Remembering Columbine

The mother of slain Columbine High School student Corey Tyler DePooter mourns

hide captionThe mother of slain Columbine High School student Corey Tyler DePooter mourns beside a memorial for her son, April 1999. DePooter, 11 other students, and teacher Dave Sanders were gunned down in the shooting rampage.

© Reuters/CORBIS

NPR's Howard Berkes was part of a team of NPR reporters mobilized to cover the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999. He recalls that day in the essay below:

Reporters arriving at Columbine High School on that chilly April day in 1999 found a surreal scene. Yellow police tape kept them about 100 yards away, in a parking lot and park with picnic tables and gentle hills. The police tape corralled spectators as well, including grieving students, friends and families. Television trucks with massive satellite dishes moved into the parking lot, which still included the cars of Columbine students. White tents went up for TV crews setting up live shots to the world.

I didn't see this myself, but some students reportedly lined up, waiting to speak with TV reporters. I did see many crying and hugging and building makeshift memorials. The car of a missing student was soon covered with stuffed animals, posters and flowers. It was lost in knots of sobbing students. Reporters seeking witnesses, students or grief merely had to turn around or point a microphone in any direction. The place for tears had also become the place for reporting. And the makeshift memorials grew, surrounding the TV tents and trucks, filling the park with a sea of signs and teddy bears and photographs. Most seemed to know someone; even those who didn't converged there in astonished grief.

They began arriving the night of the shooting. The pilgrimage continued non-stop for a week, a river of people moving in and out of the park, thousands of them, whispering, shaking heads, staining shirts and jackets with tears. Some paused for the news conferences in the park, where stunned officials doled out bits of information and reassurance. And some didn't merely watch but asked questions themselves. When the school superintendent declared the rest of the schools safe, a parent challenged him. "How can you be sure? Are all the doors locked? Do you know how many doors there are in these schools? How can you monitor them all?"

News crews tried to set up makeshift newsrooms, filling cars and RVs with audio, video and communications gear. The phone company installed phone lines right in the grass, even after it snowed, so crews could connect with distant newsrooms. These phone lines snaked through the memorials, some protected now by tarps on poles. It was a jumble of phone cords, stuffed animals, photos of the missing, poems scrawled on poster board, ribbons tied to tresses, TV lights focused on anchors, candles burning, bundles of flowers, reporters recording and taking notes — and people moving quietly among it all, breaking the silence with sobs.

A few blocks away, investigators huddled with families in an elementary school. A woman standing outside had been inside with a friend earlier, when parents were gently asked about identifying marks, clothing, the size of their children, dental records. "And one mom, she just collapsed," the woman told me. "I mean, she just went into tears."

Back at the park by the school, 15-year-old Brandy Bates held a sign quoting Psalm 23. "This is the kind of thing that you say, 'Oh, it couldn't happen to me,'" she told me. "But guess what? It just did. It just did."

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