The Lost Command

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

The command had detailed information about Sanders's position and his condition almost from the start. Shortly before noon, a dispatcher contacted Manwaring: "Is there any way to get to a victim in Room 3, second level...they cannot control the bleeding," she said.

"We don't have a secure inside door we can get in," the SWAT commander replied.

SWAT had that secure door fifteen minutes later, after the first team made its entry on the east side. But the path from there to the science area was a circuitous one, and the team would have had to modify its room-to-room search procedure to get there in a timely manner. The procedure was never altered.

Waiting for the facts: Brian Rohrbough and other Columbine parents sued for access to 911 tapes, ballistics data and other evidence gathered in the police investigation.
David Rehor
Waiting for the facts: Brian Rohrbough and other Columbine parents sued for access to 911 tapes, ballistics data and other evidence gathered in the police investigation.
For more Westword coverage of the shootings, go to the Columbine Reader.

Why? According to statements made by Armstrong and others before the review commission, the commanders believed that the absence of any hostile gunfire after 12:10 p.m. meant a possible hostage scenario, not dead gunmen. That assumption never wavered, not even as more officers poured into the building and discovered that the kids behind the locked doors were not hostages, but in hiding -- "staying put," as 911 dispatchers had told them to do.

Several calls throughout the afternoon kept SWAT leaders informed about Sanders's deteriorating condition, but officers still seemed confused about his location. The report states that the sign in the science window was spotted at 2:15; helicopter footage indicates the sign may well have been visible to officers on the south side of the building -- who were only a ladder's length away from Sanders -- earlier than that. In any case, dispatchers knew about the sign hours earlier because of the phone link with students in the room with Sanders. The students even offered to break a window to show the police exactly where they were -- but were told not to do so, for fear of attracting the attention of the gunmen. (Oddly, that concern didn't lead the police to dissuade the students from tying a shirt on the doorknob to mark their location; at one point, they suggested that the room's occupants "start yelling" in order to help the officers find them.)

Sanders was still conscious when SWAT members found him at 2:42 p.m. Another twenty to thirty minutes elapsed before a paramedic could reach the room, following a "safe" route set up by the police. By then it was too late.

Before the paramedic arrived, the report states, two SWAT deputies had already decided "to evacuate the wounded teacher themselves or at least move him closer to an exit." Inexplicably, they dragged him into a storage area at the back of the room instead.

He died there, still waiting for deliverance.

In Dubious Battle

Many people performed heroically at Columbine last year. That fact has never been in dispute, and the release of the audio and video record of the tragedy brings some of the heroics into sharp relief: gutsy teachers evacuating students, police dispatchers keeping their cool despite a barrage of panicked phone calls, officers under fire trying to relay information about explosions, fires and possible suspects.

Despite all the media coverage of Columbine, some of the most impressive deeds done that day have scarcely been mentioned. The cafeteria video shows two school custodians, Jon Curtis and Jay Gallatine, rushing back and forth to shoo students to safety and lock doors so the killers can't get to them. Armed only with radios, Curtis and Gallatine dodged bombs tossed from above and persisted in their task, saving many lives in the process. The two men continue to decline interview requests to this day.

But the audio- and videotapes also reveal many of the mistakes and failures of the Columbine rescue effort, and not enough attention has been paid to them. A Jefferson County dispatcher was on the phone with a frantic and wounded teacher, Patti Nielson, for more than four minutes before the killers entered the room. The dispatcher asked her if she could lock the doors or block them. When the library began to fill with smoke, the dispatcher advised her to "keep everyone low to the floor." But the dispatcher never asked if there was another way out of the library.

The report treats this lapse as irrelevant. "Nielson knew they had nowhere to go," it states. "The last time she saw the gunmen, they were outside (near the emergency exit from the library) and they were heading inside the hall that led to the library." This is a gross distortion. According to the official timeline, the killers spent almost three minutes roaming the hall outside the main entrance to the library -- and Nielson told the dispatcher the gunman was right outside the main door, which is a considerable distance from the emergency exit. Once the shooting started, another 911 operator on the line with a staffer in the principal's office asked if there was another exit from the library; the staffer said no.

"As far as I know, I've lost everybody in the library," a dispatcher told a SWAT officer a few minutes later.

Although Nielson dropped the phone after the killers came in, the line remained open until 11:52 a.m., when it was "terminated" by dispatch, thereby denying authorities the sounds of Klebold and Harris returning to the room at noon, opening fire on police below, then committing suicide. But with all the confusion over possible additional shooters and the commanders committed to a hostage scenario, it's unlikely that even perfect knowledge of the suicides would have altered the response at that point.

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