History Lesson

Inside Columbine

As the assault raged, students fought to keep a wounded teacher alive.

This is the second of two excerpts from Dave Cullen’s Columbine, published this week. Click here  to read the other excerpt, about Eric Harris’ planning for the Columbine attack, and here  to read Cullen’s essay about how Columbine changed America. You can watch video of attackers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and you can read Cullen’s seminal 2004 Slate essay about Harris and Klebold: “At Last We Know Why the Columbine Killers Did It.”

This takes place on April 20, 1999, seven minutes after the shooting started.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold during the Columbine attack, captured by surveillance camera

Dave Sanders was just a few feet from safety when the first shot hit him. He saw the killers, spun around, and ran for the corner, trying to save a few more students on the way there. One bullet got him in the back. It tore through his rib cage and exited through his chest. The other bullet entered through the side of his neck and came out his mouth, lacerating his tongue and shattering several teeth. The neck wound opened up one of his carotid arteries, the major blood routes to the brain. The shot to his back clipped his subclavian vein, a major vessel back to the heart. There was a lot of blood.

Dave crashed into the lockers, then collapsed on the carpet. Fellow teacher Rich Long and most of the students dove for the floor. Now Dave was really desperate.

“He was on his elbows trying to direct kids,” one senior said.

Eric and Dylan were both firing. They were lobbing pipe bombs down the length of the hall.

“Dave, you’ve got to get up!” Rich yelled. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

Dave pulled himself up, staggered a few feet round the corner. Rich hurried over. As soon as he was out of the line of fire, he ducked his shoulder under Dave’s arm. Another teacher got Dave from the other side, and they dragged him to the science wing, just a dozen feet away.

They moved past the first and second classrooms, then entered Science Room 3. The room was full of students. Dave collapsed again, face-first, in the front of the room. “He left a couple of teeth where he landed,” a freshman girl said.

They got Dave into a chair. “Rich, I’m not doing so well,” he said.

Kent Friesen, another teacher with Dave, went for immediate assistance. He ran into a nearby lab, where more students were huddled. “Who knows first aid?” he asked.

Aaron Hancey, a junior and an Eagle Scout, stepped up.

“Come with me,” Friesen said. Then all hell seemed to break loose out in the hallway.

“I could feel it through the walls,” Aaron said. “With each [blast], I could feel the walls move.” He was scared to go out there. But Friesen checked for shooters, bolted down the corridor, and Aaron followed.

Aaron ran through a rapid inspection of Dave’s condition: breathing steady, airway clear, skin warm, shoulder broken, gaping wounds, heavy blood loss. Aaron stripped off his own white Adidas T-shirt to stanch the flow. Other boys volunteered their shirts. He tore several into bandage strips, and improvised a few tourniquets. He bundled others together into a pillow.

“‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go,” Dave said. He tried to stand, but failed.

Teachers attended to the students. They flipped over tables to barricade the door. They opened a partition in back to an adjoining science lab, and several kids rushed to the center, furthest from either door. The gunfire and explosions continued. A fire erupted in a nearby room and a teacher grabbed a fire extinguisher to put it out. Screams filtered down the hall from the library. It was nothing like screams Marjorie Lindholm had heard before—screams like “when people are being tortured,” she said.

“It was like they were carrying out executions,” another boy in the room said. “You would hear a shot. Then there would be quiet. Then another shot. Bam. Bam. Bam.”

The screaming and gunfire both stopped. Silence, then more explosions. On and off and on again. The fire alarm began blaring. It was earsplitting pitch designed to force people out of the building through sheer pain. The teachers and students could barely hear anything over the alarm’s shriek, but could just make out the steady flap of helicopters outside.

Someone turned on the giant TV suspended from the ceiling. They kept the volume off but the subtitles on. It was their school, from the outside. Much of the class was transfixed at first, but attention waned quickly. Nobody seemed to know anything.

Aaron called his father, who used another line to call 911, so that paramedics could ask questions and relay instructions. Several other students and teachers called the cops. The science room group remained linked to authorities via multiple channels throughout the afternoon.

Click here to see home video of Harris and Klebold conducting mock attack and weapons training

Sophomore Kevin Starkey, also an Eagle Scout, assisted Aaron. “You’re doing all right,” the boys whispered to Dave. “They’re coming. Just hold on. You can do it.” They took turns applying pressure, digging their palms into his wounds.

“I need help,” Dave said. “I’ve got to get out of here.”

“Help is on the way,” Aaron assured him.

Aaron believed it was. Law enforcement was first alerted to Dave’s predicament around 11:45. Dispatchers began responding that help was “on the way” and would arrive “in about 10 minutes.” The assurances were repeated for more than three hours, along with orders that no one leave the room under any circumstances. The 911 operator instructed the group to open the door briefly: They were to tie a red shirt around the doorknob in the hallway. The SWAT team would look for it to identify the room. There was a lot of dissent about that directive in Science Room 3. Wouldn’t a red flag also attract the killers? And who was going to step out into that hallway? They decided to obey. Someone volunteered to tie the shirt to the doorknob. Around noon, teacher Doug Johnson wrote “1 BLEEDING TO DEATH” on the white board and moved it to the window, just to be sure.

Each time Aaron and Kevin switched positions, they felt Dave’s skin grow a little colder. He was losing color, taking on a bluish cast. Where are the paramedics? they wondered. When would the 10 minutes be up? Dave’s breathing began to slow. He drifted in and out. Aaron and Kevin rolled him gently on the tile floor to keep him conscious and to keep his airway clear. He couldn’t remain on his back for very long, or he would choke on his own blood.

They pulled out wool safety blankets from a first-aid closet and wrapped him up to keep him warm. They asked him about coaching, teaching, anything to keep him engaged and stave off shock. They slipped out his wallet out and began showing him pictures.

“‘Is this your wife?”


“What’s your wife’s name?”


He had lots of pictures and they used them all. They talked about his daughters and grandchildren. “These people love you,” the boys said. “This is why you need to live.”

Aaron and Kevin grew desperate. The treatment had exceeded scouting instruction. “You’re trained to deal with broken arms, broken limbs, cuts and scrapes—stuff you get on a camping trip,” Aaron said. “You never train for gunshot wounds.”

Eventually, Aaron and Kevin lost the struggle to keep Dave conscious. “I’m not going to make it,” Dave said. “Tell my girls I love them.”