“There’s Been a Shooting at Columbine High School”
April 20, 1999, 12:05 p.m.
I was in my office in downtown Denver, getting ready to leave for a meeting about college scholarships for students with disabilities, when I noticed the red message light on my desk phone flashing.
I checked, on the off chance my meeting had been canceled, but the message was from my husband, Tom, his voice tight, ragged, urgent.
“Susan—this is an emergency! Call me back immediately!”
He didn’t say anything more. He didn’t have to: I knew just from the sound of his voice that something had happened to one of our boys.
It felt as if it took hours for my shaking fingers to dial our home phone number. Panic crashed over me like a wave; my heart pounded in my ears. Our youngest son, Dylan, was at school; his older brother, Byron, was at work. Had there been an accident?
Tom picked up and immediately yelled: “Listen to the television!” But I couldn’t make out any distinct words. It terrified me that whatever had happened was big enough to be on TV. My fear, seconds earlier, of a car wreck suddenly seemed tame. Were we at war? Was the country under attack?
“What’s happening?” I screamed into the receiver. There was only static and indecipherable television noise on the other end. Tom came back on the line, finally, but my ordinarily steadfast husband sounded like a madman. The scrambled words pouring out of him in staccato bursts made no sense: “gunman . . . shooter . . . school.”
I struggled to understand what Tom was telling me: Nate, Dylan’s best friend, had called Tom’s home office minutes before to ask, “Is Dylan home?” A call like that in the middle of the school day would have been alarming enough, but the reason for Nate’s call was every parent’s worst nightmare come to life: gunmen were shooting at people at Columbine High School, where Dylan was a senior.
There was more: Nate had said the shooters had been wearing black trench coats, like the one we’d bought for Dylan.
“I don’t want to alarm you,” he’d said to Tom. “But I know all the kids who wear black coats, and the only ones I can’t find are Dylan and Eric. They weren’t in bowling this morning, either.”
Tom’s voice was hoarse with fear as he told me he’d hung up with Nate and ripped the house apart looking for Dylan’s trench coat, irrationally convinced that if he could find it, Dylan was fine. But the coat was gone, and Tom was frantic.
“I’m coming home,” I said, panic numbing my spine. We hung up without saying good-bye.
Helplessly fighting for composure, I asked a coworker to cancel my meeting. Leaving the office, I found my hands shaking so uncontrollably that I had to steady my right hand with my left in order to press the button for my floor in the elevator. My fellow passengers were cheerfully chatting with one another on the way out to lunch. I explained my strange behavior by saying, “There’s been a shooting at Columbine High School. I have to go home and make sure my son’s okay.” A colleague offered to drive me home. Unable to speak further, I shook my head.
As I got into the car, my mind raced. It didn’t occur to me to turn on the radio; I was barely keeping the car safely on the road as it was. My one constant thought, as I drove the twenty-six miles to our home: Dylan is in danger.
Paroxysms of fear clutched at my chest as I sifted again and again through the same jagged fragments of information. The coat could be anywhere, I told myself: in Dylan’s locker or in his car. Surely a teenager’s missing coat didn’t mean anything. Yet my sturdy, dependable husband had sounded close to hysterical; I’d never heard him like that before.
The drive felt like an eternity, like I was traveling in slow motion, although my mind spun at lightning speed and my heart pounded in my ears. I kept trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together so it would come out okay, but there was little comfort to be found in the meager facts I had, and I knew I’d never recover if anything happened to Dylan.
As I drove, I talked out loud to myself and burst into uncontrollable sobs. Analytic by nature, I tried to talk myself down: I didn’t have enough information yet. Columbine High School was enormous, with more than two thousand students. Just because Nate hadn’t been able to find Dylan in the chaos didn’t necessarily mean our son was hurt or dead. I had to stop allowing Tom’s panic to infect me. Even as terror continued to roll over me in waves, I told myself we were probably freaking out unnecessarily, as any parent of an unaccounted-for child would in the same situation. Maybe no one was hurt. I was going to walk into our kitchen to find Dylan raiding our fridge, ready to tease me for overreacting.
I nonetheless couldn’t stop my mind from careening from one terrible scenario to another. Tom had said there were gunmen in the school. Palms sweaty on the wheel, I shook my head as if Tom were there to see. Gunmen! Maybe no one knew where Dylan was because he had been shot. Maybe he was lying injured or dead in the school building—trapped, unable to get word to us. Maybe he was being held hostage. The thought was so awful I could barely breathe.
But there was, too, a nagging tug at my stomach. I’d frozen in fear when I heard Tom mention Eric Harris. The one time Dylan had been in serious trouble, he’d been with Eric. I shook my head again. Dylan had always been a playful, loving child, and he’d grown into an even-tempered, sensible adolescent. He’d learned his lesson, I reassured myself. He wouldn’t allow himself to get drawn into something stupid a second time.
Along with the dozens of other frightening scenarios whirling through my fevered brain, I wondered if the horror unfolding at the school might not be an innocently planned senior prank, spun terribly out of hand.
One thing was for sure: Dylan couldn’t possibly have a gun. Tom and I were so adamantly anti-gun, we were considering moving away from Colorado because the laws were changing, making it easier to carry concealed firearms. No matter how hideously ill-conceived the stunt, there was no way Dylan would ever have gotten involved with something involving a real gun, even as a joke.
And so it went, for twenty-six long miles. One minute I was awash with images of Dylan hurt, wounded, crying out for help, and then I’d be flooded with happier snapshots: Dylan as a boy, blowing out his birthday candles; squealing with happy pleasure as he rode the plastic slide with his brother into the wading pool in the backyard. They say your life flashes before you when you die, but on that car ride home, it was my son’s life flashing before me, like a movie reel—each precious frame both breaking my heart and filling me with desperate hope.
That hellish ride home was the first step in what would become a lifetime’s work of coming to terms with the impossible.
• • •
When I arrived home, my panic kicked into an even higher gear. Tom told me what he knew in spotty bursts: shooters at the school, Dylan and Eric still unaccounted for. Whatever was happening was serious. He’d called our older son, Byron, who’d said he would leave work and come to us immediately.
Tom and I raced around the house like demented wind-up toys, flooded with adrenaline, unable to stop or to complete a task. Our wide-eyed pets crouched in the corners, alarmed.
Tom was single-minded in his focus on the missing coat, but I was personally confounded by Nate saying Dylan had missed bowling. He’d left the house that morning with more than enough time to get there; he’d said good-bye as he left. Thinking about it, I found myself haunted by the peculiar nature of that farewell.
That morning, the morning of April 20, my alarm had gone off before first light. As I dressed for work, I watched the clock. Knowing how much Dylan hated to get up early, Tom and I had tried to talk him out of signing up for a 6:15 a.m. bowling class. But Dylan prevailed. It would be fun, he said: he loved bowling, and some of his friends were taking the class. Throughout the semester, he’d done a good job of getting himself to the alley on time—not a perfect record, but nearly. Still, I needed to keep an eye on the time. No matter how dutifully he set his alarm, on bowling mornings Dylan usually needed an extra call-out from me at the bottom of the stairs to get him out of bed.
But on the morning of April 20, I was still getting dressed when I heard Dylan bounding heavily down the stairs, past our closed bedroom door on the main floor. It surprised me that he was up and dressed so early without prompting. He was moving quickly and seemed to be in a hurry to leave, though he had plenty of time to sleep a little more.
We always coordinated our plans for the day, so I opened the bedroom door and leaned out. “Dyl?” I called. The rest of the house was too dark for me to see anything, but I heard the front door open. Out of the blackness, his voice sharp and decisive, I heard my son yell, “Bye,” and then the front door shut firmly behind him. He was gone before I could even turn on the hallway light.
Unsettled by the exchange, I turned back to the bed and woke Tom. There had been an edge to Dylan’s voice in that single word I’d never heard before—a sneer, almost, as if he’d been caught in the middle of a fight with someone.
It wasn’t the first sign we’d had that week to indicate Dylan was under some stress. Two days before, on Sunday, Tom had asked me: “Have you noticed Dylan’s voice lately? The pitch of it is tight and higher than usual.” Tom gestured toward his vocal cords with his thumb and middle finger. “His voice goes up like that when he’s tense. I think something may be bothering him.” Tom’s instincts about the boys had always been excellent, and we agreed to sit down with Dylan to see if something was on his mind. It certainly made sense that Dylan would be feeling some anxiety as his high school graduation loomed. Three weeks before, we’d gone to visit his first-choice college, the University of Arizona. Though Dylan was highly independent, leaving the state for school would be a big adjustment for a kid who’d never been away from home.
But I was unsettled by the tight quality I’d heard in Dylan’s voice when he said good-bye, and it bugged me that he hadn’t stopped to share his plans for the day. We hadn’t yet had the chance to sit down and talk with him, as Dylan had spent most of the weekend with various friends. “I think you were right on Sunday,” I told my sleepy husband. “Something is bothering Dylan.”
From bed, Tom reassured me. “I’ll talk to him as soon as he gets home.” Because Tom worked from home, the two of them usually shared the sports section and had a snack together when Dylan got back from school. I relaxed and continued to get ready for work as usual, relieved to know that by the time I arrived home, Tom would know if something was bothering Dylan.
In the wake of Nate’s phone call, though, as I stood in our kitchen trying to piece together the fragments of information we had, I felt chilled by the memory of the nasty, hard flatness in Dylan’s voice as he’d said good-bye that morning, and the fact that he’d left early but hadn’t made it to class. I’d figured he was meeting someone early for coffee—maybe even to talk through whatever was bugging him. But if he hadn’t made it to bowling, then where on earth had he been?
The bottom didn’t fall out from my world until the telephone rang, and Tom ran into the kitchen to answer it. It was a lawyer. My fears so far had been dominated by the possibility that Dylan was in danger—that either he’d been physically hurt or done something stupid, something that would get him into trouble. Now I understood that Tom’s fears also included something for which Dylan could need a lawyer.
Dylan had gotten into trouble with Eric in his junior year. The episode had given us the shock of our lives: our well-mannered, organized kid, the kid we’d never had to worry about, had broken into a parked van and stolen some video equipment. As a result, Dylan had been put on probation. He’d completed a Diversion program, which allowed him to avoid any criminal charges. In fact, he’d graduated early from the course—an unusual occurrence, we were told—and with glowing praise from the counselor.
Everyone had told us not to make too much of the incident: Dylan was a good kid, and even the best teenage boys have been known to make colossally stupid mistakes. But we’d also been warned that a single misstep, even shaving cream on a banister, would mean a felony charge and jail time. And so, at the first indication that Dylan might be in trouble, Tom had contacted a highly recommended defense attorney. While part of me was incredulous that Tom imagined Dylan could be involved in whatever was happening at the school, another part of me felt grateful. In spite of Tom’s worry, he’d had the foresight to be proactive.
I was still miles away from the idea that people might actually be hurt, or that they’d been hurt by my son’s hand. I was simply worried that Dylan, in the service of some dumb practical joke, might have jeopardized his future by carelessly throwing away the second chance he’d been given with the successful completion of his Diversion program.
The call, of course, brought much, much worse news. The lawyer Tom had contacted, Gary Lozow, had reached out to the sheriff’s office. He was calling back to tell Tom the unthinkable was now confirmed. Although reports were still wildly contradictory, there was no doubt something terrible involving gunmen was happening at Columbine High School. The district attorney’s office had confirmed to Gary Lozow that they suspected Dylan was one of the gunmen. The police were on their way to our home.