Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office on Scene
Lt. Terry Manwaring, SWAT commander for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, was the first member of the Jefferson County command staff to arrive at Columbine High School. Manwaring had been patrolling in the foothills 13 miles to the west and immediately responded to the school, ordering the SWAT team and the command staff to be paged as he went.
At approximately 11:36 a.m., Manwaring parked his
patrol car in the middle of the intersection of Pierce and Leawood
Streets a short distance to the north of the school, thus establishing
the original position of the incident command center.
Three minutes later, Sgt. Phil Hy of the Jefferson
County Sheriff’s Office arrived on scene. Hy previously had been the
support supervisor for the SWAT team and he understood Manwaring’s
urgent need for information about what was happening at the school in
front of them. Hy began
trying to decipher the radio traffic exploding over the airwaves and
piece together what information he could.
The third Jefferson County supervisor to arrive at
the forming command post on Leawood and Pierce was Lt. David Walcher.
Arriving at approximately 11:45 a.m., Walcher parked behind
Manwaring’s patrol car and was quickly briefed by Manwaring and Hy as
the SWAT leader donned his tactical gear.
Walcher was uniquely qualified to handle the incident command role because he was thoroughly SWAT trained. He had been with the Jefferson County SWAT team for seven years, coming off the team exactly one year before the Columbine incident. Walcher was also the second ranking Jefferson County officer currently at the scene, and he would manage the incident minute to minute as it unfolded managed by using a structured Incident Management System (IMS).
Sheriff John P. Stone and Undersheriff John Dunaway
were at the county’s government center in Golden when they were
informed that shots had been fired at the south Jefferson County high
school. They hurried to the
scene in separate cars, Dunaway arriving before the Sheriff. In his role
as chief operations officer, the Undersheriff named Walcher as incident
commander and authorized SWAT to make entry into the school.
Sheriff Stone, having been a commissioner in the
county for 12 years, knew immediately who to contact and what resources
would be available to the Sheriff’s Office in response to the
situation. He made those
first calls as he drove to the site.
Other Agencies Respond
At 11:32 a.m. Deputy Paul Magor, the first patrol deputy dispatched to the high school, radioed for mutual aid. A metro-wide community response already had begun to organize and other law enforcement units and emergency personnel and equipment were beginning to arrive on scene. Later reports by law enforcement described the scene as “the world just descending upon Pierce Street. Within minutes, there were hundreds of people showing up from all kinds of different agencies, all kinds of different ranks.” In all, 35 different law enforcement agencies, 11 fire and EMS agencies and nearly 1,000 personnel would respond.
Command Post Organized
Within the next few minutes, scores of law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services personnel arrived at the scene, increasing the chaos, intensity and difficulty of managing the incident. Also arriving to offer any assistance necessary from their respective agencies and to work with Walcher were:
Shouting over the constant roar of so many police, emergency, and fire vehicles arriving and television news helicopters hovering overhead, the command officers quickly began to identify and coordinate the tasks before them.
Working alongside Walcher at the command post was Littleton Fire Chief Pessemier, head of the Littleton Fire Department whose jurisdiction included Columbine High School. While the city of Littleton has a population of 40,000, its fire district serves nearly 190,000 and has partnerships with 16 separate law enforcement agencies. Because Columbine was in Littleton’s fire district, the department was responsible for the fire and EMS response to the incident.
Littleton Fire Chief Pessemier and Division Chief
Burdick took over the management of the medical issues from their first
arriving Battalion Chief, Ray Rayne.
Medical concerns included setting up four triage areas,
transporting the wounded, and coordinating a joint effort rescue of
wounded students in an active situation with law enforcement personnel
providing protective cover fire. They
also made plans for any fire-related issues that might occur at or in
the school. Their
coordination was crucial due to the task at hand and the number of
different agencies they managed by using a structured FIRE
Chief Whitman and Captain O’Neill were
tasked with deploying the eventual hundreds of Denver Police officers
who came to Columbine. The
Denver Police Department was heavily involved from the outset of the
incident and continued with that involvement throughout the day.
As their officers arrived, they were involved with Jefferson
County Sheriff’s Office personnel in initial rescues, gunfire,
protection of evacuees, SWAT, perimeter, traffic control, explosive
ordinance, investigation and interviews, as well as the crime scene.
Captain Armstrong, likewise, volunteered the Arapahoe
County Sheriff’s Office to assist in any way necessary.
Captain Armstrong worked with the Jefferson County School
District to utilize buses in the transportation of evacuated students to
Leawood Elementary School. Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office was also
heavily involved in the investigation, explosive ordinance issues,
perimeter, and response to local hospitals.
Commander Brandt, who in turn requested Sgt. Bill
Black to assist him, was asked to coordinate the SWAT teams that had
been deployed and deploy other SWAT team members as they arrived at
Columbine and were needed. They
readily accepted that challenge and worked with other SWAT commanders as
the incident unfolded.
Major Wise, along with numerous Colorado State Patrol troopers, assisted wherever possible. The CSP was used extensively in traffic control and setting up perimeters at the scene.
Concerns to be Addressed
In the next few
hours, those at the command post would be required to address a myriad
of concerns, including bombs, hostages, snipers, multiple shooters,
fire, odors of natural gas, the media, air and ground traffic,
evacuations within the school and the neighborhoods, alarms, suspects,
suspects’ homes and vehicles, other potential sites, witness
interviews, organization of responding agencies, injured victims,
fleeing students and frantic parents.
Information was coming into the command post from various sources
– each jurisdiction was listening to its own officers or
communications centers and sharing that information with the others.
Hy remained in his patrol vehicle on Pierce Street
near the developing command post. With
him sat a Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputy taking notes and writing
down the significant radio traffic.
was trying to supply Walcher and others at the command post with updated
information on what was occurring at the high school and who the
suspects might be. Reports from students and staff who had escaped, and
even from some on cell phones still inside the school, mentioned up to
eight gunmen in paramilitary gear, armed with grenades and automatic
weapons. From those
descriptions, the command staff and many of the first responders thought
the situation sounded like they might be confronting some type of
Setting Up Perimeters
Those at the command post realized the necessity of setting up
perimeters around the 250,000 square-foot school. In an incident such as
the one unfolding at Columbine, the fear was that the suspects would
escape and move into the larger surrounding community, escalating the
situation into an even worse scenario. Perimeters are a type of law enforcement strategy that helps
contain the suspects and prevents them from fleeing a site, getting
through the police lines and creating havoc in adjoining neighborhoods
Containment was a major concern for the command post.
Columbine is a large school of 1,945
students, a majority of
whom were fleeing the building through one of the school’s 25 exits
and entrances. The suspects
easily could escape as well by blending in with the students or staff
coming out. The school needed to be sealed off as protection for the
children and the surrounding neighborhoods, schools and businesses.
With the help of so many jurisdictions that responded to the call for mutual aid, a strong inner perimeter was set up quickly. The first pieces of the perimeter were in place by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputies responding to the scene. By 11:30 a.m., within four minutes of the school resource officer’s reports of shots being fired in the building and the need for help, six Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputies were on scene and in position, covering the school exits on the south, west and east sides. By 11:50 a.m., two more Jefferson County Sheriff’s officers were on the north side. The command post, using both Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputies and Denver police, strengthened that inner perimeter.
The first perimeter was set up as close as possible around the
school, providing containment but also keeping other people from getting
too near the school. A
second perimeter went in around the first, reinforcing the primary
circle of containment.
Capt. Armstrong of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office quickly coordinated setting up the outer perimeter of law enforcement personnel, directing the Denver Police Department and the Colorado State Patrol to form that external perimeter along Bowles on the north, Coal Mine and Polk on the south, Leawood and Pierce to the east and Wadsworth on the west. That outer perimeter provided a buffer for the inner perimeter, preventing any suspects from escaping the general vicinity, keeping better control of traffic coming into the area, providing greater security for the command post, providing a safe area for the media, and coordinating and assisting with parents responding to the site.
While the perimeters were being established, Littleton Fire was
setting up the triage areas to the south and east of the
Injured students and staff first were taken to one of four triage
areas and then treated and transported, if necessary, to an area
hospital. Area hospitals
were now on standby to receive the injured.
A total of 10 students were transported in the first hour,
another 10 in the second hour, and four after that.
Despite the serious condition of some of those wounded, everyone triaged and transported to a local hospital survived.
One of the technical problems of the Columbine
incident was the inability of different agencies to communicate
effectively because they were operating on different radio systems and
different channels. Many
were equipped with older radio networks that made it extremely difficult
to communicate with one another. Incompatible radio frequencies combined
with 47 different agencies on scene made communication a major
As the first SWAT team made its initial entry into
the school, the problem of multiple jurisdictions with different radio
frequencies was just as apparent. SWAT
inside the school could communicate with one another on a protected
channel; that is, if they could hear over fire alarms, strobes,
and sprinkler systems. The
real difficulty was the communication between SWAT and the command post
and the communications center. In
most situations, SWAT members will not give locations during an
operation because they do not want to give any knowledge or advantage to
the suspects. However, the
SWAT teams inside the school had difficulty receiving information from
the outside as they worked their way through the school building.
The Sheriff’s Office utilizes a mobile command post vehicle for major incidents. Equipped with a mobile dispatch center, the Command 500 bus was in place on Pierce Street and operational at 12:39 p.m. It provided a quieter place than the hood of a patrol car for Walcher and the command post team to manage the crisis and provided a working area for dispatchers to assist the tactical operation. For the balance of the operation, Hy assisted the dispatchers in the command post with the enormous task of managing the information at the scene and with headquarters.
It was apparent at the onset that students and staff fleeing the school could supply vital information about what might be occurring at the school, information that would benefit SWAT and the first responders. Lt. John Kiekbusch of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Investigation Division began to coordinate the initial interviewing. A large contingent of investigators from the Sheriff’s Office, Denver and other police departments set up debriefing areas to interview students and staff, both in Clement and Leawood Parks and at Columbine Public Library and Leawood Elementary School. Kiekbusch and his staff were also standing by for the tactical situation to be completed so they could launch what they knew would be a massive investigation.
Tracking Movements and Evacuations by SWAT
the afternoon hours, the command post attempted to keep updated on the
movements and evacuations of the SWAT teams inside the school.
Two SWAT marksmen on neighborhood roofs relayed information, as
did investigators interviewing students evacuated from various
classrooms and storage areas.
The staging and deployment of the various SWAT teams
responding to Columbine were coordinated by Patrol Commander Brandt and
Sgt. Black of the Littleton Police Department. As the secondary teams
arrived, they were staged but not sent into the building until the first
teams had made their initial sweep and had found the gunmen and the
bodies in the library. (Fresh
SWAT teams would be deployed later by the command center to sweep the
building again looking for possible victims or suspects still hiding).
At 3:22 p.m., one unit of the Jefferson County SWAT team reported that they had made entry into the library. They had found one victim alive and were arranging for her evacuation. But there also were 12 bodies, two of whom matched the general description of the suspects, and numerous explosives. SWAT requested the Jefferson County Bomb Squad.
and possibly three fatalities had been discovered on the outside of the
school. Six victims already
had been rushed to area hospitals with life-threatening wounds, some
whose wounds were so severe that medics referred to them as “DOA”
(in all probability "deceased on arrival" at the hospital.)
SWAT had reported a teacher with massive wounds had died in a
science classroom. Adding
the number of dead found in the library to the other known dead and
adding the critically injured being transported to area hospitals, the
command post announced that fatalities of the Columbine tragedy could be
as many as 25. “Up to 25
dead” was the number reluctantly passed on to the media as Sheriff
Stone and Public Information Officer Steve Davis held a 4 p.m. news
The SWAT teams had just finished a grueling physical
and emotional search of Columbine High School. They had cleared a
250,000 square-foot building with 75 classrooms on two different levels
and 25 exterior doors. Searching
the school could be compared to searching 100 homes that are 2,500
(average size house) square feet in size. On a
normal school day, the building would be populated with 1,945 students,
120 teachers and 20 staff members.
SWAT teams do not generally search buildings for two
to four hours. Taking into account the SWAT teams’ fatigue, as well as
the size and expanse of Columbine High School, the command post was
concerned that the first teams could have overlooked innocent victims or
suspects still hiding somewhere in the building. Reports from the
preliminary investigation included numerous opinions of a third, and
possibly more, gunmen. The
command post called for fresh SWAT teams and 60 to 80 officers stepped
There were unexploded bombs throughout the building, outside on the school grounds and in some of the vehicles in the student parking lots. Members of the bomb squad accompanied the SWAT teams on their final sweeps beginning later that night. The teams did not find any additional persons and cleared the school at about 11:50 p.m.