Officials at Columbine | SWAT teams, police, and medical
SWAT Team and other Officials
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The tactics of the Denver SWAT team and other officials at Columbine High School on April 20,1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold launched their attack has been one of the most controversial topics of this tragedy. The biggest point of contention was: Did the SWAT team react quickly enough?

"Mark Mershon, who now heads the Denver FBI office, said his SWAT team was one of at least six sent to the school, and it also followed orders from Jefferson sheriff's commanders. He said his team was ready to go at 1:45 p.m. but did not begin a search of the school until an hour later."
-- The Daily Camera

A crowd of emergency vehicles and reporter vans cluster outside of Columbine High SchoolBecause of the protocol they followed in dealing with the threat, the Denver SWAT received a lot of criticism. Everyone from news media to local law enforcement accused them of not moving in fast enough and not approaching the situation more aggressively. The procedure followed was one established following the clock tower shooting in Texas: Secure the perimeter and wait for armed-and-armored reinforcements because they weren't sure what was happening on scene. So, they didn't mobilize until it was too late to stop the massacre.

Local police who arrived on the scene first sprang into action immediately. Jefferson County Sheriff's Deputy Neil Gardner, a School Resource Officer (SRO) at Columbine High School and member of the bike patrol, was closest to the school and the first to arrive. As soon as he stepped out of his patrol car, Eric Harris fired ten shots at him. Gardner had been in active shooter situations twice before, but had never returned fire. That day he had to. He fired four shots at the gunman. Harris' gun jammed, and he retreated into the school's upper level.

Gardner's backup arrived: Deputy Paul Magor and Deputy Paul Smoker were close to the school when dispatch sent out the demand for more units. Deputies Scott Taborsky and Rick Searle arrived shortly after. Gardner and the additional officers continued to exchange fire with the gunmen who were shooting at them from the broken windows of the library. At 11:27 am, Gardner radioed in requesting emergency and medical assistance.

He and the other officers continued to keep radio communications going, reporting what they saw and heard as they battled the two shooters. Getting through to dispatch was increasingly tricky as the lines were flooded with reports. The officers did their best to shield students and faculty from gunfire as they fled the school, forming a chain of patrol cars for the evacuated to hide behind as they escaped.

By 11:30 there were six deputies on scene when reporters began to show up. In their haste to get the "scoop" some of the media vehicles hopped curbs and parked on the grass, adding to the chaos surrounding the school. The paramedics arrived next. Though it wasn't standard procedure to enter a "hot scene" where shots are actively being fired, miscommunication led medical workers directly into the line of fire. Despite being shot at, the officers and paramedics dragged injured students out of the line of fire so they could be transported away to triage. Despite restrictions, Littleton paramedics braved the unsafe conditions to rescue victims Sean Graves, Lance Kirklin, and Anne Marie Hochhalter, who had been gunned down outside the school. Deputies provided cover fire for them and eventually the shooters retreated.

Lieutenant Terry Manwaring was the first of the SWAT personnel to arrive. He was on scene at 11:38 a.m. Jefferson County Sheriff's Department set up a staging area at Pierce Ave and Leawood near the school. When they arrived, Undersheriff John Dunaway appointed Lt. David Walcher as incident commander. They sent out a call for any available SWAT to come to the scene.

The first Jefferson County SWAT team to assemble was a group of 12 officers from three different agencies, under the command of Manwaring. Many had never met before. Most didn't even have their tactical gear or equipment with them, responding to the crisis while off duty. Denver SWAT Captain Vincent DiManna arrived with four more SWAT members. DiManna's son was a student at Columbine and possibly still trapped inside. SWAT sniper Sean Dugan had a daughter at the school as well and she wasn't responding to his texts. The team had clearance from incident commander Lt. Walcher to enter the school as soon as they were ready. But getting ready was a challenge.

Conflicting reports contributed to their slow reaction. They couldn't figure out how many shooters there were, or where they were at, although students with the injured Coach Dave Sanders were on the phone with 911, informing them where the shooters were not. It was nearly 12:00 PM - an hour after they were called to the scene - before they were ready to approach the school. Several lacked bullet-proof vests and they only had two riot shields with them. They were relying on a hastily-drawn map that a student sketched for them and verbal directions from Principal Frank DeAngelis. The principal was willing to vest up and go in with them to help, but officials enforcing protocol made him to stand by while precious minutes ticked by.

The team commandeered a fire truck to provide cover while they moved in close to the building. A request was radioed in for an armored vehicle to be sent down to rescue the injured as officials who had taken over the operation pronounced the scene unsafe for medical.

Manwaring split his team in two, appointing SWAT member Allen Simmons as leader of the other team. Manwaring's team provided cover while Simmons' group headed to the school's east entrance on the far side of the building, though there had not been any gunshots or explosions heard inside the school for nearly an hour. At 12:06, Simmons' team entered the school, systematically breaking down doors and searching each room, evacuating anyone hiding there before moving on. This is another procedure they were criticized for following, as officials knew there was at least one critically injured person upstairs waiting for rescue.

Deputy Del Kleinschmidt drove the fire truck around to the school's west side where they saw two students prone in the grass, a girl and a boy. The SWAT team approached them behind the cover of the fire truck, but they could only take the truck as far as the sidewalk. Capt. DiManna and Lt. Pat Phelan rescued Richard Castaldo, putting him on the front bumper of the fire truck before returning for Rachel Scott. They got her to the fire truck before they realized she was dead, at which time they left her in the grass. Richard was moved to Deputy Taborsky's car while the SWAT team went back for Dan Rohrbough. When they found him dead, they relayed the information to the deputy. Taborsky rushed Castaldo to triage.

At around 12:30 p.m. Sergeant Barry Williams's team of 10 SWAT members arrived on-scene. At 12:50, they borrowed a front-end loader from a nearby construction company to use as a makeshift armored vehicle to approach the school. Two SWAT members were deployed to take to the nearby neighborhood rooftops to monitor the southern parking lot, library, and cafeteria. A "live bomb" outside the cafeteria prevented the SWAT from entering the school that way and the west entry was considered a "hot zone" because there had been gunshots fired there. So, at 1:09 p.m. the team entered the building through a broken window that led to the teacher's lounge next to the commons.

Half of Williams' team stayed by the cafeteria exits just in case the suspects tried to escape that way. The other half investigated the kitchen and storage areas, again going door by locked door, breaking in and evacuating traumatized people. It would be hours before they made it to the area where the shooters were last active.

Patrick Ireland is rescued from the window of Columbine High SchoolFrom the sidelines, news cameras picked up a sign in one window desperately pleading for aid for Coach Sanders. He had been shot around 11:30 AM and students had been calling 911 repeatedly from that time for help. They were promised by dispatchers that help was on the way. Sanders bled to death on the floor of a science classroom. He was the last individual to die in the school, and his family later maintained that he wouldn't have died if officials hadn't taken so long.

The SWAT was forced into decisive action when, to save himself from bleeding to death, Patrick Ireland rolled himself out of the library window. He would have fallen head-first two stories onto a concrete sidewalk if the mobile armored unit hadn't rolled in to catch him. However, if he had waited in the library for help to arrive, he likely would have died.

Sign posted in Columbine's window pleading for help for Dave SandersThe SWAT team finally reached the critically injured Coach Dave Sanders roughly ten minutes later — over three hours after Sanders was shot. When they arrived, students had put together a make-shift gurney to move the Coach themselves, but the SWAT team refused to let them use it. They made the students leave the building while two SWAT team members stayed with Sanders to wait for the paramedics.

"While the world cheered as they watched television images of children escaping unharmed from the school, the two SWAT deputies with Sanders decided to move him closer to an exit route. After waiting for what they estimated to be 20 to 30 minutes, they decided a paramedic was not coming or could not get in, and that they would need to evacuate the wounded teacher themselves or at least move him closer to an exit.

"Their plan was to take him out a door over to the staircase, down the stairs through the cafeteria and out the side door, basically following the same route as the students just evacuated. They put Sanders on a chair so that they could move him easier and pushed him through the back doors of the science rooms into a storage area. Before they could move him from the storage room, a Denver paramedic arrived in the room. He had entered through the west side of the school and past SWAT where he was directed to Sanders. He advised the deputies that there was no pulse and, therefore, nothing more they could do. Dave Sanders had died."

- Quoted from CNN's in-depth info about the SWAT at Columbine High School

* Last shots officials exchanged with shooters: 12:04 p.m.

* Shooters commit suicide: 12:08 p.m.

* Patrick Ireland rescued after he rolls himself out of the library window: 2:38 p.m.

* SWAT team reaches Dave Sanders: 2:48 p.m.

* SWAT team finds Harris and Klebold dead in the library: 3:30 p.m.

Police deputies exchange fire with the gunmen inside Columbine High School
Police at Columbine hide students who escaped beind their patrol cars

Police at Columbine High School provide cover for evacuated students
Police at Columbine High School provide cover for evacuated students
Before the Denver SWAT arrived, Jefferson County sheriff's deputies exchanged gunfire with the shooters, trying to protect students who managed to escape the school. First on scene was Deputy Neil Gardner, accompanied by SRO Andy Marton. Deputies Paul Magor, Paul Smoker, and others soon joined them.

Denver SWAT at Columbine High School
The Denver SWAT team, securing the perimeter.
Police at Columbine
A police officer has to watch the school from the far end while the SWAT scramble by to secure the perimeter.

Police at Columbine High
An officer at Columbine High takes cover behind an ambulance.
Craig F. Walker — AP/The Denver Post
Denver SWAT at Columbine shooting wait to be deployed into Columbine
Denver SWAT team waits to be deployed into Columbine.

Police at Columbine
Police watch as the paramedics arrive.
Paramedics at Columbine
Paramedics wait for officials to allow them to treat the wounded.

The SWAT team penetrates the school at 1:09 PM. An hour after the shooters committed suicide people were evacuated from the rooms next to the cafeteria, but the SWAT wouldn't make it up to the library directly above until 3:22 PM.

Ambulance at Columbine
An ambulance protects officers exchanging shots with the shooters inside the school.
Firetruck at Columbine
A firetruck acts as a shield for emergency workers to get close to the school.

Armored unit at Columbine High
Armored unit arrives at Columbine
An armored unit is brought in.

Paramedics move the wounded on gurney at Columbine
New York Daily News
First responders put Columbine victim on stretcher
George Kochaniec

Columbine victim Kacey Ruegsegger is treated by paramedics
Paramedics move the wounded at Columbine
News footage shows paramedics rescuing the injured, rushing them off to various hospitals around Denver.

Denver SWAT team herds Columbine students away from school
Columbine SWAT free kids from the school after the shooting
Denver SWAT release terrified students and faculty from Columbine High following the shooting. The survivors were ordered to keep their hands on their heads as they ran from the building to the waiting officials. When the SWAT teams first found them hiding in various rooms throughout the school, many mistook the officers for the shooters because both the SWAT and the killers were dressed in black military fatigues and carried guns.

Three suspects at Columbine
Police stop 3 suspects in a field outside of Columbine. Calling themselves the "Splatterpunks" (Matt Akard, Matthew Christianson, and Jim Branetti), the teens were later released without charges as curious onlookers.
Columbine suspect
Officer Randy McNitt detains Larry Scott Petty, Jr. Petty was seen running toward the school during the shooting, armed with a .22 caliber airsoft/BB rifle and a knife strapped to his leg. The rifle was not loaded and Petty told officers he was there to "help the police". He was released without charges.

Chris Morris, a friend of the shooters and a member of the Trench Coat Mafia. He was considered a suspect at the time but many hours of questioning cleared him eventually. This was facilitated by his helping investigators by calling Philip Duran, who sold Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold one of the guns they used at the school.

Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone
Sheriff John Stone of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department.
The New York Times ran a report: "Terror in Littleton: the Police Response". The following is excerpted:

Randy Patrick, a veteran officer from Westminster, a suburb of Denver, called the SWAT response "pathetic," and told The Denver Post, "I think they should have been more dynamic."

The question is whether a specially trained unit could have entered the school immediately and perhaps saved more lives. The police have not said whether SWAT team members fired shots at the gunmen. They have speculated that the gunmen could have been dead for up to two hours after television seemed to show the school still under siege.

It has since been released that the SWAT were under orders from their superiors not to fire on the building or its occupants. They reached the library over 3 hours after the shooters committed suicide.

ABCNews asked soon after the shootings: Did the Rescue Take Too Long?
Coach Sanders' family thought so. They sued JeffCo and the Denver SWAT, citing their response time as directly contributing to his death.

Since the shootings of April 20, 1999, Jefferson County, Denver, and many other locations all over the United States have changed their policies for how to deal with school shootings. They've added new training programs and spread awareness that this sort of incident is NOT going to be an isolated one. All across the world societies are having to cope with higher risks and the law enforcement bureaus say they're stepping up to the challenge. Time will tell.

Police tape cuts Columbine off from onlookers
Columbine bomb squad looks under cars for explosives
After the majority of the survivors have been freed from Columbine's bloody halls the FBI and bomb squad move in to investigate, starting with the cars in the parking lot.

Neighbors of Columbine High hang a thank you banner for police, fire, and rescue workers
Neighbors living near the school hang a banner thanking those who helped.