'Everything has changed'

In a deadly game of hide and seek, Adam Foss lost friends and his innocence. He also found something unexpected.

Cover Story

May 02, 1999|By Sarah Pekkanen and Peter Hermann | Sarah Pekkanen and Peter Hermann,Sun Staff

A boy could hide in Columbine High School. Let others choose colleges, majors, futures. Senior Adam Foss drove fast, pulled pranks and drifted towards graduation. School was a lark, life a good time. Then the halls erupted with gunshots. The killers were outside the choir room. Panicked students needed help. Who could they turn to? "In here!" Adam shouted. He herded them into an empty office. They waited. They prayed. And in those hours, an aimless boy discovered himself.

It was the kind of day that made Adam Foss want to skip school. A warm sun shone along the Eastern slope of the Rockies, and the anticipation of summer turned every class into a struggle. By the time third period arrived, the temptation was too great. Adam and a pal, Zach Cartaya, sneaked out for a joy ride to a bagel shop. Why not? It was April 20, and graduation was around the corner. How much trouble could they get in?

They returned to Columbine High School in suburban Denver by 11 o'clock, in time for fifth period choir. Choirmaster Lee Andres Sr. planned one final rehearsal before an afternoon concert at a nearby elementary school. From the second row of the tenor section, Adam joined Zach and 103 other schoolmates in warming up.

Mr. Andres listened to his students' voices travel up and down the scale. This group was among the most talented he had seen in his 26 years at Columbine -- and Adam Foss, with his clear, lilting voice, was a standout. Mr. Andres couldn't deny Adam's gift, even though the boy's antics exasperated him.

When Adam wanted to, he could memorize music swiftly and perform flawlessly, but he often cracked jokes and disrupted practice. His nickname was "007." He played the part by wearing dress shirts and ties and driving fast -- until his license was suspended.

Adam was the ringleader in the pack of boys he traveled with, and their escapades were legendary in Littleton: They tied friends' car bumpers to trees, then convulsed in laughter when the bumpers were yanked off. Hiding behind the drive-through intercom at Taco Bell with a stolen bullhorn, they shouted price totals at confused customers who had yet to order. Once, they'd stood outside the King Sooper grocery, announcing a wet T-shirt contest for girls aged 16 to 18.

Soon, Adam knew, the fun would end. The next few weeks would bring final exams, graduation and goodbyes. Then everyone would scatter. Adam's twin, Nick, was heading south to Fort Lewis College in Durango. Zach had been accepted at the University of Northern Colorado, where he planned to major in business. The halls were abuzz with kids comparing plans -- some were going as far away as California. It seemed as if everyone was chasing a dream.

Everyone except Adam.

He hadn't bothered applying to college. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.

His mom kept pestering him to find direction. What about the military? Junior college?

Inside the safe, comfortable world of high school, 18-year-old Adam was hiding from his future. The brash, James Bond image -- the derring-do -- masked self-doubt. "Life's a party," Adam always said. But inside, he wondered: Who would he be when school ended and life really began?

He would have to learn the answer eventually. But for now, he'd waltz through his last 18 days as a schoolboy in a place where life was as easy, as smooth as ... Do-re-mi-fa-so ...

As Adam's voice climbed the scale, the door to the choir room flew open and a wide-eyed boy ran inside, shouting. "Someone with a gun is shooting people!"

INSTINCTIVELY, students broke for the two doors leading to the hall. Adam was caught in the middle of a scrambling pack. But when he reached the doorway, something made him pause.

In the split-second before he stepped into the hall, Adam scanned the corridor, taking in the pandemonium: Students fled in all directions, screaming. The acrid smell of smoke filled the air. The girls' softball and basketball coach, Dave Sanders, staggered toward a row of metal lockers, bleeding from the chest.

Adam froze as he saw the muzzle of a shotgun appear from around a corner. A shot rang out. Mr. Sanders collapsed.

Adam jumped back into the choir room and slammed the door. His mind raced; his eyes searched the room. Where could they go?

If the students crouched beneath their seats, the gunman might see them if he entered the room. And Adam knew they couldn't risk an escape down the hall. Although half the students, led by Mr. Andres, had gotten away, dozens remained in the choir room. Not everyone could outrun the gunman.

There was one possibility: Mr. Andres' office. They could seal themselves inside. They could hide.

Adam ran back across the room and flung the office door open. "Get your asses in here!" he shouted.

Zach, who had also witnessed the shooting of Mr. Sanders, knew many of the students clustered around the exits hadn't glimpsed the deadly rampage unfolding outside. "Go to Adam! Go to Adam!" Zach screamed.

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