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A Town of Tears

Wednesday, April 21, 1999
(This is an unedited, uncorrected transcript.)

SAM DONALDSON The day after a massacre, the sun came up, but nothing was the same in Littleton, Colorado. After five hours of terror at the hands of two young killers, today there were tears for the dead, prayers for the survivors and tales of horror to be shared with each other. Bill Ritter spent the day with a town in mourning. (Choir sings)

BILL RITTER, ABCNEWS (VO) Today, the profound shock gave way to profound sadness. It was a day for the students and parents of Littleton to assess and talk about the damage inflicted on their lives. It started this morning with a counseling service at a local church and it continued throughout the day. This afternoon, the parents of one of the fallen students and the only black victim spoke out.

MICHAEL SHOELS, FATHER The only thing we can go by is the children that seen him when his demise came about.

BILL RITTER (interviewing) I just want to get this straight—no one from the school has contacted you officially?


BILL RITTER No one from the police?


BILL RITTER No one from the sheriff’s office?

VONDA SHOELS No. And I have called every hospital that all the kids was taken to and Isaiah, he wasn’t in the hospitals.

BILL RITTER (VO) Perhaps in an effort to placate the parents of the slain children, the sheriff finally released an official casualty count.

JEFFERSON COUNTY SHERIFF We have 15 fatalities.

BILL RITTER (VO) the final death count is staggering—15 dead, 22 wounded. All but 2 of the dead are teenagers. This kind of violence, often described as either unspeakable or unthinkable, has once again proven to be neither. The sedate suburb of Littleton has become the latest least likely place for a school shooting. And tonight, its residents have been forced to deal with the deadliest incidence of teen—on—teen violence in American history. It began yesterday morning, when two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, now universally described as social outcasts, made their way across the parking lot towards the school. Inside, from the lunchroom to the classrooms and offices, to the school’s library, people who may have never met Harris or Klebold were about to have the rest of their lives defined by them.

1ST MALE EYEWITNESS Hell. What I saw is hell. I never want to see it again.

BILL RITTER (VO) Wearing masks and black trench coats and armed with shotguns, automatic handguns and explosives, Harris and Klebold approach the school, pull the guns from under their jackets and then open fire. (interviewing) How many people did you see get hit by fire?


BILL RITTER (VO) Meanwhile, Harris and Klebold move inside, sending bullets ricocheting off lockers and walls. They veer left into the cafeteria, where 900 or so students eating lunch try to escape.

1ST FEMALE EYEWITNESS The principal came running by and he’s, like, “Get in the gym, get in the gym!” He’s like, “Hurry, run, run.”

BILL RITTER (VO) The gunshots and pipe bomb explosions should alert students and teachers to the danger. But many are just confused. Finally, as confirmed sightings spread quickly around campus, frantic students begin fleeing the buildings.

2ND MALE EYEWITNESS One of my fellow classmates ran upstairs and said, “There’s somebody with a gun. There’s somebody with a gun.”

BILL RITTER (VO) But for every student that makes it safely outside, dozens of frightened kids remain trapped inside. Sixty students take refuge in a small office next to the choir room. Matt Cornwell (ph) and Jacob Cram (ph) are among them.

MATT CORNWELL, EYEWITNESS Just really scared. We just kept hearing shots, shotguns and we think bombs. Just shake.

BILL RITTER (VO) The kids try to call the police, but all they get is a busy signal. Finally, after dozens of frantic calls, they reach emergency service workers and are told what they don’t want to hear.

MATT CORNWELL They said to barricade ourselves in there and be as quiet as we could be. And just stay in there until they come and get us.

BILL RITTER (VO) Just outside the office, Harris and Klebold are still on the move and now heading for the library, leaving a trail of wounded kids and teachers. By now, everyone on the first floor wants out, including those hit by gunfire.

MATT CORNWELL On our way out, I saw one body in the cafeteria and then as—I didn’t really look at it. And we ran out, and we had to go through all this broken glass to get outside. They had us run up to get away from the school and there were two bodies laying there just on the ground.

JACOB CRAM, EYEWITNESS I couldn’t believe they hadn’t covered up the bodies.

BILL RITTER (VO) But upstairs in the library, one of the school’s star baseball players hears popping sounds and assumes they’re harmless.

JOSHUA, EYEWITNESS At first I thought it was just paintball guns or something to that concern. I didn’t think they was a real weapons. I didn’t think that would happen at our school.

BILL RITTER (VO) Moments later, a teacher bursts through the door and tells everyone to hide. But she’s too late. Harris and Klebold are right behind her.

JOSHUA She ran to the phone behind the library desk. When they first walked in that was the first person the suspects shot at. There were two shots with the shotgun and that’s the last we heard of it.

BILL RITTER (VO) Joshua recognizes the killers as part of a school clique called the Trench Coat Mafia, a small group of gun—loving students known to be anti—black, anti—Hispanic and anti—jock.

JOSHUA We kind of joked around that they could do something like this. But we never thought they’d do it.

BILL RITTER (VO) But they did.

JOSHUA After every person they shot, they were hooping and hollering. They acted like it was a football game or something and they’d one.

BILL RITTER (VO) Joshua believes they were looking for someone in particular.

JOSHUA They said, “look, there’s that little nigger.” Three shots, and then one of them asked is he dead? There was a pause. The other one said, yeah, he’s dead.

BILL RITTER (interviewing) What went through your mind when you heard that?

JOSHUA I knew exactly who that was and I just couldn’t believe it.

BILL RITTER (VO) They killed 18—year—old Isaiah Shoels who was just three weeks away from becoming one of the few blacks to ever graduate from Columbine High. Michael and Vonda are his parents.

MICHAEL SHOELS That’s pathetic. It’s ridiculous. No child, black white or orange, yellow, should have to leave this earth like that.

BILL RITTER (interviewing) At some point today you’ll have to identify Isaiah’s body. How hard is that going to be?

VONDA SHOELS Oh, that’s hard. It’s hard. No one wants to, you know, go identify your child.

MICHAEL SHOELS Nobody. It’s going to be one of the hardest things of my life ever to do. But I have to do it, you know.

BILL RITTER (VO) Out in the street during the assaults, local police also hear the shots coming from inside the library. The sheriff agonizes about what to do.

SHERIFF JOHN STONE We had officers that tried to get in there and were driven back by gunfire.

BILL RITTER (VO) Finally, the SWAT Team begins making its way into the school. Slowly, many of the trapped students are liberated, but the process is hampered by the discovery of dozens of explosive devices hidden throughout campus. Three and a half hours after the siege began, the SWAT Team arrives at the small office where 60 terrified kids are still hiding.

MATT CORNWELL The SWAT Team came and banged on the door.

JACOB CRAM We didn’t know who it was.

MATT CORNWELL Yeah. We didn’t know who it was.

BILL RITTER (interviewing) You just heard footsteps coming, right?


BILL RITTER (VO) As they start taking the kids out, the officers discover what many school boards are just now beginning to understand. You can’t tell the innocent kids from the dangerous ones just by looking at them. So, worried that one of the shooters might have slipped in with the other kids, police treat everyone like a possible suspect.

JACOB CRAM They finally said all right, come out slowly, put your hands on your head and get down low.

BILL RITTER (VO) Joshua still agonizes over whether there was something he could have done to save his friends.

JOSHUA I wish I could have done something. I hunt. So I’m fairly—I can shoot a gun. At that time, after they started shooting, I wish I had my rifle. Because I could—if I did, I could have saved a lot of lives.

BILL RITTER (VO) When the SWAT Team at last reaches the library they make the horrifying discovery that nine kids and one teacher have been executed. They also discover the bodies of Harris and Klebold, dead from self—inflicted wounds.

SHERIFF Both suspects are dead. And it appears that they died from self—inflicted gunshot wounds.

BILL RITTER (VO) Slowly the family members waiting outside begin to realize of magnitude of what’s happened inside. As the injured are brought out and Medevaced to area hospitals, parents wait to discover if their child is dead or alive. Inside the school, the police discover more hidden explosives. Some of them rigged on the bodies of the two suspects. And late last night, another explosive device detonated inside the school. Police say they will now search the school for explosives one backpack at a time.

DIANE SAWYER And now Bill Ritter joins us live. Bill, what about the Shoels, did they ever identify Isaiah’s body?

BILL RITTER (on camera) Earlier tonight, Diane, authorities finally contacted Isaiah’s parents and confirmed to them what they already knew in their heart, that their 18—year—old son Isaiah had in fact been killed yesterday.

DIANE SAWYER The others who died, have they all been identified?

BILL RITTER We understand all of the families of the victims have been notified, the one’s who died. It’s been a tough 24 hours. They knew, like Isaiah’s family, in their heart that their children had died, but they had no confirmation from authorities. But some of the friends saw them die. Authorities just never got around to calling them.

DIANE SAWYER All right, Bill. Our thanks to you. We’ll talk to you again tomorrow of course. Thanks again. Sam?

SAM DONALDSON Joining us now is the superintendent of the Jefferson County school district, Jane Hammond. Thank you very much for being with us.

SAM DONALDSON The school is closed. Where will the students go for the rest of the semester?

JANE HAMMOND We have not been able to get into the building yet. It’s a crime scene. They are collecting evidence. Either late today, I haven’t gotten word, or early tomorrow morning we’ll be able to go in and assess the damage and figure out whether we can make those repairs and get the students back in the school.

SAM DONALDSON So it is possible, you think, that perhaps for the rest of the term they could come back to the school?

JANE HAMMOND We really haven’t been inside to assess the damage. So it would just be a guess at this point. I heard it is heavily damaged and it is possible we will not. But I do not know.

SAM DONALDSON Ms Hammond, what about security, clearly it was not sufficient for this horror. Have you and the board begun to thing about other schools in your district and what you might do in the future?

JANE HAMMOND We’re going to be increasing security at all of our schools. This particular school does have security officers. It has a full—time police officer on campus. But it would be very difficult to prepare for this kind of tragedy that has caused this community to grieve.

SAM DONALDSON Ms Hammond, there were two officers, as we understand it, that traded fire at one point with the suspects, but then left the school. Do some people in the community feel that by leaving the school, this contributed to what happened?

JANE HAMMOND I’m not aware of that.

SAM DONALDSON Thank you very much, Ms Hammond. We appreciate you coming in tonight.

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