`I need to find out what I can

Coping: Stunned residents try to come to terms with the horrific. Some lay blame

others see room for hope. But all agree that their lives will never be the same

Colorado School Shooting

April 25, 1999|By Jean Marbella and Jon Morgan | Jean Marbella and Jon Morgan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LITTLETON, Colo. -- Already, in this brief yet endless week, the weather has cycled through several seasons: Warm enough Tuesday that many of the students who fled their school, hands on heads like prisoners of war, were wearing shorts. Wednesday, the skies emptied a bitter rain. And then it snowed, in big, wet flakes as cold as permanent winter.

But now, the weather forecast promises that the sun will come out tomorrow.

People here are dazed with grief and anger in the aftermath of the violent siege in which two students blazed their way through Columbine High School and killed 12 classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves. And yet, many residents can see that they'll have to begin moving beyond their despair.

The funerals for the dead are continuing. Today, a memorial service, which will be led by Vice President Al Gore, is expected to draw tens of thousands. Thursday, Columbine students will return to class, albeit in borrowed quarters at another high school because their own remains yellow-taped and filled with investigators meticulously gathering evidence and bomb squads looking for remaining explosives.

While much work remains, students, parents and community leaders are uniting in their resolve: They are ready to take back their community from the horror inflicted upon it and find a way to rise above it.

Despite the continuing trauma, the heart of a community, broken into a million bits, perhaps is starting to mend.

Searching for `release'

A lone woman in a lavender jacket trudged across a rolling field in Clement Park, blanketed in fresh, unblemished snow. Every now and then, she reached her arms out to the side, fell back into the pillowy expanse and began scissoring her limbs like windshield wipers.

The snow angels were Karen Butler's contribution to the tributes left at the park that curves around Columbine High School.

"I came here looking for release. I thought I would find a way to share with my community, to find the healing," said Butler, who lives nearby. "But it's not here. The show is here."

With a wall of dozens of reporters and cameras focusing microphones and cameras on the impromptu shrine there, Butler couldn't find what she was looking for.

So she walked and walked until she was alone, just the stilled baseball diamonds to one side and the mountains off to the distance. By her fifth snow angel, she was feeling better. And ready for the future.

"I need to reclaim this park because this is where my children play," said the mother of three. "And I need to find out what I can do. There has to be action, and I will be involved in some way.

"It hasn't been shown to me how, yet. But even if it's just us moms turning off the TV, the video games, throwing away the toy guns one person can make a difference."

A plea for more humanity

While Littleton is the dateline by which this tragedy is known, Littleton is actually five miles from the school. Yet the city is not going to abandon Columbine, located in unincorporated Jefferson County, and run from the black mark that the tragedy has inflicted on it.

At City Hall, just outside a downtown historic district, officials have been accepting condolences and flowers and concern from around the world.

Christian Gibbons, the city's director of economic development, can see any number of offices across the courtyard from his and point to co-workers who have suffered in the high school shooting: A firefighter's nephew is Patrick Ireland, the boy who, though wounded, broke through a window and hung there until police rescued him. A maintenance worker has a daughter who was trapped in the tiny choir room as mayhem broke out all around.

Soon after the shooting became known Tuesday, e-mail began streaming across cyberspace into Gibbons' computer. As head of the city's economic development program, Gibbons has numerous contacts around the globe.

They sought details, but mostly they wanted to console. Gibbons responded by telling them, "The early reports are not good. It is a sad day in Littleton."

"I have a very bad english," a Venezuelan apologized before continuing his message in Spanish. "En fin," he concluded, "mas humanas," a plea for more humanity.

Rather than distance themselves from the shooting, Littleton officials have been meeting every night to begin planning their response, an effort that has them discussing everything from allocating funds for a memorial to developing youth assistance programs.

"Littleton's got a strong sense of itself," Gibbons said, trying to explain why the city hasn't distanced itself from the incident for fear of its damage to the civic image. "We are going to become a catalyst. The nation's going to be looking at us for a long time, and we're going to make something happen."

Bracing for the inevitable

As he does whenever there is spectacular local crime involving guns, Tom Christy grabbed his record books Tuesday to be sure his store, Firing-Line, didn't sell the weapons to the killers. As far as he knows, it didn't.

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