Columbine: 11 Years Ago Today (Don Ward)

By: Don Ward
By: Don Ward

I was working out of state but I found myself at the school about an hour and a half after the shooting started.

So Much Has Changed Since Columbine

We will always remember April 20th.

There are some dates etched in our collective minds..December 7th, September 11th..and for those of us in Colorado, April 20th.

That's the day, the terrible day, that two teenage boys walked into their own school and shot and killed their own schoolmates.  That's the day that so much changed.  There had been school shootings before, just never on that scale.  There have been school shootings since, and they're handled differently now, since Columbine, because of Columbine.

On April 20th, 1999 I was working for WLWT-TV, the NBC station in Cincinnati.  I was the Weekend Morning Anchor and a reporter during the week.  I enjoyed my time in Cincinnati, but I used to come home to visit Colorado whenever I could.  I was just wrapping one of those visits.  In the news business you learn early to always leave contact information with the newsroom.  That morning I was spending some time with my young nephew and I did not have the radio or TV on.  I had stopped by my mother's house to pick up luggage to head back to the airport, then back to Ohio.

The news managers at WLWT just caught me by phone at my mother's house....this was before we all carried cell-phones 24/7.  The told me, "get to Denver now, there's a school shooting."  I thought they were kidding, so I turned on the TV and one of the Denver stations was just starting the live, continuous coverage that would last for hours and hours.

I happened to have a couple of suits with me because I had meetings earlier in the week with some Denver stations.  I headed towards Littleton with a borrowed cell phone ( my sister's).  I knew a lot of the area around the high school would be blocked off..remember, for a few hours no-one knew how many gunman there were, what there status was, and whether more might have been involved or even left the school.  I reached a college friend who grew up in that area, and he agreed to meet me and help me find a back way in. I still ran into police road blocks, but with a reporter business card I was able to get in. 

The major TV networks all have feed services for the affiliates. They supply satellite links to reporters at big stories nationwide, so affiliates can all use those live reports in their newscasts.  NBC at the time had one of those crews based in Denver, so that network satellite truck was already on the scene and staffed with a crew.  My Cincinnati managers reached them, warned them I was coming and told me to track down that truck.

I got to the truck.  the NBC feed reporter did live reports at 1 minute past each half hour (that allows the affiliates to run a set-up piece and say hello for one minute at the beginning of the newscast before the anchors introduce the "generic" live shot, dozens of stations airing one reporter at the same time.) That meant the satellite signal was free for me to use at about 3 minutes past each half hour.   My Cincinnati station wanted me to provide the Colorado perspective, what the area was like, how the people were reacting to this terrible situation.  I was on the air in Cincinnati, from Columbine, within about 2 hours of when the shooting started.  I remember early in the coverage there were still a few times when kids came streaming out of that school, finally safe, after fearing for their very lives for hours.  Who can forget the images of those frightened high school kids running from their school, still not knowing if someone with a gun was still alive and shooting.  Below is a screen shot from one of my first live reports that day for News 5 in Cincinnati.

All of us in the news business hate it when anything like this happens, but if it's going to we all figure we might as well be there. I had a Great Uncle who wrote a travel column for decades for the Wisconsin State Journal. He always used to say, in the 60's and 70's that every time he took a flight, he kind of hoped for a hijacking...because if there was going to be one, he might as well be there. 

I stayed in Littleton for three days.  By day two the national reporters and anchors started showing up.  Clement Park got very crowded and I went back to Cincinnati.  I was ready to go. It was a draining experience to be there, reporting for the Cincinnati morning show (4am Colorado time) through to the late newscast (9pm Colorado time).  It was also emotionally difficult, knowing that all those families, those of 12 students and 1 teacher, had lost so much at a place that was supposed to be so safe. Here's another screen shot from that day.

In the weeks and months that followed I did a lot of stories heavily influenced by Columbine.  Schools all coming up with emergency or crisis plans in case it happened there.  Police departments coming up with new "active shooter" strategies in case it happened again.  Some of them even developing new formations to use for swat team members to enter a school where gunmen were firing. 

It all tolerance policies went into effect for any kind of threat or talk of violence...even things that were previously considered trivial...but it had to be done because those two teens did the unthinkable at their school in our state.

For me, Columbine was one of the most difficult stories I've ever covered, just as it was for almost everyone there that day.  It doesn't seem like it was 11 years ago.  It's memorable for me..and memorable isn't always good. Personally, I'll never forget it.

I think the same is true for everyone.  Because of what those two boys did that day, and because of what changed after that day......

We will always remember April 20th.

 We'll talk again soon

Don Ward


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