Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris arrived at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colo., where they were students, to detonate gas-filled bombs with the intention of killing the majority of their classmates on April 20, 1999, at 11 a.m. When the bombs did not diffuse, they used semi-automatic weapons to kill 12 fellow students and one teacher, and wound 21 more. This was the first of many school-based mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. in recent years. In many ways, the Columbine community set the pace for the nation in working toward grieving and finding closure to an unprecedented tragedy and an explanation for claiming so many innocent lives of the Columbine Victims.
From the coordination of emergency services and police management of the crime scene to resolving the confusion during the aftermath, community members banded together to make sense of such a puzzling act. Some turned to memorializing the victims lives, speaking out in the media, or found solace by giving or obtaining support. Some victims and their families filed lawsuits. The world watched as the community found its way to recovery among the confusion. Later, other cities across the U.S., including Newtown, Connecticut and the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, became members of an unfortunate group — the victims of the school-based tragedies that continued to confound and sadden officials and private cities globally.
The question many of those involved at Columbine and outside observers asked themselves following the shootings was, of course, why? The families grieved and turned to founding nonprofit organizations and celebrating the victims lives with ceremonies and by erecting a memorial in the Littleton area memorializing lives lost too soon. The Columbine victims had talents that ranged from a passion for music to skills in sports.
- Matthew Kechter was a junior varsity football team player with a passion for sports. His dad had coached his sports teams while he was growing up, and he also had a strong preference for pro-wresting. In fact professional wrestler Mick Foley contacted Matthew’s family after the tragedy on many occasions and offered his support. The Columbine High School football team later dedicated their first state championship win in Matthew’s honor.
- Rachel Scott enjoyed participating in drama at Columbine. She had played the lead part in “Smoke in the Room,” and continued on to write a screenplay for her class’s senior play, which she was working on at the time of the tragedy. Her brother’s response to her unexpected death was founding a nonprofit organization called “Rachel’s Challenge,” which supports building harmony among students, teachers and administrators in schools, including advocating for the prevention of bullying and suicide.
- Cassie Bernall is a student that was lauded following the shootings for standing up for her religious faith. According to some accounts, the gunman asked her before she died if she believed in God, and she responded “yes” before he took her life. A book was written by Cassie’s family, after the tragedy, called “She Said Yes” about her life and the tragedy itself. They also founded the Cassis Bernell Foundation that is dedicated to funding school youth ministries in the Greater Denver area.
- Kyle Velasquez was a new resident of Littleton, Colorado, having lived there for only three months when the tragedy occurred. He was interested in pursuing a career in the military like his U.S. Navy veteran father. He was buried with military honors. His mother characterized him as a “gentle giant” due to six-foot frame and 220 lb weight, and his non-judgemental attitude. He had only begun to become involved in the community at the time of the shootings, but was well-liked.
- Daniel Rohrbough was a freshman at Columbine High School. Officials investigated whether the police may have accidentally shot him, but the theory was proven untrue. He enjoyed spending time with his parents, and was a thoughtful person. He worked at his father’s electronics store, and his friends said he held open a door for many students during the massacre helping them escape.
- Dave Sanders was the Columbine High School teacher who died during the tragedy. He had been the coach of the girls’ basketball and softball teams. He played a key role helping many students escape during the massacre, but was ultimately shot and later died. The medical team did not reach him in time despite multiple phone calls to emergency services after the gunmen had died. Later, his daughter filed a wrongful death lawsuit. and was later awarded $1.5 million.
- John Tomlin studied in the library during his lunch hour, which is where he was found by the gunmen on the tragic day when he was killed during the shootings. He had a job at a plant nursery, had purchased a truck with the proceeds, and was well-liked by his co-workers and classmates. He was a quiet person, but could light up a room when people got to know him, according to his girlfriend. He had recently moved to Littleton, Colorado, with his parents from Wisconsin where he was later buried.
- Corey DePooter loved sports and the outdoors. He could be found golfing, hunting and fishing when not in school, and studying for the good grades that he received. He had been in the library studying during lunch with a friend. When they heard the gunfire, they ducked under one of the tables where he was struck by a bullet and killed.
- Kelly Fleming was 15 years old when she became a victim of the tragedy in the Columbine High School library. She was a sensitive person and enjoyed watching nature and writing about her thoughts and insights. She had an unrealized desire to run, according to her parents, because she was born with a disorder that prevented her from breathing through nose, which restricted her physical activity. Her parents had at last scheduled a corrective surgery that would have finally granted her wish to run a few months following the tragedy, an event forever derailed by her premature death.
- Isaiah Shoels was killed during the Columbine shootings after overcoming several struggles, including enduring racist taunts as a minority black youth in a predominantly white community, and struggling with a heart condition that required a series of surgeries as a child. He was able to overcome the adversity enough to play in football and the keyboard in pursuit of becoming a record producer like his father.
- Lauren Townsend was a well-liked 18-year-old who worked at a no-kill animal shelter and had plans to pursue a career in wildlife biology. She was also killed in the Columbine library during the school shootings. She was close to her parents who found some solace in founding the Lauren Townsend Memorial Wildlife Scholarship Fund in financial support of organizations and students involved in wildlife protection following her death. The initial funding for the organization came from the $170,000 that Lauren’s family received in cards and letters from people worldwide after the tragedy.
- Daniel Mauser was 15 years old when he lost his life at Columbine. He was active in the school’s debate team and had a strong relationship with his family. His parents responded to the grief from his death by raising money for a school in Guatemala and adopt a baby from China as a tribute to their son’s legacy of kindness. They also helped change the Colorado gun laws to require a criminal background check for firearm buyers at gun shows, which had previously been a loophole that allowed criminals unrestricted access to purchase guns.
- Steven Curnow was 14 years old and a freshman at Columbine when he died tragically on the library’s second floor. A Star Wars buff from early childhood, Steven could recite from memory every line in each of the films and was counting the days until the May 19 release of the latest in the series. He played soccer on a team that his dad coached and enjoyed life generally.
Today, people can remember and honor the students and teacher Columbine victims who lost their lives in the school tragedy as well as the 21 wounded survivors that went on to heal at the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colorado.
The families experienced great suffering, and healed both privately in their homes and publicly in the publication of memoirs and the founding of organizations. The community at large helped them find closure by erecting a memorial that continues to draw visitors today, helping people memorialize the innocent lives forever changed and marvel at the essential delicacy of life.