The Lost Command

Sheriff Stone's report says his officers did everything right at Columbine. The evidence tells a different story.

Why Manwaring didn't consult with Deputy Gardner, principal Frank DeAngelis or any of the teachers who'd escaped about the quickest route to the library is one of the deeper mysteries of the police response. His "conflicting information" about the location of the library and the cafeteria, which form a prominent double-decker wall of glass on the west side that's hard to miss, is the only explanation the report offers for why the first team was sent in on the southeast side, to be swallowed up immediately in a warren of hallways and classrooms.

The westside entry was even more problematic. It took Manwaring's team nearly half an hour to travel from the southeast corner of the school to its northwest corner, using a fire truck as cover. There the team rescued badly wounded student Richard Castaldo, an event the report states took five minutes (the sequence actually lasted more than ten, according to the helicopter footage). In the course of the rescue, the team "observed an undetonated explosive device" in front of the west entrance. Manwaring decided to ram the doors, figuring the fire truck could take the brunt of any bomb blast, but the truck got stuck in the mud.

And that, the report explains, is how the second team ended up making its entry at 1:09 p.m. from a window leading to the faculty lounge, a location on the lower level rather than the upper level, closer to the cafeteria than the library above. Omitted from this account is one vital detail: Even if the "live" bomb at the west doors made that an unacceptable entrance, there was another door several feet away. That door, an emergency exit, opens into a narrow hallway that leads directly into the library. You can see into the library from that door, the same door that dozens of students used to make their escape after the killers left the library at 11:36 a.m. ("They ran to the safety of the waiting patrol cars and armed deputies who could give them protection and lead them to safety," the report burbles.)

The sign not seen: A SWAT officer rished to aid evacuation efforts at the south side of the school, below the handmade sign indicating the room where teacher Dave Sanders lay wounded. Students in the room with Sanders first told dispatchers about their location—and the sign—hours earlier.
The sign not seen: A SWAT officer rished to aid evacuation efforts at the south side of the school, below the handmade sign indicating the room where teacher Dave Sanders lay wounded. Students in the room with Sanders first told dispatchers about their location—and the sign—hours earlier.
For more Westword coverage of the shootings, go to the Columbine Reader.

Did the SWAT team know where that door went? Were they working in such a void of critical information that they failed to grasp its importance? The report's silence on this matter is deafening; it's as if the door doesn't exist.

Brian Rohrbough tries to conjure up the image of wounded students rushing out that door to the waiting arms of police officers -- and grimaces in disgust. "You have to know kids in there are injured and bleeding to death," he says. "You don't go in? How could you ever wait outside that open door after seeing those kids come out?"

The report states that the west team liberated students locked into the kitchen area and then entered the cafeteria at 1:32 p.m. Actually, the cafeteria videotape shows that the team didn't clear the cafeteria until 1:45. In almost two hours of effort, the team had managed to secure only a small area of the building, rescuing thirty students and staff members in the process.

From there the group moved on to the lower hallway, ignoring a flight of stairs to the upper level. They would not return to the stairs until they finished clearing the lower level half an hour later, even though those stairs were the fastest route from the cafeteria to the library and the science area, the same stairs Harris and Klebold had taken in their trips back and forth, from hot zone to hot zone.

A Jefferson County dispatcher discovered how important those stairs were well before noon. One of the earliest and longest 911 calls came from Denver police officer John Lietz, who was on the phone with students trapped in the kitchen area. Aware of the shooting in the library, the dispatcher asked Lietz "if the library is close to the cafeteria." Lietz, a Columbine parent, didn't hesitate.

"The library is right upstairs from the cafeteria," he said. "There's a stairway from the commons directly up."

"Directly above," the dispatcher noted.

A Hero's Death

To reach Dave Sanders, whose life was slowly draining away in an upstairs science room, the SWAT officers had to overcome a wealth of "obstacles," the report notes, including burnt carpet and empty bullet casings.

No kidding. Here's the report's strained account of what the officers found when they finally climbed the stairs from the cafeteria, around 2:30 p.m.:

"The top of the stairs opened into an intersection of two hallways... A pipe bomb had exploded and singed the carpet in front of them. Glass had shattered everywhere. There was blood in a large area on the carpet in front of them, on one of the windows, and blood made a trail into one of the other science rooms. Live ammunition rounds and spent casings were lying on the floor."

The harder the report tries to explain away the delay in reaching Sanders, the more it makes the SWAT officers look foolish -- a crack team dodging bullets that were lying on the floor. There was an ongoing concern about a possible third shooter still lurking somewhere on the upper level, but the slow-mo slinking around doesn't square with the notion of an active shooter response -- which, according to DiManna and others, often involves trying to draw fire in order to get a fix on the location of the gunman. The real explanation for the long, long wait Sanders endured may have less to do with the messy hallway than with command decisions that were made over the previous three hours.

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