Massacre in suburban Denver

As many as 16 people are dead in a shooting at an affluent high school, with several other in serious or critical condition. Authorities are investigating the two suspects' "right-wing beliefs."

Published April 21, 1999 6:00PM (EDT)

In the wake of the largest school-based killing spree in American history, Colorado authorities lowered the death count from 25 to 16 Wednesday in the Columbine High School shooting.

Twenty-three people were treated at hospitals, most of them with gunshot wounds. Sixteen
teens remained hospitalized this morning, including five in critical condition and five others in serious condition. One teen suffered at least nine shrapnel and bullet wounds; she was in fair condition today.

The morning after, motives for the killing are also coming into clearer focus. The dead
gunmen, identified by fellow students as seniors Dylan Klebold and Eric
Harris, made clear their hatred of minorities and particularly jocks
throughout the killing rampage.
Students said Klebold and Harris were fascinated with World War II and the Nazis and noted that Tuesday was Adolf
Hitler's birthday.

Sheriff John Stone described the apparent
motives as "frantic lunacism, with right wing beliefs, perhaps."

Students said the gunmen repeatedly denounced jocks, and at one point
ordered all jocks to stand up to be killed. They also targeted an African
American student and called him a "nigger" just before gunning him down.
student reported that members of the "Trench Coat Mafia" made a film
depicting a
mass execution of jocks and recently showed it at the school.

Sheriff Stone said more than 30 explosive devices have been found,
within the school, in the suspects' cars and around the area, including one at a nearby
intersection. Among them were a wide variety of sophisticated devices,
including pipe bombs, incendiary bombs and propane-powered nail bombs with
timers. The devices continue to challenge bomb squads, who accidentally
detonated one of the devices around 11 p.m. Tuesday night. The squad is
still at work Wednesday morning, and all county schools have been closed,
well as several in Denver and surrounding communities.

Stone said he was "shocked" that such an elaborate crime could have been
pulled off by high school students. "This was very well planned," he said.
"This wasn't something they just planned to get up in the morning and do."
Authorities are currently investigating other suspects and expect to charge
additional conspirators in the crime.

The shooting began in the high school cafeteria at approximately 11:20 a.m., during the first lunch period. "Everyone just went wham, under the tables," said student Catherine Sloan. "We heard guns and I was standing there, and then we ran through the auditorium and we heard an explosion. They just kept shooting."

"The teacher was crying and pointing to the auditorium, and everybody was running toward the auditorium and screaming," another girl said. "We just ran out of there."

"People were shoving, they were going to the elevators. Then the electricity went off and we were all just running," a third girl added, panic still in her voice.

Waves of what was believed to be automatic gunfire and several explosions quickly followed. The gunmen moved from the cafeteria to the library, where most of the killing occurred. About half the student body of 2,000 fled the school, while 900 sought cover in closets, offices and supply rooms. Sporadic gunfire and explosions continued for more than an hour. Then everything went silent.

Sixty-six students barricaded themselves in the choir room, where senior Matthew Cornwell pulled out his cell phone and quietly called his father, Scott.

Scott quickly called police, who talked Matthew through the standoff. On the advice of police, they piled equipment, a set of lockers and two teachers' desks in front of the door to keep the gunmen from entering, trying to remain quiet and calm. "We just kept hearing boom, boom," said Matthew, an athletic-looking young man who emerged from the choir room shirtless. "We didn't know what was going on. Somebody started yelling, 'Somebody has a gun, somebody has a gun. Half the class took off with the teacher. I decided to stay. The teacher was yelling, 'Stay down, stay down.' I saw a teacher come up with blood all over him."

But the worst moment came several hours later, just after the euphoria of their release, as the SWAT team led them past fallen students on their way to freedom. Students leaving the choir room said they saw at least two dead bodies, the only eyewitness accounts of fatalities that could be confirmed.

"It was horrible, horrible," Matthew said. "Seeing the bodies lying on the pavement. I started crying. I haven't cried for a year. I don't know what I'm going to do," he said, his voice cracking.

For hours the school site was uneasily silent, as parents and observers waited for word about how many students were trapped inside. Throughout the standoff, parents gathered anxiously in a nearby elementary school, where students were asked to sign in as they showed up to be united with parents. Tensions rose as hours passed and hundreds remained unaccounted for, with friends and families assuming the worst. There were rumors that some had been taken hostage.

Then reports began circulating based on cell phone accounts by students hiding inside the school. Police expressed worry about the proliferation of cell phones on the scene. Nearly every parent, sibling or cousin in this affluent community seemed armed with one. At one point Sheriff John Stone expressed concern that the suspects -- still presumed alive inside the building -- might be receiving information via a combination of broadcast media and cell phones.

At about 4 p.m. a stream of 60 students filed out of the building, many arm in arm, crying. That's when outsiders learned that a full 900 had been trapped inside. Soon others came streaming out behind them.

Sheriff's estimates of up to 25 dead could not be confirmed. Some on the scene thought it might turn out to be high. By early evening, officers had yet to remove any bodies because of the danger of explosives and the need to preserve evidence. FBI agents and police SWAT teams slowly made their way through the building. Police, who believe a third suspect may have been involved, also questioned and quickly released three associates of the gunmen, who later talked to reporters. The scruffy, tough-looking young men, with close-cropped haircuts that made them resemble skinheads, denied that their friends had been part of a "Trench Coat Mafia."

Within 40 minutes of the shooting several dozen counselors and ministers had descended on the school. School will be closed Wednesday, but officials say they will make counselors available for students, family and faculty, though they haven't worked out the details.

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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