ShockedDenver mourns its lost children

High school shooting: Story of teacher's heroism emerges as tragedy divides Colorado's gun lobby
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE WAS a promising young athlete and straight-A student who loved to fish, play golf and go Rollerblading. Another wanted to go into the music business. A third was a talented actress and a committed Christian who dreamt of being a missionary in Africa.

As the names of the 15 people killed in the Colorado school shooting on Tuesday were made public yesterday, friends and classmates paid homage to a group of brightyoung people who had no business dying so young, or so brutally, and to a much-loved teacher whose selfless efforts to save the lives of his students cost him his own.

One of a crowd of 16-year-olds, gathered around the red car that belonged to Rachel Scott, apparently one of the most popular of the victims, said: "Everybody loved her. She was so caring. She was there for everybody who needed her." Rachel's car was still standing in the car park of Columbine High School where she left it on Tuesday morning. As the long wait for news turned to grim certainty that she had fallen victim to the gunmen, her friends spread flowers and messages over the car and stood by, sobbing uncontrollably.

Isaiah Shoels, the aspiring music industry executive and the only non- white victim, was just a month away from graduation and had recently overcome surgery to correct a heart problem that almost killed him. His parents had previously complained about threats against him, possibly from the same students who shot him in the library and laughed as they saw the blood running from his head. "He had two strikes against him. He was black and he was an athlete," said his father, Michael Shoels, endorsing the view that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold harboured a special grudge against sports "jocks" and students from ethnic minorities.

As more details of the four-hour killing spree emerged, so too did stories of heroism that prevented the death toll from rising even higher. When the first bombs exploded and shooting began, Dave Sanders, a business teacher and basketball coach, jumped on to a chair in the school cafeteria and yelled to the hundreds of students to run for cover.

A few moments later, Mr Sanders was upstairs, pulling to safety a boy who had been shot in the leg. He was shot himself shortly afterwards, and dragged himself into a science room where a fellow-teacher gave him first-aid and tried to keep him conscious. He died in the arms of a police Swat team member with the words: "Tell my daughter I love her."

The teacher who tendedhim, Kent Friesen, was also praised for pulling students out of corridors and into the science lab, where he told them to crouch between sinks. He unscrewed all the emergency lights from their sockets and lined up dry chemical fire extinguishers as a deterrent in case the gunmen burst in.

Eighteen-year-old Adam Foss, meanwhile, directed students in the choir room to pile into a small office next door, where he used his shirt to staunch the bleeding of an injured girl and pulled off the ceiling tiles to let more air in from the ventilation ducts.

Such stories appeared to confirm Columbine High's reputation as an essentially happy, cohesive environment. The school, with almost 2,000 students, has one of the strongest academic records of any school in the Denver area and is one of the biggest draws to new residents moving to Littleton, in the south-western city suburbs.

Beneath the surface, however, there were signs of dysfunction, driven by the peculiar social make-up of the conservative, church-oriented community and by the competitive, high-achieving atmosphere of the school itself. Several students appeared to have struggled with being tagged outcasts for failing to conform. An evangelical brand of Christianity bordering on fundamentalism appeared to be an important badge of identity that groups such as the so-called Trenchcoat Mafia - the killers' clique - struggled against.

So, too, might the intricate class structure of the high school. Although Columbine High has no dress code, most students buy their clothes at clean- cut suburban mall outlets such as The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch. Part of the motivation for the Trenchcoat Mafia's trademark black appears to have been a need to distance themselves from that strait-laced look and the middle-class connotations it carries.

Eric Harris, in particular, came from a far more modest background than the average. Although he was a good student and a former little league baseball player, Harris appears to have resented the "jock" look and grown ever more defiant as he withdrew into violent video games and thoughts of death.

His friend, Dylan Klebold, fitted more into the class mould - his family home sat on five acres of land, with five more a short drive away - but not into the dominant political and religious ideology of Littleton. His parents, educated liberals,appear to have known their son was severely troubled. Mr Klebold offered to go to Columbine High during the shooting to talk his son into surrendering, but police turned him down.