The Day They Can Never Forget
Today, life goes on at Columbine High School in Littleton. The building has undergone a $1.3 million makeover: Surveillance cameras now monitor several passageways of the school; students and teachers must carry IDs at all times. But new safety measures and a paint job can’t mask the lingering pain of the April 20, 1999, rampage by two teenage gunmen that left 15 people dead and dozens injured.
“The wounds are still fresh,” says Jo Anne Doherty, chief operating officer for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, who has been offering counseling services to the survivors and their families, “and for many people it doesn’t take much to puncture the healing that has been done.” The school football team’s December victory in the state championship “brought every emotion back,” she says, “elation as well as sadness, because one of the victims had been on the team.”
Those touched by the tragedy are still coping with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “There’s hardly a person here who didn’t have a reaction,” says Doherty. “It’s very difficult for the people left behind. Even if they’ve been injured, they still torture themselves wondering what they could have done differently. We tell them there’s nothing they could have done, but that doesn’t mean much,” she admits. “Some people are still in quite a bit of pain.”
As the healing continues, these three women—each touched by the tragedy— are struggling to chart a new course for themselves, and for their future.
PATTI NIELSON: THE ART OF HEALING
Last July 3, art teacher Patti Nielson, 36, and her family were vacationing in the Rockies when fireworks went off right outside their door. Terrified by the noise, Patti grabbed her 3-year-old, Mallory, and dove under a couch, yelling for her husband, Shane, 39, to do something to make it stop.
Mommy okay?” Mallory asked when the noise ceased, wiping away her mother’s tears.
How could Patti begin to explain to her daughter the terror she still feels today, months after the shooting? Her anxiety attacks come at a moment’s notice: She panicked at the grocery store when Mallory was momentarily hidden behind a cash register; at an awards ceremony for her son, she was so worried about the crowd and lack of security that she spent the whole time plotting an escape route.
“I think about Columbine all the time,” says Patti. “I still can’t believe how much I dream and think about those four hours of my life. It’s out of proportion.”
A popular, well-liked teacher, Patti was on hall duty that April morning when she noticed a student standing outside the school with a gun. As she headed toward the door, the gunman, Eric Harris, turned to her, grinned, then fired.
Bleeding from where the bullet grazed her shoulder, Patti stumbled back inside to the library (which had the nearest phone), yelled for the students to hide under the tables–a warning that likely saved many lives–and called 911. She considered locking the library’s glass doors, but she didn’t have keys. “We were trapped,” she says, shrugging her shoulders helplessly at the memory.
When Harris entered the room, joined by Dylan Klebold, Paiit dropped the phone, which continued to record her 911 call, and ducked under the checkout counter as the killers sprayed gunfire throughout the room. “I prayed and tried to stay focused,” she says. “I told myself I had to stay alive to raise my kids.” As Patti waited to be shot herself, she searched in vain for a pen to write notes to her family: Sane, her husband of 14 years, and children Josh, 9, Elide, 6, and Mallory. “I wanted to tell them I loved them and that I didn’t want them to be bitter or angry if something happened to me.” She eventually managed to escape, as did 45 others who’d been in the library.
“After such a trauma, you feel like you’re in a fog,” says Patti. “Even now, I try to think of something and have a hard time pulling it out of my brain. That’s frustrating for me.”
Patti returned to teaching as soon as classes resumed in a borrowed school. “I needed to see my students,” she says simply. Students often dropped by her class to talk, knowing she would understand. She also assigned her classes art projects designed to help them express their feelings.
Coping with her own feelings has proven more difficult. In August, when the Columbine building reopened, Patti realized it was too soon to be faced with such memories. “I’d thought it wasn’t the building, but it was,” she says. “There were so many reminders there. I had nightmares of seeing Harris and Klebold in the halls.” Two months later, she decided to take an open-ended leave of absence.
“What made sense before the shootings doesn’t make sense anymore,” says Patti. Even her art –normally an outlet for her self-expression—failed her; she says the pain was too fresh for her to deal with until December, when she created a purple heart pin to symbolize what she went through.
“I questioned everything but my marriage after it happened. Shane didn’t leave my side that first week. He’s even attended my weekly counseling sessions. That’s not his thing, but he does it anyway. It’s helped him understand what I’ve been going through.”
A few months ago, Patti faced a backlash from an unlikely source: the parents of one of the murdered students. On a local radio talk show, Michael and Vonda Shoels questioned how Patti, a teacher, had survived while their son, Isaiah, had died. Though many parents and students came to Patti’s defense, she was deeply hurt. 1 know I didn’t t abandon those kids in the library,” she says. “God knows I wish I could have done more.”
Patti says she’d like to go back to teaching eventually— for her students as well as for herself. But she still has too much healing to do. “My biggest frustration at the school was that while there were lots of counselors and victims’ assistants,” she says, “there was no time scheduled for teachers and staff to talk about it as a group.” She has since organized support group meetings for those in the library that day and hopes to begin a similar group for the teachers.
“Life is so fragile, and I’ve become more aware of that,” she says. “I have my life, and I have my kids. I’m not going to let those guys destroy that.”
VALEEN SCHNURR: MOVING ON
Last fall, Valeen Schnurr packed up her belongings, kissed her parents good-bye, and headed off to college. For the 18-year-old freshman, university life offered a desperately needed change of scenery: her parents’ house is just two blocks from the home of Eric Harris. Now her days are filled with challenging studies, late night gabfests, and inedible cafeteria food–and she couldn’t be happier. Just a few months ago, she wondered if she’d ever make it to college at all.
Valeen and five classmates were in the library studying when Harris and Klebold came in shooting. “We dove beneath a table,” Valeen recalls, the slight quiver in her voice betraying her usually calm, purposeful demeanor. “My friend Lauren [Townsend] and I grabbed hands, and I began praying, begging God to help us. Lauren kept saying, ‘It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.”‘
As the gunfire drew closer, Valeen felt a searing pain shoot through her. Then the force of the bullets knocked her out from under the table. “Oh God, help me!” she cried, looking up directly into the eyes of one of the gunmen.
“Do you believe in God?” he sneered, pointing his gun at her. Valeen thought about lying to him, but couldn’t. “Yes,” she said.
“Why?” he asked. “Because it’s what my parents taught me,” she replied. “It’s what I believe.”
While he stopped to reload, Valeen crawled back under the table. When the pair left the library, she knew it was her chance to escape. “Lauren,” she whispered to her friend, “we can go now!” Lauren didn’t respond. Valeen nudged her again, but still nothing. Guessing her friend had passed out from shock, and gravely injured herself, Valeen gathered her remaining strength and ran out of the library. She collapsed just outside the school and was eventually rushed to the emergency room.
Three days later, she learned that Lauren, her friend since preschool, had died. “Lauren was such a good person,” Valeen says. “Why did I live while she died? You can’t answer those questions. They’ll just eat you alive. I just try to accept that it happened and focus on what I can do in my own life.”
Her life since has been marked by a grueling routine of operations and physical therapy. The doctors told her parents that she had at least nine shotgun wounds and numerous shrapnel injuries in her chest, arms, and abdomen. “They said divine intervention must have saved my life,” she says.
Determined to attend graduation, Valeen left the hospital in time to walk across the stage to collect her diploma. She’s still facing more plastic and reconstructive surgery to remove the remaining metal fragments and try to smooth the 40 scars that cover her arms and stomach, yet it’s the emotional wounds that have proved hardest to heal. Though Valeen kept a 3.6 grade point average at Columbine, she has been having a tough time focusing on her schoolwork at college.
“I’m not as trusting anymore, and I have some fears,” she says. “I hate balloons popping, cars backfiring, and fire alarms.” A recent prank in her dorm- someone pulled the fire alarm unnecessarily-left her badly shaken. “But I’ve learned how strong I am,” she says. “And I’m much closer to my parents and sisters now.”
BETH NIMMO: FOR RACHEL’S SAKE
The bumper sticker on Beth Nimmo’s car reads, “Evil didn’t win… CHS 1999.” It’s a saying that Beth has lived by since the day she lost her daughter, Rachel Joy Scott, 17, in that hail of gunfire.
A petite 47-year-old mother of five, Beth is determined that her daughter’s death will not be in vain. So she has spent much of the last year traveling across the country, along with several of her other children, talking to churches, schools, and youth groups about the purpose Rachel had in life. Her speaking engagements are in conjunction with a nonprofit organization called The Columbine Redemption (www.thecolumbineredemption.com), which was founded by Rachel’s father, Darrell Scott, 50, in her memory. Their goal is to provide emotional and financial help to those facing loss through death, abandonment, and divorce.
“We want to show young people that they have alternatives to anger and peer pressure,” Beth says, “and that there are other ways to cope with the problems you face. Rachel came from a blended family. Darrell and I separated ten years ago –and many kids get off track there. But we want to tell parents and teens that there are solutions other than violence. I believe with all my heart that this generation of kids is going to change their world and show us the way.”
Beth admits it’s been hard to share her pain so publicly. “But if we can do anything to cut short the momentum of violence in our community by our transparency,” she says, “then it’s worth it.” Looking back, says Beth, those days right after Rachel’s death are a blur of intense sorrow and shock. The only way she knew to survive was to cling to her husband, Larry Nimmo, 42, and their deep Christian faith.
Then the family found Rachel’s journals. The first entry Beth found was a tribute the teen had written to her mother. “Sacrifice should be her name, for she’s given up so much for us,” the poem read; “It was the most precious thing she could ever have left me,” says Beth.
What shocked Beth most, however, was Rachel’s prophetic belief that she would die young. On May 2, 1998, Rachel wrote, “This will be my last year, Lord. I’ve gotten what I can.” Another entry, from just days before her death, reads, “I’m dying. Quickly my soul leaves, slowly my body withers. It isn’t suicide. I consider it homicide. The world you created has led to my death.” Those words broke Beth’s heart. “She had never shared those fears with me,” she says.
Rachel’s writing also gave the family new purpose: The teen had written often of her desire to use her faith to reach out to her friends and other teens; her wish came true, tragically, with her death. “CNN told us that Rachel’s funeral was the most-watched program they’ve ever run,” Beth says. “Hundreds of people wrote us afterward and told us how they’ve changed their lives as a result. God has taken what was meant for evil and used it for good.”
Beth’s soft-spoken manner hints at the quiet strength that helped her raise five children on her own during the years she was a single mother. She’s calling upon that strength now to help her 17-year-old son, Craig, who’s still suffering from the emotional trauma of losing his sister and two friends who were hiding with him under a table in the library that day. Although he returned to Columbine in August, going back to the place where the shooting happened proved too much for him to bear and he’s decided to finish out the school year at home. Beth left her job as an administrative assistant to be by his side. “The counselor said that I’m key right now,” she says, “that I need to be with him. And I’m determined to help him any way I can.”
Meanwhile, her youngest son, Michael, 15, entered Columbine as a freshman this fall. “At first it really bothered me to take him to school,” Beth says, “but I’m doing better. It’s not so much that I trust the school more now- although I think they’re doing the best they can–it’s more that I just have to trust God with my children.” “You can’t heal and be angry,” she says. “Forgiveness isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a daily, moment-by-moment thing. I feel like I was robbed of Rachel. The enemy. took her before her time. He deceived those boys, and they bought his lie. Because of that, a lot of innocent people suffered and will continue to suffer for a long time.”
There are still images of Rachel throughout the family’s home–her red Acura in the driveway, her photos on the walls, her journals stacked on the tables- and April 20 will be one more reminder of the loss Beth still feels deeply. “Rachel was everything a mother would want,” she says simply. “I thank God for letting me have her as long as I did.”