Apr 20, 2009

Has it really been 10 years?

Today is the 10th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School. There has been a lot of interviews, special features, several pieces run in the papers and on the news. But to me the story that continues to be the one that comes to mind is that of Dave Sanders, a teacher and coach who was killed protecting the kids he loved so much.

I wrote about this last year and decided to just reprint it again, because my favorite writer, Rick Reilly knew Dave Sanders, and wrote a wonderful article about him in Sports Illustrated. Here it is again...

The Big Hero of Littleton

As usual, coach Dave Sanders spent Tuesday of last week at Columbine High hanging around the kids.

One kept constant pressure on the gaping gunshot wounds in Sanders's shoulders, using T-shirts off other kids' backs. Another made a pillow from kids' sweatshirts for his head. Others covered his shivering body with more shirts.

Outside the science room bullets and shrapnel were still flying, but inside, where Sanders lay, the kids were quietly keeping him talking, conscious, alive. "Who's this?" they whispered, going through his wallet, showing him his own pictures.

"My ... wife ... Linda," he said with what little breath he had. They asked him about the pictures of his daughters Angela and Coni. They asked him about coaching the Columbine girls' basketball team. They asked him about coaching the girls' softball team. They asked him about all of the boys' and girls' teams he used to coach. A man coaches just about every team at a school over 25 years, there's a lot to cover.

Every high school has a Coach Sanders, the giving one, the joking one, the one who sets up the camps, sacrifices his nights to keep the gym open, makes sure the girls have the weight room to themselves twice a week. RUN, GUN AND HAVE FUN is what the girls' basketball team T-shirts said last season and it worked. The Rebels had their best record in a decade. So when he ran into the cafeteria on Tuesday morning at 11:30, his face bright red, and yelled, "Get out! Get out! They're shooting!" the hundreds of kids in there took him seriously.

Some people believe Sanders saved the lives of more than 200 kids that day. Witnesses say he led many to the kitchen, to the auditorium, to safety. "He saved my life," says Brittany Davies, one of his jayvee basketball players, "and then he kept running, cutting across the lunchroom, telling people to get down. He left himself in the open where he could get shot."

Columbine English teacher Cheryl Lucas told the Rocky Mountain News, "He was the most responsible for saving a bunch of lives .... They would've been sitting ducks if not for Mr. Sanders." But that wasn't enough for Sanders. There must have been a dozen ways out of the cafeteria to safety. Instead, he ran upstairs to warn more kids.

"I was standing in the science room, looking out the window [in the door leading to the hall]," says Greg Barnes, a varsity basketball player. "Then I saw Coach Sanders turn around, take two shots, right in front of me. Blood went flying off him and he fell."

Sanders got up and staggered into the science room. Teeth were knocked out when he fell. Blood was pouring from his shoulders and chest. A roomful of kids leaped back. Eagle Scout Aaron Hancey, a junior who videotapes boys' basketball games, began applying pressure to the wounds.
An hour went by. The gunmen had tried to enter the room next to the science room but couldn't. Hancey talked to police on the science room phone, telling them where he and the others were, that Coach Sanders was badly wounded. The police said a SWAT team was coming.

A second hour went by. Someone crept to a science room window facing the parking lot and held up a sign that read 1 BLEEDING TO DEATH. Still, no SWAT team. No fire ladder to the window. No chopper.

Three hours and nothing. The kids in the science room weren't hearing explosions anymore, but they dared not run for it. They figured the killers could be anywhere. How could they know that the killers had been dead for more than an hour?

Somehow, Sanders stayed alive, despite losing body heat, blood and breath. "He was a brave man," says Hancey. "He hung in there. He was a tough guy."

Finally, after 3 1/2 hours, a SWAT team burst in. One member said he'd wait with Sanders until a stretcher came. "Even if they'd gotten him out then," says Hancey, "I think he would've made it."

Outside, in the hollow-eyed afternoon, there came a rumor that Sanders was in surgery at a Denver hospital. For hours Linda and the girls frantically called area hospitals. Nothing. Finally, at about 9 p.m., Angela went live on a Denver TV station and pleaded, "Does anybody know where my father is?"

Her father was still in that science room. He died by the time paramedics reached him. He died a couple hundred yards from 300 cops and dozens of ambulances. Only the kids in that terrifying room heard his last words:

"Tell my girls I love them."

Everybody said Dave Sanders lived for kids.

Should've known he'd die for them, too.


  1. Heart-rending.

    We got the notice not to be alarmed at the presence of cops at the high school today--simply a precaution on the anniversary.

    I hope people know that, as a result of Columbine, police around the country changed how we respond to active shooters. I'm going to write about it this week.

  2. So well written..

    A great tribute to a man who shared his life and gave up his life to protect the students he dedicated it to.

    Well done.

  3. I told my husband I couldn't believe it hd been 10 years. This article was heart wrenching makes you hug your kids a little tighter

  4. My heart is twisted with pain, yet a bit warmer for knowing this.

  5. Ugh! Tears! Not only was Sanders a hero but so were those kids who stayed with him and helped him.

    Those poor people...Columbine might've been scarier (or just as scary anyway to me anyway) than 9/11 as far as national tragedy goes...it's changed our kids lives forever! You just can't forget stuff like this! I can't believe it's been ten years already!

  6. Now THAT is a true HERO. No doubt about it.

    Has it really been ten years?

  7. i had never read that. thank you chris for posting that. what the fuck was the holdup and why didnt anyone come to his rescue? he didnt have to die! so sad he did.


  8. Anonymous5:39 PM

    Nothing in this world is fair.

  9. Anonymous7:06 PM

    Ten years already. So sad, so sad.

  10. Those kids tried so hard... it is a tragedy that the paramedics did not arrive sooner.

    How terribly sad...

  11. Yeah, hard to believe... and then did you see they had to evacuate Fairview yesterday because of the buried geology project? I was coming home from lunch and couldn't get to my street - I had to go all the way around.

  12. I was at work as a seventh grade teacher on Chicago's tough west side that day. We coincidentally had a meeting after school that day. I think we were all stunned that here we were in a poor black neighborhood that was awash in guns, and this had happened in an affluent lilywhite neighborhood.

    As a parent, I was outraged by the idiotic parents of those two assholes who did this. How do you not know that your kids have guns and bombs in their bedrooms? How do you not know that your kids are sociopaths who are regularly threatening other kids? The parents said that they "respected their kids' privacy." Screw that. My kids have the privacy I, in my judgement as a parent, give them. My job as a parent is to make sure they don't hurt themselves, don't hurt others and sometimes to be the bad guy. This was modern "Never say no" parenting run amok.

  13. I cried.

    But good tears.

    Thank you for posting this.

  14. I'm totally teary after reading this. But thanks a lot for posting it.