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Lodi police officer reflects during visit to Columbine

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Posted: Sunday, April 19, 2009 10:00 pm

The crystal blue sky above Littleton, Colo., was so bright and clear it almost hurt my eyes. Pristine, angel white clouds hung motionless high above, evenly spaced as if an unseen artist placed them there with measured strokes.

It was an unseasonably warm December afternoon a few years ago. We were visiting relatives for the holiday season in nearby Parker. I needed a break from the revelry, so I decided to take a drive.

My mind wandered lazily as I drove north on Pierce Street in Littleton. The simple homes in the area, built in the '70s and '80s, reminded me of the west Stockton neighborhood where I grew up.

There were strip malls, gas stations, fast food places. It seemed familiar. I passed an elementary school and a park. It was so "normal."

I crested a small hill and my relaxed journey vanished. It was as though an unseen passenger suddenly jerked me by the shoulder.

I saw the campus.

It looked just like it had on television, in the newspapers, on the Internet. I'd seen hundreds of photographs over the years. The tan buildings. Victims on the long sidewalks winding down to the parking lots. Kids sprinting for their lives. The fire trucks. The cops hunkered down behind their cars.

I swallowed hard and thought, "This is the place. This is real." I felt an unwanted surge of adrenaline as I turned into the parking lot and saw the two-foot-tall silver block letters on the front of the tan building: Columbine High School.

On April 20, 1999, at 11:10 a.m., Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, dressed in full-length black trench coats, set two duffel bags filled with 20-pound propane tank bombs between tables in the cafeteria at Columbine High School. There were 488 students in the room at the time. Harris and Klebold planned to detonate the bombs in the cafeteria, then shoot the survivors as they fled. When the devices did not explode, their plans changed. They spent the next half-hour casually walking around the campus randomly shooting people who tragically crossed their path.

I parked in the west lot near the well-manicured soccer field. It's the same lot where Klebold parked his black BMW for the last time. The lot was quiet and empty, in stark contrast to the horror that took place there so many years ago. It was tranquil.

The high school was a long, modern building braced with stainless steel. Dozens of windows, tinted a sort of jade green, were mounted in tan stucco walls.

It looked like any other modern high school in the country. That thought was unsettling. They were supposed to be safe here.

Most of the two-story building was high above the lot. I realized how difficult it would have been to deal with shooters who had the high ground above me. In the stillness of the warm afternoon, I could almost hear the gunshots and feel the panic.

Harris exchanged gunshots with the school resource officer within the first five minutes of the assault. Since the officer was using a 9 mm handgun in the lot well below the upper story windows, his shots were ineffective. Six deputies arrived, took up perimeter positions, and tried to evacuate the wounded outside the building.

Klebold and Harris taunted students hiding in the nearby rooms. "We know you're in there," they yelled. They moved to the hallway just outside the library.

I recalled the 9-1-1 tape in which a teacher in the library screams, "Under the tables kids! Heads under the tables!" By the end of the four-minute tape, she is whispering to a dispatcher in a resigned voice, "I'm Patty. He's inside the library shooting at everyone." You hear gunshots in the background. "They're right outside the door," she quietly tells the dispatcher. The tape ends.

I notice how far the second-story windows are from the ground. The picture of the wounded young man dangling headfirst from a shattered upper-story window as officers use a yellow fire truck to rescue him pops into my mind.

The sound of everyday traffic draws my attention to the street. Cars pass by the high school as people go about their daily routine.

I feel irritated. I want to yell, "Don't you understand the significance of this place?! Don't you get it?!"

Then I pause. Of course they do. They understand what happened here more than any of us ever will.

They didn't have a choice.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department 9-1-1 lines were deluged. Students and teachers from inside the building called. Passersby called. Neighbors called.

Arriving officers jammed the radio frequency as they tried to update others on what was going on. "There are reports of grenades being thrown on the roof."

Dispatchers tried to fight through the sensory overload and relay vital information to the personnel on scene. Transmissions were garbled.

This can't be happening. This isn't real. Not here. "We have shots fired inside the building. Large caliber weapon!"

Dozens of law enforcement officers from the surrounding area race to the scene. "Snipers on the roof!"

Students are running through the parking lots, across Pierce Street, and into nearby neighborhoods. "We have reports they are in the library."

Klebold and Harris paused for a few minutes outside the light brown library doors. They laughed and fired their handguns and shotguns at terrified kids running down the hallway. They could see into the library through the small vertical windows in the doors.

At 11:29 a.m., they entered the library. There were 56 people in the room. In seven-and-a-half minutes, they kill 10 students and wound 12 more.

Klebold and Harris commit suicide at noon.

SWAT officers from Jefferson County, Denver and Littleton enter the building a few minutes later.

They have difficulty comprehending what they are seeing as they make their way through broken glass and smoke.

"Who are the victims and who are the shooters?" their minds scream as they move down the hallways.

Victims are down all over the building. Teachers and students have wedged themselves in unconceivable hiding places.

The wailing klaxon horns and staccato flashing of the strobe lights from the fire alarms makes communication impossible. They resort to using hand signals instead of their radios.

They operate under the assumption that around every corner, and inside every classroom, there is a distinct possibility they will encounter an armed suspect.

They have to pry open every locked door.

It takes several hours to search the building, dispose of various types of bombs and explosive devices, evacuate the wounded and secure the area.

In a final exclamation point, Harris' car explodes in the south student parking lot at 11 p.m. He had mistakenly set the bomb timer for 11 p.m. instead of 11 a.m.

I cupped my hands and shielded my eyes so I could look through the green tinted window glass near the south doors. I could see the cafeteria where the carnage began. It was remodeled extensively after the shootings.

I recalled the photographs from a decade ago. Melted purple chairs and unexploded pipe bombs were strewn across the blackened cafeteria floor. Hundreds of backpacks dutifully waited on the floor for their owners to return. Royal blue Pepsi cups and cold nachos sitting on white plastic tables served as reminders of a lunch interrupted by unspeakable violence.

I gazed inside and saw the cafeteria was clean and bright, with highly polished floors and posters with blue letters proclaiming "CHS is #1" on the walls. Life as it should be.

The library, originally located above the cafeteria, was completely removed in the months after the shootings. A two-story atrium now stood in its place. The ceiling was adorned with a mural depicting young Colorado trees. The painting was so vivid I could almost see the aspens and evergreens gently rocking in the crisp Colorado air as they reached heavenward toward new life.

A square gray marble sign framed in brown brick was mounted on the east edge of the campus. It proclaimed in royal blue letters that this was Columbine High School, Home of the Rebels.

I took a minute and thought, "How would I have reacted that day if I was on scene?"

Every cop must ask themselves that question from time to time: "What would I have done?"

The question demands an unflinchingly honest appraisal of our strengths and weaknesses as law enforcement officers and as people.

Some detractors will say, "That's what you get paid for." True, to a certain extent, but that's little motivation when you're contemplating charging into a building where someone is killing people.

We must be truthful with ourselves, and we must answer the question "What will I do?" well in advance. As Columbine demonstrated, time is of the essence and lives hang in the balance.

I remembered the first time I asked myself that question. I was working swing shift here in Lodi. It was Jan. 17, 1989, the day Patrick Purdy killed five children on the playground at Cleveland School in Stockton.

As a result of Columbine, law enforcement agencies across the world were forced to evaluate how they would respond to an "active shooter" situation. Setting up a perimeter and waiting for SWAT was no longer acceptable.

Most departments, including Lodi Police, began training and equipping their officers to deal quickly and decisively with people like Klebold and Harris.

As I told our SWAT team at training last week, we don't get to choose when and where these things happen. We choose how we train and how we will respond.

Ten years have passed, and we should all pause and remember the victims of Columbine High School.

We still try to make sense of what happened that day. It wasn't a movie or television show. It didn't all work out in the end.

The only consolation is that their loss led to new tactics, the increased presence of school resource officers on campus and an emphasis on intervention with potentially violent students.

These measures have saved hundreds of lives since that day - not just in schools, but in malls, churches and homes across the nation.

Winter touched me a bit as I slowly trudged up the stairs toward a new addition on the west side of the high school. The concave front wall was made of rough tan stone. It was obvious the section had been added to the school recently.

The sun was dipping in the west and a cold breeze brushed the back of my neck. I pulled my collar up and tucked my hands in my pockets.

I felt a certain sadness. There was a great loss here ten years ago. A great tragedy.

As I neared the top of the stairs, I raised my eyes and noticed the sign in bright blue letters on the wall: Hope Columbine Memorial Library. I smiled and walked away. It was time to go home.

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1 comment:

  • posted at 2:24 am on Mon, Apr 20, 2009.

    Posts:

    Thank you Lt. Piombo for reminding us how quickly these things happen. These two deranged indiviudals entered a "Gun Free Zone" with illegally possessed weapons and killed or wounded dozens and then committed suicide before the police even entered the building. Citizen need to be aware that the police are not responsible for thier protection (GC 845, many court cases) and can't be everywhere. After this incident 15 states saw fit to pass Shall issue LTC laws allowing citizens to protect themselves, (No CA wasn't one and still has a Jim Crow law on the book for this issue) joining the 23 other states that had already passed similar laws.If you truly believe in Safety and security Support AB 357 and change the law in CA to let people protect themselves

     

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