The Columbine High School massacre occurred on Tuesday, April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in unincorporated Jefferson County, Colorado (the CDP of Columbine) near Denver and Littleton. Two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, embarked on a shooting rampage, killing 12 students and a teacher, as well as wounding 23 others, before committing suicide. It is the fourth-deadliest school killing in United States history, after the 1927 Bath School disaster, 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the 1966 University of Texas massacre.

The massacre provoked debate regarding gun control laws, the availability of firearms in the United States, and gun violence involving youths. Much discussion also centered on the nature of high school cliques, subcultures and bullying, as well as the role of violent movies and video games in American society. The shooting also resulted in an increased emphasis on school security, and a moral panic aimed at goth culture, social pariahs, the gun culture, the use of pharmaceutical anti-depressants by teenagers, violent films and music, teenage internet use, and violent video games.

 

April 20, 1999: The Massacre

An aerial shot of Columbine High School on the day of the massacre.
An aerial shot of Columbine High School on the day of the massacre.

Note: All times are in Mountain Daylight Time, UTC-6

At 11:10 a.m. on Tuesday, April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold arrived at Columbine High School in separate cars. Harris parked in the Junior student parking lot and Klebold in the Senior student parking lot at spaces not assigned to them. From these spots, both of them had excellent views of the cafeteria's side entrance and each one was covering a main exit of the school. Shortly before arriving at Columbine, Harris and Klebold had set up a small fire bomb in a field half a mile away from the school. The bomb was set to explode at 11:14 a.m., and is thought to have been placed there as a diversion for emergency personnel. The bomb did partially detonate, and caused a small fire that was extinguished by the fire department.

At Columbine, the pair met near Harris' car and armed two 20 pound (9 kg) propane bombs before entering the cafeteria a few minutes before the "A" lunch shift began and placed the duffel bags carrying the bombs inside. Each bomb was set to explode at approximately 11:17 a.m. Coincidentally, a custodian removed the security camera video tape, rewound it, and placed a new tape in the slot at the same time they entered the cafeteria. Although the act of placing the bombs was not recorded, once the new tape was started the bags could be clearly seen. The bombs had enough explosive power to destroy the entire cafeteria and bring the library above crashing down. Each shooter then returned to his car to wait until the bombs exploded. They intended to open fire on students fleeing the school through the main entrances once the cafeteria bombs detonated. As they returned to their cars, Harris encountered Brooks Brown, a classmate with whom he'd recently patched up a longstanding series of disagreements. Brown was surprised to see Harris getting out of a car with a gym bag. Harris had been absent from a class test that morning. Brown told him but Harris seemed oddly unconcerned. Harris then warned him, "Brooks, I like you now. Get out of here. Go home." Brown, feeling uneasy, walked away. Several minutes later, students departing Columbine for lunch noticed Brooks Brown heading down South Pierce Street away from the school. Meanwhile, Harris and Klebold armed themselves by their cars and waited for the bombs to explode.

 

Shooting begins

When the cafeteria bombs failed, Harris and Klebold met near Harris's car, armed themselves with their weapons, and walked toward the cafeteria. They went to the top of the West Entrance steps, which was the highest point on campus. From this vantage point, the cafeteria's side entrance was at the bottom of the staircase, the school's main West Entrance was to their left, and the athletic fields to their right.

At 11:19 a.m., a witness heard Eric Harris yell "Go! Go!" At that moment the gunmen pulled out their shotguns and began shooting at Rachel Scott and Richard Castaldo, who were sitting on a grassy knoll to their left (next to the West Entrance of the school), eating lunch. Scott was killed instantly, hit 4 times; Castaldo was critically wounded, hit 8 times. It is unclear who shot first and who killed Scott. Many rumors swirled regarding the causes of the rampage, including the possible targeting of Christians. One such rumor was that the shooters first asked Scott if she believed in God, then killed her after she answered "you know I do." This rumor has never been proven false or true. Richard Castaldo said at the hospital after the shooting that they mocked Rachel for her faith and then they killed her. But he also didn't remember what happened after he was shot.

Harris removed his trench coat and took out his 9 mm semi-automatic carbine, aiming it down the West Staircase. Daniel Rohrbough and two friends, Sean Graves and Lance Kirklin, were walking up the staircase directly below the shooters. Kirklin reported seeing them standing at the top, when suddenly they began shooting at him. All three fell wounded. Harris and Klebold then turned and began shooting south (away from the school) at students sitting on the grassy knoll adjacent to the steps, opposite the West Entrance of the school. Michael Johnson was hit but kept running and escaped. Mark Taylor fell to the ground, crippled, and played dead. The other three escaped uninjured. As the shooting continued, Sean Graves stood up and limped down the staircase into the cafeteria's side entrance, where he collapsed in front of the door. Klebold walked down the steps heading toward the cafeteria. As he descended, he shot Lance Kirklin once more in the face, critically wounding him. As Daniel Rohrbough struggled down the steps towards the bottom of the staircase, Klebold walked up to him and shot him in the back at close range, killing him. He then continued down the staircase and entered the cafeteria, walking over the injured Sean Graves, who lay at the cafeteria entrance. It is speculated that Klebold did this because he was checking to see why the propane bombs had failed to explode. As Klebold stepped into the cafeteria, Harris began to shoot down the steps at several students sitting near the cafeteria's entrance, wounding Anne-Marie Hochhalter as she attempted to flee. After a few seconds, Klebold returned up the staircase to meet with Harris at the top.

The west entrance of the school after the shooting.
The west entrance of the school after the shooting.

The two then attempted to shoot at students standing near the soccer field a few yards away, but did not hit anyone. They threw pipe bombs as they made their way towards the West Entrance, none of which detonated. Inside the campus, teacher Patti Nielson, seeing the commotion, walked towards the West Entrance with student Brian Anderson. She wanted to walk outside and tell the two students to "Knock it off", as she thought they were shooting a video or pulling a prank. As Anderson opened the first set of double doors, Harris and Klebold shot out the windows. Anderson was injured by flying glass and Nielson was hit in the shoulder by shrapnel. Reacting in fear, she quickly stood up and ran down the hall into the library where she began to alert students inside, demanding they duck beneath desks and remain silent. She then dialed 9-1-1 and concealed herself beneath the library's administrative counter Brian Anderson remained behind, caught between the exterior and interior doors.

 

Soon thereafter, at approximately 11:24 a.m., a Jefferson County deputy sheriff arrived at the scene and began shooting at Harris and Klebold, distracting them from the injured Brian Anderson. Anderson staggered out of the area and made it into the library where he ran into an open staff break room, remaining there until the ordeal ended. Harris fired ten shots at the officer, who then radioed in a Code 33 (officer in need of emergency assistance). When his gun ran out of ammo, Harris ran inside the school with Klebold. The pair then proceeded down the main North Hallway shooting at anyone they saw and throwing pipe bombs. While doing so, they shot student Stephanie Munson in the ankle. She was able to walk out of the school and make it to a house across the street. The pair then proceeded to shoot out the windows to the East Entrance of the school. After going through the hall several more times, shooting at any students they saw (but not injuring any), they headed back towards the West Entrance and turned to the Library Hallway.

Moments earlier, Coach William "Dave" Sanders had evacuated the cafeteria through a staircase leading up to the second floor. The staircase was around the corner from the Library Hallway in the main South Hallway. He and a student turned the corner and were walking down the Library Hallway when they saw the shooters coming around the corner from the North Hallway. The two quickly turned around and ran the other way (it is believed, but not confirmed, that Sanders was heading for the library to help evacuate the students there). The shooters came around the corner and shot at both of them, hitting Dave Sanders in the chest as he reached the South Hallway but missing the student. The student ran into science classroom SCI-1 and alerted the teacher inside. Meanwhile, the shooters returned back up the North Hallway. Sanders struggled over to the science area where the teacher took him into his science classroom SCI-3, where around 30 students were taking an exam. A sign was placed in the window that read "1 bleeding to death," in order to alert police of their location. Two students administered first aid there and attempted to control bleeding with shirts from the male students in the room. A teacher and several students remained in contact with police outside of the school using a phone in the classroom. All the students in the room were evacuated safely, however, Sanders was not evacuated and died at approximately 3:00 p.m. He was the only teacher killed in the ordeal.

 

The library massacre

Library victim Patrick Ireland being pulled from library windows after the massacre.
Library victim Patrick Ireland being pulled from library windows after the massacre.

As the shooting unfolded, Patti Nielson was on the phone with emergency services, recounting her experience, and trying to get students to take cover under desks. According to transcripts, her call was received by the 9-1-1 operator at 11:25:05 a.m. The time period between when the call being answered and the shooters entering the library was four minutes and ten seconds. Before entering, the shooters threw two bombs into the cafeteria from the staircase in the South Hallway, both of which exploded. One can be seen on the security tapes. They then threw another in the Library Hallway, which also exploded, damaging some lockers. At 11:29 a.m., Harris and Klebold entered the library where 52 students, 2 teachers, and 2 librarians were hiding.

As he entered, Harris shot at a display case at the opposite end of the administrative counter, injuring student Evan Todd who was hiding under a copier adjacent to the display case. Harris then yelled for everyone to "Get up!" so loudly that he can be heard on the 9-1-1 recording at 11:29:18. Staff and students hiding in the library exterior rooms said they heard the gunmen utter things such as "Everyone with a white cap or baseball cap, stand up!" and "All jocks stand up! We'll get the guys in white hats!" (wearing a white baseball cap at Columbine was a tradition amongst sports team members). When no one stood up, Eric was heard to say: "Fine, I'll start anyway!" The two then made their way down to the opposite side of the library, to two rows of computers. Evan Todd used the time to conceal himself behind the administrative counter. Kyle Velasquez was sitting at the north (or upper) row of computers; Police said that he had not hidden under the desk but it was later revealed that he was curled up under the computer table. Klebold shot at him first, hitting him in the head and back, killing him. The shooters then set down their duffel bags, filled with ammunition, at the south (or lower) row of computers and began reloading their weapons. They walked to the windows facing the outside staircase where they had just been a moment ago. Noticing police evacuating students, they began to shoot out the windows; police returned fire.

After a few seconds, Klebold turned away from the windows and fired his shotgun at a nearby table, injuring Patrick Ireland, Daniel Steepleton, and Makai Hall. Harris grabbed his shotgun and walked over to the lower row of computer desks, firing his gun underneath the first desk in the row without looking to see who was under it. The shot killed Steven Curnow, who was hiding underneath it. He then shot under the next computer desk, injuring Kacey Ruegsegger.

Official reports state that Harris then walked over to the table across from the lower computer row, slapped the top twice with his hand, knelt down, and said "peek-a-boo" before shooting Cassie Bernall in the head. The recoil from the weapon hit his face, breaking his nose. Although it is popularly believed that Bernall was the individual who was asked "Do you believe in God?", it is debated that the exchange was instead taken place between Klebold and surviving student Valeen Schnurr. Three students who witnessed Bernall's death, including the person who was hiding under the table with her, have testified the exchange did not occur. Although some students who were in the library asserted the exchange occurred, none of them physically witnessed it. They may instead have heard the latter exchange between Klebold and Schnurr and been misled by news reports attributing the words to Bernall. This misunderstanding sparked many debates as to whether the official investigation thoroughly assessed all possibilities. Despite conflicting statements from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, most recently a spokesman has stated there has been no official internal conclusion to this debate, and even if there were, it is unlikely it would be revealed due to the gravity of what a single conclusion could mean to the families and supporters of the victims.

Harris then turned to the next table, where student Bree Pasquale sat next to it rather than beneath it. She had not hidden underneath as there was not enough room to hide. Harris asked her if she wanted to die, with Pasquale responding with a plea for her life. Witnesses report that Harris was disoriented as this occurred, possibly from the wound to his face, which was bleeding heavily. As Harris taunted Pasquale, Patrick Ireland tried to aid Makai Hall, who had suffered a wound to his knee. While doing so his head came above the table. Seeing this, Klebold shot at him, hitting him twice in the head and once in the foot. He was knocked unconscious, but remarkably survived.

Next, Klebold proceeded toward another set of tables, discovering Isaiah Shoels, Matthew Kechter, and Craig Scott, Rachel Scott's brother, hiding under one. All were popular athletes at the school. He attempted to pull Isaiah out from underneath the table, but was unsuccessful. He then called to Harris, who left Bree Pasquale and joined him. Klebold and Harris taunted Shoels for a few seconds and made derogatory racial comments towards him. Harris then knelt down and shot him in the chest at close range, killing him. Klebold also knelt down and opened fire, hitting and killing Matthew Kechter. Remarkably, Craig Scott remained uninjured as he lay in the blood of his friends, pretending to be dead. Harris then turned and threw a CO2 bomb at the table where Hall, Steepleton, and Ireland were. The CO2 bomb landed on Daniel Steepleton's thigh. Makai Hall then grabbed the bomb and threw the bomb south (away from the shooters).

Harris walked to the bookcases between the west and center section of tables in the library. He jumped on one of the bookcases and shook it, then shot at something in that general area. It is not known what he shot at, since no one could see him at that time. Klebold walked through the main area past the first set of bookcases, the central desk area, and a second set of bookcases into the east area. Harris walked past the central area meeting up with him there. Klebold proceeded to shoot out a display case next to the door, then turned and shot at the closest table to him, injuring Mark Kintgen. He then turned to the table to his left (east) and shot at it, injuring Lisa Kreutz and Val Schnurr with the same bullet. He then approached the table and fired again, killing Lauren Townsend.

Meanwhile, Harris went over to another table where two girls were hiding, bent down to look at them, and dismissed them as "pathetic". The pair went over to an empty table and began to reload their weapons. Schnurr, who had been hurt badly, began to cry out at that point, "Oh, God help me!" Klebold went back to her and asked her if she believed in God. She floundered in her answer, saying no and then yes, trying to get the answer "right". He asked her why; she said it was because it was what her family believed. He taunted her then walked away. This incident eventually led to the Cassie Bernall controversy, as some believe the eyewitnesses who continue to back the Bernall claim may have wrongfully attributed the Schnurr/Klebold remark to Bernall due to possible similarities in voice and appearance.

Harris moved to another table and shot twice underneath it, injuring both Nicole Nowlen and John Tomlin. When Tomlin tried to crawl out, Klebold came around the corner and kicked him. Harris taunted his attempt at escape and then Klebold shot him repeatedly, killing him. Harris walked back over to the other side of the table where Lauren Townsend lay. Behind it, Kelly Fleming, like Bree Pasquale, sat next to the table rather than beneath it. Harris shot at her with his rifle, hitting her in the back, and killing her instantly. He continued to shoot at the table behind her, hitting Townsend and Kreutz again, and wounding Jeanna Park. An autopsy later revealed that Townsend had been killed by the first shot.

At 11:37 a.m., the shooters moved to the center of the library, where they continued to reload their weapons at a table midway across the room. Klebold noticed a student nearby and asked him to identify himself. The student was John Savage, an acquaintance of Klebold's. Savage asked Klebold what they were doing, to which Klebold replied, "Oh, just killing people." Savage then asked if they were going to kill him. Klebold hesitated, and then told him to leave the library. Savage fled immediately, making a safe escape through the library's main entrance.

After Savage was gone, Harris turned and fired his carbine at the table directly north of where they'd been, hitting Daniel Mauser in the face at close range, killing him. Both shooters moved south from there and fired randomly under another table, critically injuring Jennifer Doyle and Austin Eubanks, and fatally wounding Corey DePooter. DePooter, the last victim of the massacre, was credited with keeping his friends calm during the ordeal.

At this point, several witnesses heard Harris and Klebold comment on how they no longer found a thrill in shooting their victims. Klebold was quoted to have said "Maybe we should start knifing people, that might be more fun." Both shooters moved away from the table and headed toward the library's main counter. Harris threw a Molotov cocktail toward the southwestern end of the library as he went, but it failed to explode. He came around the east side of the counter and Klebold joined him from the west, both converging near where Evan Todd had moved after the copier incident. The shooters made fun of Todd , Todd was also wearing his hat which meant that he was a "jock" and when the shooters wanted to see his face he lifted the hat up partly so they wouldn't see it. Dylan asked Todd to give him one reason why he shouldn't kill Todd, and Todd replied: "I don't want trouble". The shooters continued taunting him and debated killing him, but eventually walked away. At this point, Harris's nose was bleeding heavily, which may have caused him to decide to leave the library. Klebold turned and fired a shot into an open library staff break room, hitting a small television. Klebold slammed a chair down on top of the computer terminal that was on the library counter, directly above the bureau where Patti Nielson hid.

The two walked out of the library at 11:42 a.m., ending the brutal massacre.

Almost immediately, 34 uninjured and 10 injured students evacuated the room through the north door, which led out to the sidewalk adjacent to the west entrance where the rampage had begun. Patrick Ireland, who had been knocked unconscious, and Lisa Kreutz, who was unable to move, remained in the building. Patti Nielson joined Brian Anderson and the three library staff in the exterior break room where Klebold had shot earlier. They locked themselves in and remained there until they were freed at approximately 3:30 p.m.

 

Suicide of the shooters

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold caught on the high school's security cameras in the cafeteria shortly before committing suicide.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold caught on the high school's security cameras in the cafeteria shortly before committing suicide.

After leaving the library, the pair went into the science area and threw a small fire bomb into an empty storage closet. When the bomb exploded, they ran off while a teacher in the adjacent room put out the fire. They proceeded toward the South Hallway, stopped, and shot into an empty science room (SCI-8) at the end of the hall. At approximately 11:44 a.m. they went down the staircase into the cafeteria where they were filmed by the security cameras. The recording shows Harris kneeling on the landing and firing a shot toward a propane bomb, unsuccessfully attempting to detonate it. He took a sip from one of the drinks left behind by fleeing students as Klebold approached the propane bomb and examined it. The recording shows Klebold light something, reported as either a CO2 cartridge or pipe bomb, and throw it at the propane bomb. As the two left the cafeteria, it exploded, partially detonating one of the propane bombs at 11:46 a.m. A gallon of fuel ignites in the same vicinity at 11:48 a.m. causing a fire that was extinguished by the fire sprinklers. They left the cafeteria and headed back upstairs. Once back on the upper level, they wandered around the main North and South Hallways of the school, shooting aimlessly. They walked through the South Hallway, past the Social Studies section, and into the main office before returning to the North Hallway. Several times they looked through windows on the classroom doors and even made eye contact with students, but never attempted to enter the rooms. After leaving the main office, the pair went up to a bathroom entrance and began taunting students inside, saying such things as "we know you're in there" and "let's kill anyone we find in here", but never actually entered the bathroom. At 11:55 a.m., the two returned to the cafeteria and entered the kitchen briefly, only to return back up the staircase, and into the South Hallway, at 11:58 a.m.

At 12:02 p.m., the shooters re-entered the library, which was empty of all living students except for the unconscious Patrick Ireland and Lisa Kreutz. It is not known what they did between the time they left the cafeteria and the time they re-entered the library. Once inside, they shot at police through the west windows again, without success. Then at approximately 12:08 p.m, they moved over to the bookshelves near the set of tables where Matthew Kechter and Isaiah Shoels lay; there, they shot themselves, committing suicide. At 2:38 p.m., Patrick Ireland regained consciousness and crawled over to the windows, where he attempted to exit. He was taken out of the school through the library windows by SWAT team members, in a famously televised scene. Lisa Kreutz remained injured in the library. In an interview she recalled hearing something like "You in the library." around the time when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were getting ready to commit suicide. She was lying injured in the library until police entered at 3:22 p.m. She said that she kept track of time by the bells and that she had tried to move from the spot but got light headed. She was removed along with Ms. Nielson, Brian Anderson, and the three staff.