Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Columbine High School Massacre


Trench Coat Mafia
"Trench Coat Mafia" (AP)
The morning of Tuesday, April 20, 1999 started much the same as any other day in the middle-class town of Littleton, Colorado. None could know, as they went about their normal business, that beneath the calm, an anger had been raging in the hearts and minds of two young men, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17. At 11:35 a.m. on that fateful Tuesday, the 110th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birth, the two teenagers began a rampage through the corridors of Columbine High School that ultimately ended their lives. In their wake they left 13 dead, 25 injured, many seriously, and a town shaken to its core.

Eric and Dylan had arrived in the school parking lot and entered through the back cafeteria door. They were wearing the long black trench coats that were the trademark of the small clique of students,  "The Trench Coat Mafia," of which they were peripheral members. It was not until the teenagers began firing, from the semi-automatic weapons they had carried, concealed under their coats, that students and staff who filled the cafeteria realized that something was wrong.

Teacher and coach Dave Sanders was shot twice as he attempted to herd as many students as possible out of the cafeteria and away to safety. His quick thinking and bravery saved the lives of many students but, unfortunately, at the cost of his own. By the time he was able to get out of the cafeteria he was bleeding heavily from gunshot wounds to his chest and shoulders and was already coughing up blood. Students attempted to stem the blood flow from Sanders' wounds, as they cowered behind desks and tables in terror, but he died shortly after rescue teams finally reached him.

As Harris and Klebold marched through the building, heading toward the library, students and teachers fled. Some hid in bathrooms, some in storage rooms; others had no more protection than the tables under which they had crawled. From outside the building, police and SWAT teams who had begun to arrive could hear the sounds of gunfire and explosions. Students poured out of doors and windows, crying, screaming, some with injuries. They fled as far from the building as they could go. Ambulance workers and police tried to keep track of them as they made their escape. The injured were tended to as the SWAT teams tentatively entered the building, not knowing what was in store for them.

Students fleeing the high school (AP)
Students fleeing the high school (AP)

Homemade bombs and explosive devices were found planted around the building. The first priority was to evacuate the school before any of them could detonate. As the police scoured the ground floor looking for bombs, victims and the persons responsible for the carnage, Harris and Klebold were continuing their "mission" on the second floor, hunting down any stray students who were hiding in classrooms. In the library, students who had only moments before been studying were shot down in a blaze of gunfire. Several survivors later reported that Harris and Klebold were smiling and laughing as they shot their fellow students. The last shots heard were at 12:30 p.m. when Harris and Klebold took their own lives.

SWAT teams still did not know how many shooters there were, whether they were dead, or quietly waiting to ambush the police. As each bomb was located, it had to be defused. Students, injured and frantic with fear, had to be escorted from the building to ensure their safety. Each one was also searched for bombs and weapons. It was not until 4:00 p.m. that police declared the building secure. All survivors had been evacuated. The bodies of the two killers were found with their guns in their hands and explosive devices hidden under their coats. Police were able to announce the death toll, including the shooters, as being 15.

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