Tuesday, April 20, 1999 was supposed to be just another day at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Graduation was just 17 days away, and students were excited about the summer holidays. But April 20, 1999 was anything but ordinary for the Columbine students. That day, seniors Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, stormed the school, killing 12 classmates, one teacher, and wounding 23 others before turning the guns on themselves. At the time, it was the most lethal school shooting in U.S. history.
Below are nine facts about that horrendous day; a day that changed America forever, but maybe not enough.
1. Harris and Klebold Planned a Bombing, Not Just a Shooting
On April 19, 1999, there was a failed bombing. Harris and Klebold planned their attack on Columbine High School for an entire year and dreamed of detonating a bomb that would rival the April 16, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. As Klebold boasted, they wanted to inflict “the most deaths in U.S. history.”
How were they going to do that?
The killers were going to plant two propane bombs in the cafeteria, set to go off at 11:17 a.m. That would be the start of lunch, when the most students would be in the cafeteria. So they were looking for a high body count.
After the anticipated bomb explosion, the two planned to shoot and kill any fleeing survivors.
A third act was to follow. The two packed their cars with even more bombs, which were set to go off at a later time, presumably when survivors, rescue workers, reporters, and crowds were gathered around. It would, they hoped, all be caught live on TV.
Harris and Klebold were not just looking for fame; they were looking to make history.
And even though it didn’t all go as planned, the two teens still made the history books with their horrifying deeds that day.
2. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold Started Shooting at 11:20 a.m.
Harris and Klebold arrived at Columbine in separate cars at around 11:10 a.m. The two then walked into the school cafeteria where they placed down two duffel bags; each one contained a 20-pound propane bomb set to detonate at 11:17 a.m.
The two teens waited outside in their cars for the bombs to go off.
But they actually had no idea how to wire the timers, so the explosives didn’t go off. Had they detonated, it is estimated that as many as 600 people would have been killed.
When the bomb failed to go off, around 11:20 a.m., Klebold and Harris, dressed in trench coats and wrap-around glasses, began shooting fellow classmates outside Columbine High School.
The two made their way to the west entrance of the school, where they killed Rachel Scott and injured Richard Castaldo, who were eating their lunch outside.
From there, they shot Danny Rohrbough just outside the school entrance and headed toward the cafeteria, where they threw pipe bombs and fired at fleeing students.
The duo then turned their attention to the school library.
Police arrived at the school within five minutes of the first shots being fired. But instead of going in and engaging the two shooters, they took positions around the school.
For almost 20 minutes, Harris and Klebold walked the hallways and classrooms firing.
By the time the two committed suicide at 12:08 p.m., 12 classmates and one teacher had been killed. They had also wounded 23 others; six had brain or spinal injuries and several others nearly bled to death.
While Harris and Klebold lay dead in the library, and students were left bleeding, at least 75 police officers surrounded Columbine.
The first SWAT team was only in the school for two minutes. It took nearly three hours before they figured out that Klebold and Harris were dead.
3. Teacher Dave Sanders Bled to Death Waiting for Help
As Harris and Klebold were entering the school, Dave Sanders, a business teacher and coach, rushed through the cafeteria telling students to stay down. He, along with two of the school’s janitors, helped get more than 100 students out of danger.
Sanders then headed upstairs to help others. When he turned a corner at 11:26 a.m., he was shot in the torso, head, and neck. He managed to get himself into a science lab on the second floor.
When student Evan Todd ran out of the school, he saw at least 20 police officers surrounding the building. He told police that Sanders had been shot and there were other wounded students in the school. He even told them how to get in and provide help.
But no police officer went in.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s command post knew Sanders had been shot and where he was. A teacher, who was with Sanders, had been on the phone with operators at the sheriffs’ headquarters since 11:42 a.m.
Just before noon, Mike Rotole, 16, a sophomore, put a sign in the window: “One bleeding to death.”
At this point, officers started to send in radio calls urging the command post to rescue the victim.
By the time the first SWAT team had arrived and geared up to enter Columbine High School, it was 12:06 p.m. The shooting had begun 47 minutes earlier and Sanders had lain bleeding profusely on the ground for 40 minutes.
The SWAT team entered Columbine on the side of the building farthest away from Sanders and the library, where some survivors were hiding among the dead.
At 1:10 p.m., nearly two hours after Klebold and Harris fired the first rounds, a SWAT team finally entered the west side of the building, where victims were waiting for help.
According to once SWAT team member, their jobs were made more difficult because the command post had never told them there were injured victims in the library or science rooms.
Meanwhile, police dispatch was telling teachers and students who were with Sanders that help would soon be there.
“They’d say, ‘Oh we’ll be here in like 20 minutes,’” said Rotole. “So we’d, you know, get ready and lay there. And then no one would come.”
This went on for three hours. Sanders was conscious for most of that time.
As Sanders lay bleeding to death, SWAT officers were evacuating classrooms on the first floor. SWAT protocol dictated that officers needed to clear each room before moving onto the next.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, the SWAT team cleared classrooms furthest away from where most of the shooting had taken place. When it was finally time to look for Sanders, the command post didn’t know where to go.
SWAT officers finally found their way to Sanders in Science Room 3 at 2:42 p.m.; more than three eye-watering hours after he had been gunned down. Students were evacuated immediately, but Sanders was made to wait for a paramedic.
That paramedic didn’t arrive for another excruciating 42 minutes.
Rotole told SWAT members they could carry Sanders out. “And they said ‘No, we need to get you out safely. And there’s paramedics on the way right now.’”
Paramedics did finally arrive at 3:24 p.m.; four hours after he had been shot. It was too late. Sanders was already dead.
His last words were reported to be: “Tell my family I love them.”
Sanders was the last of 13 victims to die that day.
Sheriff John Stone of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office defended their actions, saying the Columbine attack was a “unique set of circumstances, the magnitude of which no one had dealt with before.”
Families of the victims of the Columbine massacre and others are not quite so sure. Calling him “incompetent” and “pathetic,” some families said Stone botched the rescue, bungled the investigation, and withheld important information.
Not only that, but Stone refused to testify before Colorado Gov. Bill Owens’ Columbine commission.
William Erickson, former chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, lashed out at Stone, saying, “He provided no information and stonewalled our commission.”
Not surprisingly, Stone earned the nickname “Sheriff Stonewall.”
Stone alleged that he was told by a county attorney that if he did testify, he and his deputies would lose their immunity from prosecution.
Stone did not seek reelection.
4. The Shooters Didn’t Target Certain Kinds of Students
In the days following the shooting, it was thought that Harris and Klebold had intentionally killed Christians, athletes, and minorities.
It was initially reported that Cassie Bernall, who was in the library studying that day, was asked by one of the shooters if she believed in God. When she said “Yes,” she was shot and killed. Her parents later wrote a best-selling book titled, She Said Yes.
But according to an eyewitness and 911 tapes, Bernall was shot when Harris put his gun under the table and said “Peekaboo.”
The Christianity question was posed to another student, however. Klebold shot Valeen Schnurr in the library. Bleeding on the ground, she whispered, “Oh my God, oh my God, don’t let me die.” When Klebold asked if she believed in God, Valeen replied “Yes.”
“Why?” Klebold asked.
“Because I believe, and my parents brought me up that way,” she answered, and crawled away.
Klebold walked away.
If Klebold and Harris hated jocks and minorities, they didn’t go out of their way to target them. At one point, the two joked about killing anyone wearing a white hat. One student hiding under a desk removed his white cap and lived.
As the world later found out, Klebold and Harris actually chose their victims randomly.
5. Jefferson Co. Sheriff’s Office Accused of Ignoring Warning Signs
There were warning signs that Eric Harris might be dangerous. At night, he and Klebold built up an arsenal and planned to use it—at least that’s what Harris said on his web site.
In March 1998, Brooks Brown, a junior at Columbine, was reading Harris’ web site when he discovered his name was on it; Harris had threatened to kill him.
On one page, Harris wrote, “All I want to do is kill and injure as many of you … as I can, especially a few people. Like Brooks Brown.”
“When I first saw the Web pages, I was utterly blown away,” Brown said. “He’s not saying that he’s gonna beat me up, he’s saying he wants to blow me up and he’s talking about how he’s making the pipe bombs to do it with.”
The family took their concerns to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. They were told that Harris already had a criminal file after both he and Klebold had broken into a van and stolen some equipment. They were on probation.
Other than informing the Browns of this, police did nothing.
After the Columbine massacre, the sheriff’s department denied they ever met with the Browns. But paperwork emerged showing investigators had met with Mrs. Judy Brown and worked on a warrant to search Eric Harris’ home.
On his web site, Harris also wrote of planting explosives around town and detonating them.
According to the affidavit, a sheriff’s deputy found “a pipe bomb consistent with the devices” Harris had described on his web site in a field in Jefferson County. Despite this, the sheriff’s department never searched or even visited the Harris’ home.
6. Columbine Administrators May Have Turned a Blind Eye
Deputies did warn administrators at Columbine High School that Harris might be making pipe bombs, but Sally Blanchard, a school district official, said the school had no reason to look into the matter.
Another student, Devon Adams, a sophomore at Columbine in 1998, found her name on Harris’ web site hit list. She said she told an assistant principal at Columbine High that Harris had threatened her. That assistant principal denies that Adams ever told her about Harris.
By this time, plans for the Columbine massacre were well underway; Klebold and Harris already knew how to build bombs, and they had purchased a rifle, a semiautomatic pistol, and two sawed-off shotguns.
“People are covering up everything that went wrong and I want those lessons out there,” said Judy Brown. “They’re doing studies, they’re getting profiles. Everybody’s trying to get programs going and what we can do. Well guess what? All the signs were there. You know what the lessons are? Do your job.”
7. Harris and Klebold Made a Video, “Hitmen for Hire”
Were there other warning signs? In hindsight, there is one eerie warning sign. In Eric Harris’ Government Economics class, he was given an assignment: create a business. He and Klebold decided to be hitmen. The title of the report and video is: Hitmen for Hire.
In the report, Harris notes that because of violent fights, gangs, prejudice, and stereotypes, the “Trench Coat Mafia” was needed to avenge those that angered their clients.
To kill those on their hit list, they were to use a sawed-off pump-action riot-gun, an AB-10 machine pistol, homemade rocket launchers, swords, and daggers.
The costs to hire the Trench Coat Mafia varied depending on which grade you were in: for underclassmen, general protection costed $50 per day; for upperclassmen, it was $20. To intimidate people, it was $100; assaults and beatings ranged from $200 to $500; to relocate a problem, it would cost $1,000 to $10,000.
The project was dated December 10, 1998; just four months before they carried out the Columbine massacre…in a very similar fashion.
There have been some questions as to whether or not the video was shown in class. Many presumed it would have been stopped in the first few minutes. But it appears as though it was shown in full, and that Harris received a score of 83 out of 90 (92%), an A.
8. Harris and Klebold’s Motive for Mass Murder
For years, many people believed that Harris and Klebold murdered their classmates, teachers, and staff at Columbine High School because they were “Trench Coat Mafia outcasts” taking revenge against bullies. Others believed the slaughter was inexplicable and we would never know what made them commit such an atrocious act.
The FBI and its team of psychiatrists and psychologists reached a different conclusion. They believe they know why Klebold and Harris did it.
Historically, school shooters tend to act out impulsively, attacking the targets of their hate. But Harris and Klebold planned their attack for an entire year. The two wanted their massacre to terrorize the entire country; not just make the regional papers.
The Columbine massacre was aimed at teachers and students but not, the FBI and psychiatrists contend, because of any resentment. They were, in the words of Timothy McVeigh, the mastermind behind the Oklahoma City Bombing, “collateral damage.”
Columbine was not designed to be a shooting but a bombing, and the two wanted to inflict “the most deaths in U.S. history.”
The two shooters were not looking to make a small impact; they were looking to go down in history for carrying out a devastating, apocalyptic event that would make the world shudder.
In fact, it was speculated that Klebold and Harris would have been disappointed to be told Columbine was the worst “school” shooting in American history. They wanted to be remembered as two of the world’s most notorious mass murderers.
Michigan State University psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg and Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI’s lead Columbine investigator and a clinical psychologist, said that to understand Harris and Klebold, people need to stop asking what drove them.
Harris and Klebold were different from other school shooters with different motives. Klebold obviously had anger problems, but was depressive and suicidal and blamed himself for his own issues. Harris, meanwhile, was cold, calculating, and homicidal.
As Fuselier said, “Klebold was hurting inside while Harris wanted to hurt people.”
In a disturbed way, the two complemented each other. Harris was cool and calculating, while Klebold was a hothead. At the same time, Klebold’s rage helped fuel Harris’ psychopathic tendencies.
The fact is, for all his anger, Klebold could not have pulled off Columbine without Harris.
Had Columbine not happened, it is thought that Klebold probably would have been caught for some petty crime, perhaps gone to counseling, and probably led a normal life. Harris, though, lacked remorse and empathy and was without hope. Had he lived, there’s no telling what he would have done as an adult.
9. Columbine Massacre No Longer Among 10 Deadliest Mass Shootings in U.S. History
At the time, the Columbine massacre was the worst high school shooting in U.S. history, prompting a national debate on gun control and school safety. It was also one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.
None of that is true anymore. Columbine is no longer the worst high school shooting in the U.S., and it is no longer among the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
The following are just a few of the mass shootings that have occurred since the Columbine massacre:
58 killed in Las Vegas, October 1, 2017 – Stephen Paddock, 64, fired on a crowd of 22,000 concert from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. In a 15-minute time frame, he killed 58 people and injured almost 500. Paddock then killed himself.
49 killed in Orlando, June 12, 2016 – Omar Saddiqui Mateen, 29, opened fire inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine people were killed, and more than 50 were injured. Police shot and killed Mateen.
32 killed at Virginia Tech, April 16, 2007 – Seung-Hui Cho, 23, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks before committing suicide. During the Virginia Tech shooting, another six people were injured while escaping through classroom windows.
27 killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, December 14, 2012 – Two weeks before Christmas, Adam Lanza, 20, shot and killed 20 children (aged six and seven) along with six adults, school staff, and faculty. He committed suicide. Police later found his mother, Nancy Lanza, dead from a gunshot wound.
15 killed in Sutherland Spring, Texas, November 5, 2017 – Devin Patrick Kelly opened fire on a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 25 people, including a pregnant woman, and wounding 20 others. The shooter was later found dead.
17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, February 15, 2018 – On Valentine’s Day 2018, Nicholas Cruz, 19, opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and wounding 17 more.