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Issue No. 1: April 25, 1999: Impressions of the Columbine High Memorial

On Friday I went down to Columbine High to see the informal memorial to the students.  It was an appropriately overcast and cold day after a snow storm.  I stumbled first into the media area.  30 or 40 satellite trucks had set up in the parking lot.  Trucks from the networks, from a station in Dallas, trucks that were free-lancing offering services to the press.  Cables snaked back and forth across the parking lot. 

I walked over to the edge of the high school, now blocked off with crime scene tape and a line of metal barricades.  The school is big, and you approach it on the north through a park.  I climbed up a small incline, and the upper floor of the school loomed into the slate gray sky.  Slush and mud were everywhere, crossed by more cables running from the several portable generators that were humming at the edge of the park.  Everywhere the picnic shelters had been taken over by cameras on tripods.  More tents had been set up in various locations for additional cameras. 

Groups of kids, families and individuals walked up to the edge of the barricade and looked.  All we saw was the solid, blank, brick wall of the school rising above a parking lot full of abandoned student cars, now accented with dozens of police, fire, and rescue vehicles.  Officers sat on bumpers and ate from the mobile kitchen that had been set up.  An officer approached each group of kids across the barricades and offered coffee, trying hard to be cheerful and welcoming.

I hadn't yet seen the memorial, so I wandered back.  On the way, I saw that one of the picnic shelters were crowded with media, and the glare of multiple lights seemed to promise that something was happening so I joined the crowd.  I counted about 70 or 80 reporters and camera people.  Within an arms length of where I was standing were teams from the Canadian Broadcasting Company, PBS, and ESPN2.  I know that BBC has a reporter in town.  Two camera operators greeted each other, obviously knowing each other from some previous event.  "But you're 2,600 miles away!" one said in shock.  The other explained that the two drivers had taken their media production truck from Boston to Denver in two days by leap-frogging.  One would drive, the other fly ahead.  They'd meet at the airport and swap, with the other flying on to next meeting point.

The spokesperson for the sheriff arrived; it was a news conference.  He was releasing a copy of the 911 tapes.  Two assistants distributed a timeline of information.  The spokesperson borrowed a cassette and played the tape.  We listened to a frantic teacher trying to talk to the emergency dispatcher and keep her kids under the tables. There were shots booming in the background.  The teacher reported smoke coming in under the door.  One of the assistants turned away, leaned her head against a pillar, and closed her eyes.  Her whole body sagged. 

There was a problem; only 66 copies of the tape had been made for the news media, so a rationing system was in effect, only one copy for each network. "CBS, you have to work it out among yourselves."  As the tapes were distributed, people sprinted off towards their trucks.  The press were quiet, asking questions one at a time.  I've heard local media comment that the press is being very dignified and restrained in its attitudes to those it interviews, and the air of the news conference had been solemn and courteous.

With directions from someone, I finally made my way towards the memorial.  A truck delivering propane tanks to the satellite trucks worked its way around the crew of electricians who were installing some equipment.  Other workers were doing something to the traffic lights at the corner. 

I found the memorial, at the distant end of the park.  Along a length of about 100 feet, people had strung banners and placed thousands of flowers, some of them protected by more hastily erected tents.  The ground was slippery with muddy grass from the melting snow.  The carpet someone had laid squished into the soft ground worn down by the traffic.  Hundreds of messages, poems, drawings and stuffed animals had been left.  Some offerings of writing were framed in glass and wood.  The rain had smeared the ink on many of them.  Messages were from children, other schools, and others.  Fans at a hockey game between two teams not from Denver had sent a thirty-foot banner covered with signatures and well-wishes.

The car of Rachel Scott, one of the murdered students, was in a spot next to the memorial.  People had been piling flowers and messages on her car.  Someone had erected a tent over the top of it, turning it into a shrine.  Another murdered student’s truck was so covered in flowers; its shape could only be inferred. 

A steady line of cars, directed by police, wove in and out of the park.  At the edge of the memorial were other setups for on-scene broadcasting, microphones and chairs at the ready.

As I'm writing this, about 60,000 people have gathered for the big memorial service at a shopping mall across the street.

When I had first walked toward the school I had been behind a group of four students.  One said something the other didn't like, and in jest or anger, the listener pushed the speaker into a snow bank, rolling him over.  And so it begins again.

© 1999 John P. Nordin. Do not copy.

Last modified 6/27/06; posted 5/23/99. © 2006 John P. Nordin