Issues -- First Response
By noon or shortly after, all of the pieces of the response puzzle were in place. In the very first minutes of the incident and over the next several hours, many obstacles and concerns came to light that needed to be addressed by those at the command post, including:
– At one time or another, the number of shooters believed to be involved in
the incident ranged from two to eight. Differing
descriptions of the gunmen, different reports of their locations inside the
school, the sheer volume of calls received about sightings and knowledge related
to the incident, different observations made by law enforcement officers around
the school, the number of explosions occurring, and the number of victims all
played a part in the challenge to identify how many shooters were involved and
where they were in the school. Additionally,
there were erroneous reports that a suspect had left the school.
into Building --
deputies began arriving at Columbine High School within minutes of the attack.
The deputy assigned to the school engaged one of the suspects in a gun
battle as soon as he stepped out of his patrol car.
Acting on years of training, other deputies hastily established a
perimeter to prevent the escape of the gunmen.
Deputies and officers from other agencies assisted escaping students to
safety and rendered aid to the injured. The
Sheriff’s SWAT commander arrived at the scene within 15 minutes of the first
shots that were fired. He
identified other tactical officers at the scene and began to assemble an ad hoc
team representing three agencies. Officers
who did not know one another, much less having trained together, entered the
school not knowing how many suspects they might face, their locations, whether
hostages had been taken, and with their sensory and communication abilities
severely impaired. Meanwhile other
officers and SWAT teams arrived to assist amid reports of possible snipers and
multiple shooters wearing body armor and armed with automatic weapons and
explosives. The long-established
SWAT practice of “time, talk, and tactics” was discarded out of necessity.
– One of the most significant challenges in any law enforcement situation is
the containment of a scene. In a
situation such as the one faced at Columbine, it is critical to the safety of
the public at large that the gunmen not escape. On April 20, law enforcement
established a perimeter around the school within minutes of their arrival.
Deputies moved into positions to rescue and provide protection for the many
children who ran to them for safety, to protect other people who might try to
rush into the school, and to prevent the gunmen from getting out.
If portions of the perimeter were not in place around the school, the
suspects could have slipped out one of the building’s 25 exits – potentially
harming innocent students and staff seeking safety away from the school and also
taking their wrath into the larger community.
– There was a report that a suspect had escaped the school.
Law enforcement officers on scene were concerned of who might be behind
them and who might be a threat to those groups of students they were protecting.
An additional concern was that if a suspect escaped Columbine High School,
where was he or she going and what was the next target?
Assistance for Victims
– The continued flow of injured victims to medical assistance was being
accomplished by transporting victims to one of four triage sites set up in the
area. After receiving emergency
medical aid, the injured were transported to one of six regional hospitals.
Shortly after noon, medical personnel came in too close to the school to
rescue several wounded students and were fired on by at least one suspect.
Law enforcement personnel provided cover fire to protect the students’
evacuation. As the situation
progressed, medical personnel moved closer to the school in order to get medical
assistance to the wounded as quickly as possible.
Sniper (s) – There were reports of snipers on the roof of the school, which could have had an effect on the response and the ability to approach the scene. As it turned out, there was an innocent person on the roof of Columbine High School but, at the time, the proper assumption was that he or she was a suspect/sniper.
Bombs – There were continued reports of bombs exploding -- a diversionary device near Wadsworth Boulevard and Ken Caryl Avenue, outside the school, inside the school, and the discovery of two car bombs in the student parking lot set on timers. Bomb technicians investigating the initial diversionary bombs realized that similar bombs with timers and motion-activated devices could have been placed at the school and relayed that information to the command post. Ultimately, bomb technicians responded from several different agencies to safely handle explosive devices as the incident progressed.
– There were numerous reports of hostages throughout the school.
This information came from people within the school and from law
enforcement officers who interpreted their observations.
Even as late at 2:26 p.m., a report of possible hostages inside the
school was relayed. Throughout the incident, every room and every contact was
managed as though it was a potential hostage situation. When there was no active gunfire, the likelihood that there
was a hostage taker with hostages increased with each passing moment.
Somehow, fleeing students of Columbine High School needed to be gathered and
interviewed about their observations of what was occurring in and around the
school. Potentially, some of the
fleeing students could be accomplices of the crime that was occurring.
– Littleton Fire Department was responsible for the management of the
emergency medical treatments and the preparations for a possible fire or
explosion inside of the school. At
least one fire was handled by the fire sprinkler system in the school but there
remained the potential for more serious fires and explosions.
Adding to the concerns were reports of natural gas odors in the building
and the possibility of a natural gas leak.
As word spread of the shootings at Columbine High School, parents were
responding to the area to obtain information on the welfare of their children. The challenge of how to assist the parents of close to 2,000
students and continue to manage the incident unfolding at the high school was
staggering. Leawood Elementary
School and Columbine Public Library were used as central points to reunite
parents with their children and as points where the Jefferson County School
District could disseminate information about the whereabouts of students.
– As the incident seemed to grow in size and complexity, the need for
evacuations of innocent parties became evident.
For their own safety and for the protection of the public, homes and
curious people too close to the area were evacuated.
– Public Information Officer Steve Davis arrived and coordinated the release
of information through Sheriff Stone and Undersheriff Dunaway.
Hourly briefings were held to accommodate the need for the information.
Also, television helicopters were initially hovering around the school to
get their story. While the news
helicopters assisted law enforcement by surveying the rooftops and the grounds,
there was also the concern that images aired live might be seen by suspects
inside the school. Those suspects
might be watching the television broadcasts while in the school and would be
able to anticipate or react to the actions of law enforcement outside.
– Lt. John Kiekbusch of the Sheriff’s Office Investigation Unit coordinated
the start-up of the investigation and utilized investigators from numerous
agencies to collect and report information coming out of the school, interview
witnesses, secure crime scenes related to the crimes (homes of the suspects,
etc.), and prepare warrants based on initial interviews.
The Jefferson County Critical Incident Team for officer-involved
shootings was also activated.
– With most of Pierce Street, Bowles Avenue, Fair Avenue and the surrounding
neighborhoods at a standstill, it was imperative to keep citizens out of the
area while still allowing authorized personnel into the area.
Additionally, a clear path had to be established for ambulances
transporting victims to area hospitals.
– The piercing sound of alarms going off in the school was a
hindrance to law enforcement personnel trying to search inside.
The control panels to shut off the alarms were in an unsecured area of
the school so the alarms could not be silenced until much later in the
– The command post personnel worried that, if an organized group had put
together the plan of the tragedy now unfolding at Columbine High School, other
places might be targeted as well. If
the enemy was an organized terrorist group, a similar incident or a “phase
two” might take place at a nearby high school.
Additionally, there was the possibility that the situation at Columbine
was intended to divert law enforcement from other crimes to be executed
elsewhere. If either of those
scenarios became reality, law enforcement would have to respond and also deploy
resources to those sites. Strategies to deal with another incident that might
occur simultaneously were discussed by several commanders to ensure a response
if the need did arise.
After it was determined that Harris and Klebold were potential suspects,
investigators and bomb technicians were dispatched to respond to their homes and
secure the scenes at the residence and adjacent neighborhood until search
warrants could be obtained.
Even before the incident was over, lab and evidence personnel were already
planning the processing and handling of the crime scene.
They had to consider not only the school itself, but the suspects’
homes, the site of the diversionary devices and the school grounds and
surrounding areas had to be addressed.
Individuals as well as agencies came to the aid of the Jefferson County
Sheriff’s Office on April 20. The
organization of the responders into worthwhile, functional components ensured
that all of the tasks at hand were accomplished.
Updates From Within the School – As the incident progressed, further reports of possible hostages
and locations of the shooters continued, often conflicting with other reports
also being received. The differing
reports, combined with the time necessary to safely evacuate students and staff
from locked and barricaded areas, slowed the search of the school.
Due to Lt. Walcher’s seven years of previous experience on the Jefferson
County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team, he knew what tactics and building search
methods were being used. In the
past, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team has trained where there
have been “active shooters” or “target rooms” that had to be immediately
assaulted. However, shortly after
noon on April 20, the reports of active shooters declined (while still receiving
reports of hostages) leading everyone to assume that the shooters were taking
hostages and/or setting up for law enforcement personnel. As Investigator Al
Simmons later told Walcher, “around every corner or through every door, I
thought the gunfight was on.”
search, in such a large building, was a slow process.
Rescuing students and staff in barricaded rooms where they would not open
the doors, checking ceilings for potential suspects, checking all evacuees for
weapons (who might be one of the suspects), evacuating students in the safest way possible
to ensure they could not be injured by potential remaining suspects, and working
around explosive devices that were located throughout the school were some of
the challenges that SWAT teams had to deal with. Additional challenges included the distracting noise of the
alarms, choking smoke that obstructed their vision, and ankle deep water in some
areas as a result of active fire sprinklers.