the video game Doom, which he and his friend, Dylan Klebold, had created, primarily for friends. On this site, Harris began a blog, which included jokes and short journal entries with thoughts on parents, school, and friends. By the end of the year, the site contained instructions on how to cause mischief, as well as instructions on how to make explosives, and blogs in which he described the trouble he and Klebold were causing. Beginning in early 1997, the blog postings began to show the first signs of Harris’s ever-growing anger against society.
Harris’s site attracted few visitors, and caused no concern until late 1997. Klebold gave the web address to Brooks Brown, a former friend of Harris. Brown’s mother had filed numerous complaints with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office concerning Harris, as she thought he was dangerous. The website contained numerous death threats directed against Brown, Klebold knew that if Brooks accessed the address, he would discover the content and inform his parents, and likely the authorities would be notified. After Brown’s parents viewed the site, they contacted the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. The investigator Michael Guerra was told about the website. When he accessed it, Guerra discovered numerous violent threats directed against the students and teachers of Columbine High School. Other material included blurbs which Harris had written about his general hatred of society, and his desire to kill those who annoyed him. Harris had noted on his site that he had made pipe bombs. In addition, he mentioned a gun count and compiled a hit list of individuals (he did not post any plan on how he intended to attack targets). As Harris had posted on his website that he possessed explosives, Guerra wrote a draft affidavit, requesting a search warrant of the Harris household. He never filed it. The affidavit was concealed by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and not revealed until September 2001, resulting from an investigation by the TV show 60 Minutes.
After the revelation about the affidavit, a series of grand jury investigations were begun into the cover-up activities of Jefferson County officials. The investigation revealed that high-ranking county officials had met a few days after the massacre to discuss the release of the affidavit to the public. It was decided that because the affidavit’s contents lacked the necessary probable cause to have supported the issuance of a search warrant for the Harris household by a judge, it would be best not to disclose the affidavit’s existence at an upcoming press conference, although the actual conversations and points of discussion were never revealed to anyone other than the Grand Jury members. Following the press conference, the original Guerra documents disappeared. In September 1999, a Jefferson County investigator failed to find the documents during a secret search of the county’s computer system. A second attempt in late 2000 found copies of the document within the Jefferson County archives. The documents were reconstructed and released to the public in September 2001, but the original documents are still missing. The final grand jury investigation was released in September 2004.
On January 30, 1998, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stole tools and other equipment from a van parked near the city of Littleton. Both youths were arrested and subsequently attended a joint court hearing, where they pleaded guilty to the felony theft. The judge sentenced the duo to attend a juvenile diversion program. There both boys attended mandated classes and talked with diversion officers. One of their classes taught anger management. Harris also began attending therapy classes with a psychologist. Klebold had a history of drinking and having failed a dilute urine test, but neither he nor Harris attended any substance abuse classes.
Harris and Klebold were eventually released from diversion several weeks early because of positive actions in the program, they were both on probation. Harris wrote a letter to the owner of the equipment which they stole, apologizing and offering empathy to the owner for his and Klebold’s actions. Harris continued scheduled meetings with his psychologist until a few months before he and Klebold committed the Columbine High School massacre.
Shortly after his and Klebold’s court hearing, Harris’s online blog disappeared. His website was reverted to its original purpose of posting user-created levels of the online video game Doom. Harris began to write a paper journal, in which he recorded his thoughts and plans. There he boasted of having faked his letter of regret to the owner of the van from which he and Klebold had stolen items and praised himself for his deception.
Harris dedicated a section of his website to posting content regarding his and Klebold’s progress in their collection of guns and building of bombs (they subsequently used both in attacking students at their school.) (After the website was made public, AOL permanently deleted it from its servers.)
In one of his scheduled meetings with his psychiatrist, Eric Harris complained of depression, anger and possessing suicidal thoughts. As a result, he was prescribed the anti-depressant Zoloft. He complained of feeling restless and having trouble concentrating, in April, his doctor switched him to Luvox, a similar anti-depressant drug. At the time of his death, Harris had therapeutic Luvox levels in his system. Some analysts, such as psychiatrist Peter Breggin, have argued that one or both of these medications may have contributed to Harris’s actions. Breggin said that side-effects of these drugs include increased aggression, loss of remorse, depersonalization, and mania.
Journals and videos
Harris and Klebold both began keeping journals soon after their arrests. The pair documented their arsenal with video tapes they kept secret.
Their journals documented their plan for a major bombing to rival that of the Oklahoma City bombing. Their entries contained blurbs about ways to escape to Mexico, hijacking an aircraft at Denver International Airport and crashing into a building in New York City, as well as details about the planned attack. The pair hoped that, after setting off home-made explosives in the cafeteria at the busiest time of day, killing hundreds of students, they would shoot survivors fleeing from the school. Then, as police vehicles, ambulances, fire trucks, and reporters came to the school, bombs set in the boys’ cars would detonate, killing these emergency and other personnel. In the event, the explosives in their cars did not detonate.
The pair kept videos that documented the explosives, ammunition, and weapons they had obtained illegally. They revealed the ways they hid their arsenals in their homes, as well as how they deceived their parents about their activities. The pair shot videos of doing target practice in nearby foothills, as well as areas of the high school they planned to attack. On April 20, approximately thirty minutes before the attack, they made a final video saying goodbye and apologizing to their friends and families.
In the months prior to the attacks, Harris and Klebold acquired two 9 mm firearms and two 12-gauge shotguns. Their friend Robyn Anderson bought a rifle and the two shotguns at the Tanner Gun Show in December 1998. Through Philip Duran, another friend, Harris and Klebold later bought a handgun from Mark Manes for $500.
Using instructions acquired upon the Internet, Harris and Klebold constructed a total of 99 improvised explosive devices of various designs and sizes. They sawed the barrels and butts off their shotguns to make them easier to conceal. They committed numerous felony violations of state and federal law, including the National Firearms Act and the Gun Control Act of 1968, before they began the massacre.
On April 20, Harris was equipped with a 12-gauge Savage-Springfield 67H pump-action shotgun, (which he discharged a total of 25 times) and a Hi-Point 995 Carbine 9 mm carbine with thirteen 10-round magazines, which he fired a total of 96 times.
Klebold was equipped with a 9 mm Intratec TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun with one 52-, one 32-, and one 28-round magazine and a 12-gauge Stevens 311D double-barreled sawed-off shotgun. Klebold primarily fired the TEC-9 handgun, for a total of 55 times.
April 20, 1999: The massacre
On the morning of Tuesday, April 20, 1999, Harris and Klebold placed a small fire bomb in a field about three miles south of Columbine High School, and two miles south of the fire station. Set to explode at 11:14 a.m., the bomb was a diversion to draw firefighters and emergency personnel away from the school. (It partially detonated and caused a small fire, which was quickly extinguished by the fire department.)
At 11:10 a.m. Harris and Klebold arrived separately at Columbine High School. Harris parked his vehicle in the Junior student parking lot, by the south entrance, and Klebold parked in the adjoining Senior student parking lot, by the west entrance. The school cafeteria, their bomb target, with its long outside window-wall and ground-level doors, was between their parking spots.
After parking their cars, the duo met near Harris’s car and armed two 20 pound (9 kg) propane bombs before entering the cafeteria a few minutes prior to the beginning of the A lunch shift. The youths placed the duffel bags containing the bombs, set to explode at approximately 11:17 a.m., inside the cafeteria before returning to their separate vehicles to await the explosion, and to shoot survivors fleeing the building. Had the bombs exploded with full power, they would have killed or severely wounded all 488 students in the cafeteria and possibly collapsed the ceiling, dropping part of the library into the cafeteria.
A Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy, Neil Gardner, was assigned to the high school as a full-time uniformed and armed school resource officer. Gardner usually ate lunch with students in the cafeteria, but on April 20 he was eating lunch in his patrol car at the northwest corner of the campus, watching students in the Smokers’ Pit in Clement Park. The security staff at Columbine did not observe the bombs being placed in the cafeteria, since a custodian was replacing the school security video tape as it happened. The bags holding the bombs were first visible on the fresh security tape, but they were not identified as suspicious items. No witness recalled seeing the duffel bags being added to the 400 or so backpacks already in the cafeteria.
As the two youths returned to their vehicles, Harris encountered Brooks Brown, a classmate with whom he had recently patched up a longstanding series of disagreements. Brown was surprised to see Harris, whom he had earlier noted had been absent from an important class test. Harris seemed unconcerned when reminded of this fact, commenting, “It doesn’t matter anymore.” Harris then elaborated: “Brooks, I like you now. Get out of here. Go home.” Brown, feeling uneasy, walked away. Several minutes later, students departing Columbine for their lunch break observed Brown heading down South Pierce Street away from the school. Meanwhile, Harris and Klebold armed themselves by their vehicles and waited for the bombs to explode.
Shooting begins 11:19 a.m.
When the cafeteria bombs failed to explode, Harris and Klebold convened and walked toward the school. Both armed, they climbed to the top of the outdoor West Entrance steps, placing them on a level with the athletic fields west of the building and the library inside the West Entrance, directly above the cafeteria. From this vantage point, the cafeteria’s west entrance was located at the bottom of the staircase, next to the Senior parking lot.
At 11:19 a.m., a witness heard Eric Harris yell “Go! Go!” The two gunmen pulled their guns from beneath their trenchcoats and began shooting at two 17-year-old students who had been sitting in the grass next to the West Entrance of the school. Rachel Scott was hit four times and killed instantly. Richard Castaldo was shot eight times in the chest, arm and abdomen and paralyzed below the chest. It is unknown who fired first or which gunman shot and killed Scott.
Many rumors afterward related to the cause of the attacks and possible targeting of Christians. One such rumor related to the murder of Rachel Scott claimed that the shooters had first asked Scott if she believed in God, and killed her after she said yes. The FBI later concluded that this interaction did not take place.
After the first two shootings, Harris removed his trench coat and aimed his 9 mm carbine down the West Staircase toward three youths: 15-year-olds Daniel Rohrbough and Sean Graves and 16-year-old Lance Kirklin. The three friends had been ascending the staircase directly below the shooters. Kirklin later reported seeing Klebold and Harris standing at the top of the staircase, before opening fire. All three youths were shot and wounded. Harris and Klebold turned and began shooting west in the direction of five students sitting on the grassy hillside adjacent to the steps and opposite the West Entrance of the school. 15-year-old Michael Johnson was hit in the face, leg and arm, but ran and escaped; 16-year-old Mark Taylor was shot in the chest, arms and leg and fell to the ground, where he feigned death. The other three escaped uninjured.
Klebold walked down the steps toward the cafeteria. He shot Kirklin in the face, critically wounding him. Daniel Rohrbough and Sean Graves had descended the staircase when Klebold and Harris’s attention was diverted by the students on the grass, Graves had crawled into the doorway of the cafeteria’s west entrance and collapsed. Klebold shot Rohrbough through the upper left chest at close range, killing him and then stepped over the injured Sean Graves to enter the cafeteria. Officials speculated that Klebold went to the cafeteria to check on the propane bombs. Harris shot down the steps at several students sitting near the cafeteria’s entrance, severely wounding and partially paralyzing 17-year-old Anne-Marie Hochhalter as she tried to flee. Klebold came out of the cafeteria and went back up the stairs to join Harris.
They shot toward students standing close to a soccer field, but did not hit anyone. They walked toward the West Entrance, throwing pipe bombs, very few of which detonated. Patti Nielson, a teacher, had noticed the commotion and walked toward the West Entrance with a 16-year-old student, Brian Anderson. She had intended to walk outside to tell the two students to “Knock it off,” thinking Klebold and Harris were either filming a video or pulling a student prank. As Anderson opened the first set of double doors, Harris and Klebold shot out the windows, injuring him with flying glass and hitting Nielson in the shoulder with shrapnel. Nielson stood and ran back down the hall into the library, alerting the students inside to the danger and telling them to get under desks and keep silent. She dialed 9-1-1 and hid under the library’s administrative counter. Anderson remained behind, caught between the exterior and interior doors.
Injuries and deaths in initial incident
- Rachel Scott, age 17. Killed by shots to the head, torso and leg alongside the West Entrance of the school.
- Richard Castaldo, age 17. Shot in the arm, chest, back and abdomen alongside the West Entrance to the school.
- Daniel Rohrbough, age 15. Killed by a shot to the chest at the base of the West Staircase.
- Sean Graves, age 15. Shot in the back, foot and abdomen on the West Staircase.
- Lance Kirklin, age 16. Critically injured by shots to the leg, neck and jaw on the West Staircase.
- Michael Johnson, age 15. Shot in the face, arm and leg to the west of the staircase.
- Mark Taylor, age 16. Shot in the chest, arms and leg to the west of the staircase.
- Anne-Marie Hochhalter, age 17. Shot in the chest, arm, abdomen, back, and left leg near the cafeteria’s entrance.
- Brian Anderson, age 16. Injured near the West Entrance by flying glass.
- Patti Nielson, age 35. Hit in the shoulder by shrapnel near the West Entrance.
- Stephanie Munson, age 16. Shot in the ankle inside the North Hallway.
- William David Sanders, age 47. Died of blood loss after being shot in the neck and back inside the South Hallway
Police response 11:22 a.m.
At 11:22, the custodian called Deputy Neil Gardner on the school radio, requesting assistance in the Senior parking lot. The only paved route took him around the school to the east and south on Pierce Street, where, at 11:23 he heard on his police radio that a female was down, struck by a car, he assumed. He turned on his lights and siren. While exiting his patrol car in the Senior lot at 11:24, he heard another call on the school radio, “Neil, there’s a shooter in the school”. Harris, at the West Entrance, immediately fired his rifle at Gardner, who was sixty yards away. Gardner returned fire with his service pistol. He was not wearing his prescription eyeglasses, and was unable to hit the shooters.
Thus, five minutes after the shooting started, and two minutes after the first radio call, Gardner was engaged in a gun fight with the student shooters. There were already two dead and ten wounded. Harris fired ten shots and Gardner fired four, before Harris ducked back into the building. No one was hit. Gardner reported on his police radio, “Shots in the building. I need someone in the south lot with me.”
The gunfight distracted Harris and Klebold from the injured Brian Anderson. Anderson escaped to the library and hid inside an open staff break room. Back in the school, the duo moved along the main North Hallway, throwing pipe bombs and shooting at anyone they encountered. They shot Stephanie Munson in the ankle, although she was able to walk out of the school. The pair shot out the windows to the East Entrance of the school. After proceeding through the hall several times and shooting toward, and missing, any students they saw, Harris and Klebold went toward the West Entrance and turned into the Library Hallway.
Deputy Paul Smoker, a motorcycle patrolman for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, was writing a traffic ticket north of the school when the “female down” call came in at 11:23. Taking the shortest route, he drove his motorcycle over grass between the athletic fields and headed toward the West Entrance. When he saw Deputy Scott Taborsky following him in a patrol car, he abandoned his motorcycle for the safety of the car. The two deputies had begun to rescue two wounded students near the ball fields when another gunfight broke out at 11:26, between Harris, back at the West Entrance, and Gardner, still in the parking lot. Deputy Smoker returned fire from the hilltop, and Harris retreated. Again, no one was hit.
Meanwhile, William David Sanders, a computer and business teacher and a varsity coach, had evacuated the cafeteria, taking students up a staircase leading to the second floor of the school. The stairs were located around the corner from the Library Hallway in the main South Hallway. (It is believed, but not confirmed, that having evacuated the cafeteria, Sanders was rushing toward the library to evacuate students there when he encountered Harris and Klebold.) As Sanders and a student walked down the Library Hallway, they encountered Harris and Klebold, who were approaching from the corner of the North Hallway. Sanders and the student turned and ran in the opposite direction. Harris and Klebold shot at them both, hitting Sanders twice in the chest but missing the student. The latter ran into a science classroom and warned everyone to hide. Harris and Klebold returned up the North Hallway.
Sanders struggled toward the science area, and a teacher took him into a classroom where 30 students were located. They placed a sign in the window: “1 bleeding to death,” in order to alert police and medical personnel of Sanders’ location. Two students administered first aid to him and tried to stem the blood loss using shirts from students in the room. Using a phone in the room, the teacher and several students kept in contact with police outside the school. All the students in this room were evacuated safely, but Sanders died that afternoon at approximately 3:00 p.m. He was the only teacher killed in the school shooting.
Library massacre 11:29 a.m. to 11:36 a.m.
As the shooting unfolded, Patti Nielson talked on the phone with emergency services, telling her story and urging students to take cover beneath desks. According to transcripts, her call was received by a 9-1-1 operator at 11:25:05 a.m. The time between the call being answered and the shooters entering the library was four minutes and ten seconds. Before entering, the shooters threw two bombs into the cafeteria, both of which exploded. They then threw another bomb into the Library Hallway, it exploded and damaged several lockers. At 11:29 a.m., Harris and Klebold entered the library, where a total of 52 students, two teachers and two librarians had concealed themselves.
Harris yelled, “Get up!,” in a tone so loud that he can be heard on Patti Nielson’s 9-1-1 recording at 11:29:18. Klebold yelled, “Everybody get up!” Staff and students hiding in the library exterior rooms later said they also heard the gunmen say,
“Everyone with white hats, stand up! This is for all the shit that you’ve given us for the past four years!” and: “All jocks stand up! We’ll get the guys in white hats!”
(Wearing a white baseball cap at Columbine was a tradition among sports team members.) When no one stood up, Harris said, “Fine, I’ll start shooting anyway!” He fired his shotgun twice at a desk, not knowing that a student named Evan Todd was hiding beneath it. Todd was hit by wood splinters but was not seriously injured.
The shooters walked to the opposite side of the library, to two rows of computers. Todd hid behind the administrative counter. Kyle Velasquez, 16, was sitting at the north row of computers, police later said he had not hidden underneath the desk when Klebold and Harris had first entered the library, but had curled up under the computer table. Klebold shot and killed Velasquez, hitting him in the head and back. Klebold and Harris put down their ammunition-filled duffel bags at the south, or lower, row of computers and reloaded their weapons. They walked back toward the windows facing the outside staircase. Noticing police evacuating students outside the school, Harris said: “Let’s go kill some cops.” He and Klebold began to shoot out the windows in the direction of the police, who returned fire.
After firing through the windows at evacuating students and the police, Klebold fired his shotgun at a nearby table, injuring three students named Patrick Ireland, Daniel Steepleton, and Makai Hall. He removed his trench coat. As Klebold fired at the three, Harris grabbed his shotgun and walked toward the lower row of computer desks, firing a single shot under the first desk without looking. He hit 14-year-old Steven Curnow with a mortal wound to the neck. Harris shot under the adjacent computer desk, injuring 17-year-old Kacey Ruegsegger in the hand, arm and shoulder. When she started gasping in pain, Harris told her to “quit your bitching”.
Harris walked over to the table across from the lower computer row, slapped the surface twice and knelt, saying “Peek-a-boo” to 17-year-old Cassie Bernall before shooting her once in the head, killing her instantly. Harris had been holding the shotgun with one hand at this point and the weapon hit his face in recoil, breaking his nose. Three students who witnessed Bernall’s death, including one who had been hiding beneath the table with her, have testified that Bernall did not exchange words with Harris after his initial taunt.
After fatally shooting Bernall, Harris turned toward the next table, where Bree Pasquale sat next to the table rather than under it. Harris asked Pasquale if she wanted to die, and she responded with a plea for her life. Witnesses later reported that Harris seemed disoriented, possibly from the heavily bleeding wound to his nose. As Harris taunted Pasquale, Klebold noted Ireland trying to provide aid to Hall, who had suffered a wound to his knee. As Ireland tried to help Hall, his head rose above the table, Klebold shot him a second time, hitting him twice in the head and once in the foot. He was knocked unconscious, but survived.
Klebold walked toward another set of tables, where he discovered 18-year-old Isaiah Shoels and 16-year-olds Matthew Kechter and Craig Scott (the younger brother of Rachel Scott), hiding under one table. All three were popular athletes. Klebold tried to pull Shoels out from under the table. He called to Harris, shouting, “Reb! There’s a nigger over here”. Harris left Pasquale and joined him. Klebold and Harris taunted Shoels for a few seconds, making derogatory racial comments. Harris knelt down and shot Shoels once in the chest at close range, killing him. Klebold also knelt down and opened fire, hitting and killing Kechter. Scott was uninjured, he lay in the blood of his friends, feigning death. Harris turned and threw a CO2 bomb at the table where Hall, Steepleton, and Ireland were located. It landed on Steepleton’s thigh, and Hall quickly threw it away.
Harris walked toward the bookcases between the west and center section of tables in the library. He jumped on one and shook it, then shot in an unknown direction within that general area. Klebold walked through the main area, past the first set of bookcases, the central desk area and a second set of bookcases into the east area. Harris walked from the bookcase he had shot from, past the central area to meet Klebold. The latter shot at a display case located next to the door, then turned and shot toward the closest table, hitting and injuring 17-year-old Mark Kintgen in the head and shoulder. He turned toward the table to his left and fired, injuring 18-year-olds Lisa Kreutz and Valeen Schnurr with the same shotgun bullet. Klebold then moved toward the same table and fired with the TEC-9, killing 18-year-old Lauren Townsend.
Harris approached another table where two girls had hidden. He bent down to look at them and dismissed them as “pathetic”. The two shooters approached an empty table where they reloaded their weapons. Schnurr, who had been badly wounded by gunshot wounds and shrapnel, began to cry out, “Oh, God help me!” Klebold approached her and asked her if she believed in God. Schnurr first replied “no” and then “yes”, in an attempt to appease Klebold. In response, Klebold asked her why, she said that it was what her family believed. He taunted her, reloaded his shotgun, then walked away. The slightly injured Todd also reported that at this point, Klebold had said, “God is gay.” (The exchange between Schnurr and Klebold was subsequently, and incorrectly, attributed to the verbal exchange between Harris and Cassie Bernall.)
Harris then moved to another table where he fired twice, injuring 16-year-olds Nicole Nowlen and John Tomlin. When Tomlin attempted to move away from the table, Klebold kicked him. Harris then taunted Tomlin’s attempt at escape before Klebold shot the youth repeatedly, killing him. Harris then walked back over to the other side of the table where Lauren Townsend lay dead. Behind the table, a 16-year-old girl named Kelly Fleming had, like Bree Pasquale, sat next to the table rather than beneath it due to a lack of space. Harris shot Fleming with his shotgun, hitting her in the back and killing her instantly. He shot at the table behind Fleming, hitting Townsend and Kreutz again, and wounding 18-year-old Jeanna Park. An autopsy later revealed that Townsend died from the earlier gunshots by Klebold.
The shooters moved to the center of the library, where they continued to reload their weapons at a table there. Harris noticed a student hiding nearby and asked him to identify himself. It was John Savage, an acquaintance of Klebold’s. Savage said his name and asked Klebold what they were doing, to which he answered, “Oh, just killing people.” Savage asked if they were going to kill him. Possibly because of a fire alarm, Klebold said, “What?” Savage asked again whether they were going to kill him. Klebold hesitated, then told him to leave. Savage fled immediately, and escaped through the library’s main entrance.
After Savage had left, Harris turned and fired his carbine at the table directly north of where they’d been, grazing the ear of the 15-year-old Daniel Mauser. Harris fired again and hit Mauser in the face at close range, killing him. Both shooters moved south and fired randomly under another table, critically injuring two 17-year-olds, Jennifer Doyle and Austin Eubanks, and fatally wounding 17-year-old Corey DePooter. DePooter, the last to die in the massacre, at 11:35, was later credited with having kept his friends calm during the ordeal.
There were no further injuries after 11:35 a.m. They had killed 10 people in the library and wounded 12. Of the 56 library hostagees, 34 remained unharmed. The shooters had enough ammunition to have killed them all.
At this point, several witnesses later said they heard Harris and Klebold comment that they no longer found a thrill in shooting their victims. Klebold was quoted as saying, “Maybe we should start knifing people, that might be more fun.” (Both youths were equipped with knives.) They moved away from the table and went toward the library’s main counter. Harris threw a Molotov cocktail toward the southwestern end of the library but it failed to explode. Harris went around the east side of the counter and Klebold joined him from the west; they converged close to where Todd had moved after having been wounded. Harris and Klebold mocked Todd, who was wearing a white (jock) hat. When the shooters demanded to see his face, Todd partly lifted his hat so his face would remain obscured. When Klebold asked Todd to give him one reason why he should not kill him, Todd said: “I don’t want trouble.” Klebold said, “You [Todd] used to call me a fag. Who’s a fag now?!” The shooters continued to taunt Todd and debated killing him, but they eventually walked away.
Harris’s nose was bleeding heavily, which may have caused him to decide to leave the library. Klebold turned and fired a single shot into an open library staff break room, hitting a small television. He slammed a chair down on top of the computer terminal on the library counter, directly above the bureau where Patti Nielson had hidden.
The two walked out of the library at 11:36 a.m., ending the hostage situation there. Cautiously, fearing the shooters’ return, 34 uninjured and 10 injured survivors began to evacuate the library through the north door, which led to the sidewalk adjacent to the West Entrance. Patrick Ireland, unconscious, and Lisa Kreutz, unable to move, remained in the building. Patti Nielson joined Brian Anderson and the three library staff in the exterior break room, into which Klebold had earlier fired shots. They locked themselves in and remained there until they were freed, at approximately 3:30 p.m.
For the next 32 minutes, Harris and Klebold wandered the building, firing guns and setting off bombs, but causing no further injury. They committed suicide at 12:08, two minutes after the first SWAT team entered the building, but this fact was not discovered for more than three hours.
Injuries and deaths in the library
- 13. Evan Todd, age 15. Sustained minor injuries from the splintering of a desk he was hiding under.
- Kyle Velasquez, age 16. Killed by gunshot wounds to the head and back.
- Patrick Ireland, age 17. Shot in the arm, leg, head and foot.
- Daniel Steepleton, age, 17. Shot in the thigh.
- Makai Hall, age 18. Shot in the knee.
- Steven Curnow, age 14. Killed by a shot to the neck.
- Kacey Ruegsegger, age 17. Shot in the hand, arm and shoulder.
- Cassie Bernall, age 17. Killed by a shotgun wound to the head.
- Isaiah Shoels, age 18. Killed by a shot to the chest.
- Matthew Kechter, age 16. Killed by a shot to the chest.
- Lisa Kreutz, age 18. Shot in the shoulder, hand, arms and thigh.
- Valeen Schnurr, age 18. Injured with wounds to the chest, arms and abdomen.
- Mark Kintgen, age 17. Shot in the head and shoulder.
- Lauren Townsend, age 18. Killed by multiple gunshot wounds to the head, chest and lower body.
- Nicole Nowlen, age 16. Shot in the abdomen.
- John Tomlin, age 16. Killed by multiple shots to the head and neck.
- Kelly Fleming, age 16. Killed by a shotgun wound to the back.
- Jeanna Park, age 18. Shot in the knee, shoulder and foot.
- Daniel Mauser, age 15. Killed by a single shot to the face.
- Jennifer Doyle, age 17. Shot in the hand, leg and shoulder.
- Austin Eubanks, age 17. Shot in the head and knee.
- Corey DePooter, age 17. Killed by shots to the chest and neck.
Suicide of the perpetrators
After leaving the library, Harris and Klebold entered the science area, where they threw a small fire bomb into an empty storage closet. It caused a fire which was put out by a teacher hidden in an adjacent room. The duo proceeded toward the south hallway, where they shot into an empty science room. At approximately 11:44 a.m., Harris and Klebold were captured on the school security cameras as they re-entered the cafeteria. The recording shows Harris kneeling on the landing and firing a single shot toward one of the propane bombs he and Klebold had earlier left in the cafeteria, in an unsuccessful attempt to detonate it. He took a sip from one of the drinks left behind as Klebold approached the propane bomb and examined it. Klebold lit a Molotov cocktail and threw it at the propane bomb. As the two left the cafeteria, the Molotov cocktail exploded, partially detonating one of the propane bombs at 11:46 a.m. Two minutes later, approximately one gallon of fuel ignited in the same vicinity, causing a fire that was extinguished by the fire sprinklers.
After leaving the cafeteria, the duo returned to the main north and south hallways of the school, shooting aimlessly. Harris and Klebold walked through the south hallway into the main office before returning to the north hallway. On several occasions, the pair looked through the windows of classroom doors, making eye contact with students hidden inside, but neither Harris nor Klebold tried to enter any of the rooms. After leaving the main office, Harris and Klebold walked toward a bathroom, where they taunted students hidden inside, making such comments as: “We know you’re in there” and “Let’s kill anyone we find in here.” Neither attempted to enter the bathroom. At 11:55 a.m., the two returned to the cafeteria, where they briefly entered the school kitchen. They returned back up the staircase and into the south hallway at 11:58 a.m.
At 12:02 p.m., Harris and Klebold re-entered the library, which was empty of surviving students except the unconscious Patrick Ireland and the injured Lisa Kreutz. Once inside, they shot at police through the west windows but did not hit anyone.
At approximately 12:08 p.m, Patti Nielson, who had locked herself inside a break room with a student and library staff, overheard Harris and Klebold suddenly shout in unison: “One! Two! Three!” These words were followed by the sound of gunfire. Both had committed suicide: Harris by firing his shotgun through the roof of his mouth; Klebold by shooting himself in the left temple with his TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun.
Patrick Ireland had regained and lost consciousness several times after being shot by Klebold. He crawled to the library windows where, at 2:38 p.m., he stretched out the window, falling into the arms of two SWAT team members standing on the roof of an emergency vehicle. They were later criticized for allowing Ireland to drop more than seven feet to the ground, while doing nothing to try to ensure he could be lowered to the ground safely or break his fall. 18-year-old Lisa Kreutz, shot in the shoulder, arms, hand and thigh, remained in the library. In a subsequent interview, she recalled hearing a comment such as, “You in the library,” around the time of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s suicides. Kreutz lay in the library, keeping track of time by the sound of the school’s bells, until police arrived. She had tried to move but became light-headed. She was finally evacuated at 3:22 pm, along with Ms. Nielson, Brian Anderson and the three library staff who had hidden in the break room.
The crisis ends
By noon, SWAT teams were stationed outside the school, and ambulances started taking the wounded to local hospitals. Meanwhile, families of students and staff were asked to gather at nearby Leawood Elementary School to await information.
A call for additional ammunition for police officers in case of a shootout came at 12:20 p.m. The killers had ceased shooting just minutes earlier. Authorities reported pipe bombs by 1:00 p.m., and two SWAT teams entered the school at 1:09 p.m., moving from classroom to classroom, discovering hidden students and faculty. All students, teachers, and school employees were taken away, questioned, and offered medical care in small holding areas before being bussed to meet with their family members at Leawood Elementary. Officials found the bodies in the library by 3:30 p.m.
By 4:00 p.m. the sheriff made an initial estimate of 25 dead students and teachers. The estimate was ten over the true count, but close to the total count of wounded students. He said that police officers were searching the bodies of Harris and Klebold. At 4:30 p.m. the school was declared safe. At 5:30 p.m. additional officers were called in, as more explosives were found in the parking lot and on the roof. By 6:15 p.m., officials had found a bomb in Klebold’s car in the parking lot. The sheriff decided to mark the entire school as a crime scene; thirteen of the dead, including the shooters, were still inside the school at the time. At 10:45 p.m. the bomb in the car detonated when an officer tried to defuse it. The car was damaged, but no one was injured.
The total count of deaths was twelve students and one teacher, twenty-four students were injured as a result of the shootings. Three more were injured indirectly as they tried to escape the school. Harris and Klebold are thought to have committed suicide about forty-five minutes after they started the massacre.
On April 21 bomb squads combed the high school. At 10:00 a.m., the bomb squad declared the building safe for officials to enter. By 11:30 a.m., a spokesman of the sheriff declared the investigation underway. Thirteen of the bodies were still inside the high school as investigators photographed the building.
At 2:30 p.m., a press conference was held by Jefferson County District Attorney David Thomas and Sheriff John Stone, at which they said that they suspected others had helped plan the shooting. Formal identification of the dead had not yet taken place, but families of the children thought to have been killed had been notified. Throughout the late afternoon and early evening, the bodies were gradually removed from the school and taken to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office to be identified and autopsied. By 5:00 p.m., the names of many of the dead were known. An official statement was released, saying there were 15 confirmed deaths and 27 injuries related to the massacre.
On April 30 high-ranking officials of Jefferson County and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office met to decide if they should reveal that Michael Guerra, a Sheriff’s Office detective, had drafted an affidavit for a search warrant of Harris’s residence a year before the shootings, based on his previous investigation of Harris’s website and activities. They decided not to disclose this information at a press conference held on April 30, nor did they mention it in any other way. Over the next two years, Guerra’s original draft and investigative file documents were lost. Their loss was termed “troubling” by a Grand Jury convened after the file’s existence was reported in April 2001.
In the months following the shooting, considerable media attention focused upon Cassie Bernall, who had been killed by Eric Harris in the library and who Harris was reported to have asked, “Do you believe in God?,” immediately prior to her murder. Bernall was reported to have responded “Yes” before being killed. Valeen Schnurr claims that this exchange was with her, and Emily Wyant, the only living witness to Bernall’s death, confirms that Bernall did not have the discussion. But Bernall and Rachel Scott came to be regarded as Christian martyrs by Evangelical Christians. The official investigation attributed the statement to survivor Valeen Schnurr. The student Joshua Lapp thought Bernall had been queried about her belief, but was unable to correctly point out where Bernall was located, and was closer to Schnurr during the shootings. Another witness, Craig Scott, whose sister Rachel Scott was also portrayed as a Christian martyr, claimed that the discussion was with Bernall. When asked to indicate where the conversation had been coming from, he pointed to where Schnurr was shot.
The search for rationale
In the aftermath, speculation occurred about the killers’ motivation and whether the murders could have been prevented. Unlike many previous school shootings, as both shooters committed suicide, the massacre was particularly difficult to assess.
In their investigation into how Harris and Klebold had acquired their firearms, police learned they had acquired one through a friend Mark Manes. Manes and Philip Duran, who had introduced the duo to Manes, were eventually prosecuted for their roles in supplying guns to Harris and Klebold. Each was charged with supplying a handgun to a minor and possession of a sawed-off shotgun. Manes and Duran were sentenced to a total of six years and four-and-a-half years in prison, respectively.
The link between bullying and school violence has attracted increasing attention since the 1999 attack at Columbine High School. Both of the shooters were classified as gifted children and had allegedly been victims of bullying for four years. A year later, an analysis by officials at the US Secret Service of 37 premeditated school shootings found that bullying, which some of the shooters described “in terms that approached torment,” played the major role in more than two-thirds of the attacks. A similar theory was expounded by Brooks Brown in his book on the massacre, he noted that teachers commonly looked the other way when confronted with bullying.
Early stories following the shootings charged that school administrators and teachers at Columbine had long condoned a climate of bullying by the so-called jocks or athletes, allowing an atmosphere of intimidation and resentment to fester. Critics said this could have contributed to triggering the perpetrators’ extreme violence. Reportedly, homophobic remarks were directed at Klebold and Harris.
One author has strongly disputed the theory of “revenge for bullying” as a motivation for the actions of Harris and Klebold. David Cullen, author of the 2009 book Columbine, while acknowledging the pervasiveness of bullying in high schools including Columbine, has claimed that the two were not victims of bullying. Cullen said that Harris was more often the perpetrator than victim of bullying.
Psychopathy and depression
In July 1999 the FBI organized a major summit on school shooters in Leesburg, Virginia. Attending were psychologists, psychiatrists, and representatives from recent school shootings, including a large Columbine contingent. Attorney General Janet Reno attended. The FBI eventually published a major report on school shooters, though it did not pinpoint the causes of any individual case.
On the fifth anniversary of Columbine, the FBI’s lead Columbine investigator and several psychiatrists published their conclusions in a news article. They said Harris was a clinical psychopath and Klebold was depressive. They believed Harris had been the mastermind, having a messianic-level superiority complex, and hoped to demonstrate his superiority to the world.
The attack was the culmination of more than a year of planning, firearms acquisition, and bomb building. Harris’s journals, in particular, show methodical preparation over a long period of time, including several experimental bomb detonations. The massacre was anything but a failure of impulse control.
For prior behavioral issues, Harris had been prescribed the SSRI antidepressant Fluvoxamine. Toxicology reports confirmed that Harris had Fluvoxamine in his bloodstream at the time of the shootings.
Jerald Block, a US psychiatrist, has differed with the FBI opinion of psychopathology and depression, arguing that the killers’ actions are not well explained by such diagnoses. Rather, he believes that the students’ immersion in video games caused them to feel most gratified while playing in a virtual world.
Both Harris and Klebold were fans of video games such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Harris often created levels for Doom that were widely distributed, these can still be found on the Internet as the Harris levels. Rumors that the layout of these levels resembled that of Columbine High School circulated, but appear to be untrue. Harris spent a great deal of time creating another large mod, named Tier, calling it his “life’s work.” The mod was uploaded to the Columbine school computer and to AOL shortly before the attack, but appears to have been lost. One researcher argued that it is almost certain the Tier mod included a mock-up of Columbine High School.
Following their January 1998 arrest for theft, both youths had computer access restricted. Block believes that their personal anger, which was initially projected into video games, was now unleashed into the real world. In addition, the restriction of their computer access opened up substantial amounts of idle time that would have otherwise gone towards their online activities. Block said Harris and Klebold increasingly used this free time to express their anger, with their antisocial tendencies likewise increasing. This, in turn, generated further restrictions. Ultimately, after the 1998 arrest and their being banned from personal computer access for approximately one month, the two teens became homicidal and began documenting plans to attack the school. Block writes that the plan to attack the school first appears in Klebold’s writings, and that Klebold may have considered using a different partner-in-crime than Harris. This person’s name was redacted from Klebold’s journal by police.
Parents of some of the victims filed several unsuccessful lawsuits against video game manufacturers. Harris and Klebold were fans of the movie Natural Born Killers, and used the film’s acronym, NBK, as a code in their home videos and journals.
Other factors explored
During and after the initial investigations, social cliques within high schools were widely discussed. One perception formed was that both Klebold and Harris had been isolated from their classmates, prompting feelings of helplessness, insecurity, and depression, as well as a strong need for attention. This concept has been questioned, as both Harris and Klebold had a close circle of friends and a wider informal social group.
In the weeks following the Columbine shootings, media reports about Harris and Klebold portrayed them as part of a Gothic cult. An increased suspicion of Gothic subculture subsequently manifested. Harris and Klebold had initially been thought to be members of “The Trenchcoat Mafia”, an informal club within Columbine High School. Later, such characterizations were considered incorrect.
Blame for the shootings was directed on a number of metal or ‘dark music’ bands such as KMFDM and Rammstein. The majority of that blame was directed at Marilyn Manson and his eponymous band. After being linked by news outlets and pundits with sensationalist headlines such as “Killers Worshipped Rock Freak Manson” and “Devil-Worshipping Maniac Told Kids To Kill,” many came to believe that Manson’s music and imagery were, indeed, Harris and Klebold’s sole motivation, despite later reports that the two were not fans.
In the immediate aftermath, the band canceled the remaining North American dates of their Rock Is Dead Tour out of respect for the victims, while steadfastly maintaining that music, movies, books or video games were not to blame. Manson stated: “ The media has unfairly scapegoated the music industry and so-called Goth kids and has speculated, with no basis in truth, that artists like myself are in some way to blame. This tragedy was a product of ignorance, hatred and an access to guns. I hope the [news] media’s irresponsible finger-pointing doesn’t create more discrimination against kids who look different.”
On May 1, 1999, Manson expanded his rebuttal to the accusations leveled at him and his band in his Rolling Stone magazine op-ed piece, “Columbine: Whose Fault Is It?” He castigated the ensuing hysteria and moral panic and criticized the news media for their irresponsible coverage; he chastised America’s habit of hanging blame on scapegoats to escape responsibility. Columbine and America’s fixation on a culture of guns, blame, and ‘celebrity by death’ was further explored in the group’s 2000 album Holy Wood.
In 2002 Manson appeared in Michael Moore’s documentary, Bowling for Columbine; his appearance was filmed during the band’s first show in Denver since the shooting. When Moore asked Manson what he would have said to the students at Columbine, he replied, “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say and that’s what no one did.”
Sascha Konietzko of KMFDM said their music denounced “war, oppression, fascism and violence against others.”
Choice of date
Due to ambiguities in the written record of the students’ planning, various theories have formed about their choice of date for the shootings. One theory says the original date was April 19, as Robyn Anderson (a close friend of Klebold who purchased some of the weaponry used) would not be present on that date. Due to delays in the manufacturing of the propane bombs and in acquiring ammunition, they moved the date to April 20. As April 19 was the fourth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and the date of the immolation of the Waco Siege, it seemed to support the theory saying it was the intended date. Both Harris and Klebold had said in their homemade videos that they had hoped to surpass the earlier events by their actions.
The date of the shooting happened to be the birthday of Adolf Hitler, leading some journalists to speculate that Harris and Klebold were Neo-Nazis.
Impact on school policies
Secret Service report on school shootings
A United States Secret Service study concluded that schools were placing false hope in physical security, when they should be paying more attention to the pre-attack behaviors of students. Zero-tolerance policies and metal detectors “are unlikely to be helpful,” the Secret Service researchers found. The researchers focused on questions concerning the reliance on SWAT teams when most attacks are over before police arrive, profiling of students who show warning signs in the absence of a definitive profile, expulsion of students for minor infractions when expulsion is the spark that push some to return to school with a gun, buying software not based on school shooting studies to evaluate threats although killers rarely make direct threats, and reliance on metal detectors and police officers in schools when the shooters often make no effort to conceal their weapons.
In May 2002 the Secret Service published a report that examined 37 US school shootings. They had the following findings:
- Incidents of targeted violence at school were rarely sudden, impulsive acts.
- Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.
- Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
- There is no accurate or useful profile of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
- Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.
- Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.
- Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
- Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
- In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
- Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.
Following the Columbine shooting, schools across the United States instituted new security measures such as see-through backpacks, metal detectors, school uniforms, and security guards. Some schools implemented school door numbering to improve public safety response. Several schools throughout the country resorted to requiring students to wear computer-generated IDs. At the same time, police departments reassessed their tactics and now train for Columbine-like situations after criticism over the slow response and progress of the SWAT teams during the shooting.
In response to expressed concerns over the causes of the Columbine High School massacre and other school shootings, some schools have renewed existing anti-bullying policies, in addition to adopting a zero tolerance approach to possession of weapons and threatening behavior by students. Despite the Columbine incident, several social science experts feel the zero tolerance approach adopted in schools has been implemented too harshly, with unintended consequences creating other problems.
One significant change to police tactics following Columbine is the introduction of the Immediate Action Rapid Deployment tactic, used in situations with an active shooter. Police followed the traditional tactic at Columbine: surround the building, set up a perimeter, contain the damage. That approach has been replaced by a tactic which takes into account the presence of an active shooter whose interest is to kill, not to take hostages. This tactic calls for a four-person team to advance into the site of any ongoing shooting, optimally a diamond-shaped wedge, but even with just a single officer if more are not available. Police officers using this tactic are trained to move toward the sound of gunfire and neutralize the shooter as quickly as possible. Their goal is to stop the shooter at all COSTs, they are to walk past wounded victims, as the aim is to prevent the shooter from killing or wounding more. David Cullen, author of Columbine, has stated: “The active protocol has proved successful at numerous shootings during the past decade. At Virginia Tech alone, it probably saved dozens of lives.”
The shooting resulted in calls for more gun control measures. In 2000 federal and state legislation was introduced that would require safety locks on firearms as well as ban the importation of high-capacity ammunition magazines. Though laws were passed that made it a crime to buy guns for criminals and minors, there was considerable controversy over legislation pertaining to background checks at gun shows. There was concern in the gun lobby over restrictions on Second Amendment rights in the US. In 2001, K-Mart, which had sold ammunition to the shooters, announced it would no longer sell handgun ammunition. This action was encouraged by and documented in the film Bowling for Columbine.
In 2000 youth advocate Melissa Helmbrecht organized a remembrance event in Denver featuring two surviving students, called the “Day of Hope.”
A permanent memorial “to honor and remember the victims of the April 20, 1999 shootings at Columbine High School” was dedicated on September 21, 2007, in Clement Park, a meadow adjacent to the school where impromptu memorials were held in the days following the shooting. The memorial fund raised $1.5 million in donations over eight years of planning.
Becoming part of the vernacular
Since the shooting, “Columbine” or “the Columbine incident” has become a euphemism for a school shooting. Charles Andrew Williams, the Santana High School shooter, reportedly told his friends that he was going to “pull a Columbine,” though none of them took him seriously. Many foiled school shooting plots mentioned Columbine and the desire to “outdo Harris and Klebold.” Convicted students Brian Draper and Torey Adamcik of Pocatello High School in Idaho, who murdered their classmate Cassie Jo Stoddart, mentioned Harris and Klebold in their homemade videos, and were reportedly planning a “Columbine-like” shooting.
In a self-made video recording posted by Seung-Hui Cho to the news media immediately prior to his committing the Virginia Tech massacre, Seung-Hui refers the Columbine Massacre in an apparent reference to his motivation for his own acts. In the recording, he refers to Klebold and Harris as being “martyrs.”