RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This week brings two somber anniversaries. Some 300 people in Oklahoma City gathered in chilly weather yesterday to mark the 14th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The attack took the lives of 168 people, among them, federal employees, office workers, and children at a daycare center. Survivors, family, and friends pray, read names, and observed 168 seconds of silence in their memory.
Ten years ago today, the mass killing at Columbine. That shooting in a Colorado high school and its aftermath played out on national TV. Dave Cullen was one of the reporters who covered the story that day. He spent another nine years delving deeper into it, leading to his book "Columbine." In that book, Cullen looks at some of the myths and mistakes surrounding the shootings. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: It would be impossible to understand the terror that occurred that day at Columbine High School, unless you were actually in the building. But the 911 tapes that were released later on provided some sense of what it felt like.
(Soundbite of 911 Tape)
Unidentified Woman #1: He pointed a gun straight at us and fired. And the guy at the window went out. And the kid standing there with him, I think he got hit.
Unidentified Woman #2 (911 operator): We've got help in the way, ma'am.
Unidentified Woman #1: Okay.
Unidentified Woman #2 (911 Operator): Okay?
Unidentified Woman #1: Oh God.
Unidentified Woman #2 (911 Operator): Stay on the line.
NEARY: Given the devastating consequences, 15 people dead, the killers included, and 23 injured, it's startling to be reminded that the shootings were over in less than an hour.
Mr. DAVE CULLEN (Columbine reporter, author, "Columbine"): The shootings itself lasted exactly 49 minutes and it took nearly four hours before the killers' bodies were discovered. And we thought it was a hostage standoff for all that time, but it never was.
NEARY: Dave Cullen says a number of assumptions made that day proved to be incorrect. Several victims were left lying uncovered in the open for more than 24 hours because authorities feared the bodies had been booby trapped. As it turned out, they were not. One of those victims was Danny Rohrbough. What happened to Danny and his family is one of the many stories that Cullen follows throughout the book, beginning with a fatal mistake Danny made that day.
Mr. CULLEN: Most of the students thought it was a prank, so Danny Rohrbough walked out with two of his buddies to go to the smoking area. It was a nice day, they were taking the long way. So they heard this commotion and what they thought was paintballs. They thought it was fun and they went up the hill going toward it, trying to get involved.
NEARY: Cullen takes the reader through the events of that day, laying out Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's murderous plan. Cullen says, originally they had hoped to kill hundreds with bombs they planted around the school. When the bombs failed, they started shooting. Sophomore Ben Schumann was in the cafeteria when the shooters entered.
Mr. BEN SCHUMANN (Columbine survivor): It was like, go up the stairs, everybody go upstairs, and so we ran up the stairs and like as were going up the stairs, like you could hear like semi-automatics going off and hitting the wall behind us, and like hitting the, like rails going up the stairs and bouncing off metal. And like, I heard pipe bombs going off.
NEARY: Teacher and coach Dave Sanders was at the top of the stairs trying to direct kids to safety. Sanders then went into a hallway where he encountered the killers and was shot. Some teachers dragged Sanders into a classroom where they waited for help.
Cullen says the SWAT team was moving methodically through the building at that time, because they mistakenly thought there were hostages. But their progress was also slow because they had entered the building from the wrong direction. Meanwhile, Dave Sanders was bleeding badly.
Mr. CULLEN: They were assured for hours and hours that help was on the way. But the SWAT team was on the other end of the building and it took nearly four hours to get him, over three hours, and he bled to death.
NEARY: Cullen says close to 100 detectives, federal as well as local, were brought in to investigate the shootings. Early on, Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone said it was clear, the killers had put a lot of thought into the attack.
Sheriff JOHN STONE (Jefferson County, Colorado Sheriff): This is not something that they did overnight. There was all - a lot of planning put into this. We also found explosive devices and another sawed-off shotgun in the service of the search warrant at one of the suspect's houses. I'd say it took a considerable amount of time to make them.
NEARY: In fact, Cullen says, Harris and Klebold had been planning for so long that they almost got caught. After threatening a former friend and his family, the parents went to the police and later showed them Eric Harris's Web site.
Mr. CULLEN: The Browns printed off the pages from the Web site where Eric is talking about killing all sorts of people including their son, took it to the cops, and one of the investigators - Investigator Mike Guerra - put it all together and pretty much had Eric figured out and drafted an affidavit for a search warrant detailing how Eric is planning to kill people.
An unexploded pipe bomb was found in the park near his house. He put it all together in this search warrant and got pulled to another case, and it was never taken to a judge, nothing ever happened.
NEARY: As it turns out, local law enforcement officials including the sheriff, suppressed that document for several years. Meanwhile, the search for a motivation continued.
But Cullen says early reports that the shootings were a reaction to bullying and the boys were part of a trench coat mafia, proved to be more of a distraction than an explanation for the killings. Both Harris and Klebold kept diaries and they seemed to hold the key. In the end, says Cullen, a consensus emerged. The answer lies in their very different personalities.
Mr. CULLEN: Eric was really the driver of this, and Eric was a psychopath who planned this for two reasons really: enjoying it, and his own self-aggrandizement, to prove to us how superior he was and how inferior we were. His real dream, which he talks about ad nauseam in his journals, is to wipe out the whole human race. He realizes he can't do that and he eventually settles on a high school.
NEARY: And what about Dylan?
Mr. CULLEN: Dylan was a really depressed kid and an angry depressive. You know, he doesn't seem like somebody who would be killing. When you look at their journals well before the murders - Eric's journal for one year and Dylan's journal for two years - Eric looks like a killer from the start. He's a cruel kid. He wants to kill people.
Dylan was completely the opposite. When you look through Dylan's journal, the most common word in there is love. There's love, love, love all over the place. He's drawing giant hearts through it, but with Dylan, he felt he tried to love so much and he felt like the world was rejecting him. He thought he was so horrible and couldn't stand himself. And for two years, he wrote about committing suicide. But I think he lacked the nerve to ever commit suicide by himself. He needed somebody there with him.
NEARY: A lot of lessons were learned from Columbine, says Cullen, that have changed the way such shootings are handled. But he believes the biggest lesson is to take all such threats seriously so that murderous plans, like the one Harris and Klebold hatched, can be uncovered before they are acted on.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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