Now these survivors are the first-hand narrators of the horror that happened at Columbine High. The first reaction of many was that they were witnessing some kind of lunchtime prank. The guns, they thought, were about to spit coloured paint, not bullets. The bangs they heard, surely, were balloons going off, not detonations and harbingers of death.
But the prayers of America were with those who tried to flee but who could not, or who tried to hide and were discovered. Some received only a split-second warning of the fate that awaited them: the mocking call of "peekaboo" from one of the gunmen. Several of the corpses, police said, were found curled up under desks in the school library.
It was only yesterday morning, when investigators could put a final tally on the massacre: 15 people dead, including the two young gunmen. The composition of the count: four females and eleven males, their lives lost in the worst act of school violence in American history. Among the dead, it was thought there was at least one teacher. There was one black among the dead and 14 whites.
Of those who managed to escape from the school, there was the young man, drenched with blood, seen by television cameras rolling his wounded body over a window sill to police officers waiting to catch him below. Others who could not get out rushed to find dark corners that offered any kind of sanctuary. And many offered tales of how close they came to death before being spared at the last instant. Aaron Cohn, 15, said one of the killers put a gun to his head, but was distracted before he pulled the trigger by a black student near by, saying: "I hate niggers". Aaron then heard three shots but did not see what happened. He watched a girl begging for her life, to no avail. She was shot in the head.
"Everyone around me got shot," sobbed Bee Pasquale, who pleaded for her life with one of the killers for 10 minutes. "He just put a gun to my head and asked us if we wanted to die. He started laughing and said 'I'm doing this because people made fun of me last year'."
Desks offered the least effective protection, of all. Byron Kirkland, 15, recalled: "There was a girl crouched beneath a desk in the library, and the guy came over and said 'Peekaboo' and shot her in the neck. They were hooting and hollering and getting a big joy out of this."
For parents of children still unaccounted for, the waiting just deepened the agony. Bodies were left inside the school - in the library, in corridors and in stairwells - for more than 24 hours after the attack. The delay was caused first by concern about booby-trap devices left around the school by the assailants and by the need for investigators to study the scene before it was disturbed.
Some of those escaped spoke of the gunmen seeking out both blacks and athletes as their victims. According to one student, Todd, the killers were "going around asking people why they should live. When they shot a black kid, one of them said, 'Oh, my God! Look at this black kid's brain! Awesome, man!'".
Todd, who is 15, was among those who was sure he was going to die. "They came up to me, pointed a gun at my head and asked if I was a jock [campus athlete]. I said no. Basically, I lied. They said: 'It's revenge time on jocks for making us outcasts!'". Aaron Cohn remembered one of the gunmen announcing: "All the jocks stand up. We're going to kill you."
But police last night would not confirm whether racism, hatred for "jocks", or any other factor was part of the killers' motives. "It doesn't seem to be any particular group that was targeted," Deputy Steve Davis, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, told reporters.
Meanwhile, 20 students remained in hospital last night, some still in critical condition. The wounds suffered by the injured and the dead were inflicted both by gun shots, officials said, and from projectiles from numerous pipe-bomb devices detonated by the two killers.
As the bodies of the dead were removed from the school, there were numerous stories last night of miraculous escape. Like that of Adam Foss, 18, who hid with fellow students in a tiny cupboard in the choir room for three hours while holding one student above their heads where there was more air for him to breathe. And there was the nightmare escape attempt of Adam's twin brother, Nick, who attempted to make it out through a crawl space and fell through the ceiling.
Some survivors described the two gunmen, members of the so-called Trenchcoat Mafia, whooping with joy with each of their executions, Nick Foss, saw something else. He came face to face with one of the gunmen and remembers that his "eyes were just dead. These guys were killing just to kill. They didn't care".
Among the luckiest of the students was Brian Anderson. He described how he saw the two assailants through a hallway window and watched as they took aim at him - a bullet hit him but had been flattened by the glass first. It knocked him flat but did not penetrate his chest. He retreated to the library and was later rescued by police Swat team members. "It sounded like a war," he later related.
This is the cellphone age, and some of the students hiding in the school used their phones to call their desperate families. One even called a television station, whispering details of the carnage over the ether from his hiding place before the station anchor told him to hang up and ring the police instead.
Scott Cornwell, father of Matt Cornwell, was one who received such a call. "He was whispering. He said 'Dad, we're inside. There are 40 of us. What's going on?'". Mr Cornwell gave his phone to a police officer who told the boy "Get away from the door!"
And there were staff members who also survived awful terror. Patricia Joan Nielsen, 35, a part-time art teacher and mother of three children, spent three hours in a cupboard before police offcers came to her rescue. "I'm sure the whole time she was hiding in the closet, she was wondering if she'd ever see her children again," a relative said.Reuse content