CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Armed with a shotgun, a student entered Arapahoe High School and opened fire, hitting two other students before fatally turning the weapon on himself in the latest incident to confront a nation already debating the effects of repeated episodes of gun violence.
In a series of news conferences, Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson said the shooter entered Arapahoe High School in Centennial armed with a shotgun and looking for a specific teacher whose name the gunman called out. The student made no effort to hide the shotgun as he walked through the halls, deep into the building.
Robinson said the shooter, whom he did not identify, entered the school on the west side, apparently seeking a confrontation with the teacher. Alerted by other students who had seen the shotgun, the teacher left the building.
“He took himself away from the school in an effort to try to encourage the student to move with him,” Robinson said of the teacher, praising his decision as “the most important tactical decision that could be made.”
The gunman then shot two students, one of whom is in serious condition at a hospital. The other student was also hospitalized, but with a minor gunshot wound. It was initially believed the student in serious condition confronted the shooter, but Robinson later said that remains unclear.
Robinson said the gunman is believed to have acted alone. Authorities also found a device at the scene and were investigating whether it was a Molotov cocktail or other destructive implement.
The incident, which began about 12:30 p.m., lasted about 14 minutes after the shooter entered the building. During those terrifying moments, students said, those inside the school huddled in closets and locked classrooms, carrying out the instructions that have been drilled into them since the shootings at nearby Columbine High School in 1999.
Whitney Riley, a 15-year-old freshman, said she was walking into the study center with a group of friends. They were laughing and joking until “all of a sudden we heard a bang,” she said.
She said everyone started running when they heard more shots. She finally ended up with eight other people, including two teachers, crammed into a tiny sprinkler system room. In those those moments, she said, she remembered all of the drills she had gone through.
“People were running through the halls, yelling, ‘Get out, get out,’” she said.
As they had been taught, students in the sprinkler room said they heard someone urging them to come out but were afraid to open the door because they did not know who it was and worried that it was the shooter seeking more targets. Finally, one of the teachers said, “Let’s go while we can.”
As a group, they ran toward the exit. As Riley was running, she said, she saw two adults holding up a student who seemed to be injured in the leg.
The attack came as the nation prepared to commemorate the first anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. where 20 children were killed by a lone gunman, Adam Lanza. Six adult educators also died in that shooting before Lanza committed suicide.
Centennial is roughly 15 miles south of downtown Denver and less than 10 miles east of Columbine High School in Littleton, where two teenagers shot to death 12 classmates and a teacher, then killed themselves.
Colorado officials, made cautious by recent shootings, including one at a suburban movie theater in Aurora, Colo., responded in force, the sheriff said. SWAT teams swarmed the school, and fire and bomb squads responded. Authorities found the attacker’s body deep inside the school about 20 minutes after the first call, Robinson said.
At an afternoon news conference, Gov. John Hickenlooper lamented the “all-too familiar sequence of gunshots” at a Colorado school, but praised law enforcement and first responders for their quick action.
“In this case we saw the incredible training and preparation of our first responders,” Hickenlooper said.
“We were horrified to hear today of a school shooting at Arapahoe High School in Colorado, just one day before the one year mark of the Sandy Hook shootings,” said Tim Makris, executive director of Sandy Hook Promise, a group formed by parents and relatives of the victims of last year’s shooting in Newtown.
“Tragically, this shooting marks the 25th school shooting in the one year since December 14. Our hearts are with all the families of Arapahoe High School today. It's time to start a new conversation to protect our children."
Blaise Potvien, 14, a freshman, said he was in his fifth period class — U.S. history — when he heard three to four gunshots in the hallway.
“It was the loudest thing I ever heard,” Potvien said at the nearby Shepherd of the Hills church. Parents rushed there to greet students who had left the school in an orderly march, arms raised.
Seconds after the booming sounds, Potvien said, counselors and staff members were running down the hallway ordering everyone to close the classroom doors.
He said they turned out the lights in his classroom and hid in a far corner. Students were crying and screaming.
He said he texted his mother: “I love you mom and dad. Thank you for a wonderful life.”
Teresa Potvien, his mother, said she was Christmas shopping when she got that text. “I almost threw up,” she said.
She said she jumped in her car and tried to make her way to the school, but traffic was snarled. Police cars and fire trucks clogged the road, and helicopters filled the sky.
While many students were evacuated from the school, Potvien and other students who were close to where the shootings had taken place stayed hidden until a police tactical team told them it was safe to leave.
John Spiegel, an 18-year-old senior, said he was in his psychology class on the north side of the high school when he heard a popping sound.
The sound brought the class to a halt, he said, and everyone began looking around, trying to identify it. Seconds later, there were three more rapid shots.
“It was clear as day. It sounded right outside the door,” Spiegel said.
At the same time, he said, he heard what sounded like a student screaming, “We need help.” Students in his classroom ran to the front of the room, turned off the light, and huddled together.
“We were just clumped together on the floor. It felt unreal,” Spiegel said.
He said some students were calm, while others were panicking and crying. Some were praying.
Students went into “standard lockdown procedure,” the subject of repeated drills, he said.
Spiegel’s father, John Spiegel Sr., heard a bulletin about the shooting on the news. “My stomach dropped,” he said.
By 3 p.m., school buses were slowly pulling up to the church. Parents waiting in the cold craned their necks, jostling to catch a glimpse of those emerging. Then came screams of relief, tears and hugs.
Many parents gave up their coats and were leading their children to cars, with both parents and children weeping.
Even though he is now safe, Spiegel said, “I’m still scared.”
His father cast a worried eye at his son. “Anything he needs, I’ll be there for him. I just want to hold him,” he said.
Teresa Potvien walked with her son from the church, clutching him as her eyes filled with tears. She said she was pregnant with Blaise, her only son, when the Columbine shooting took place.
“Something is wrong with this world,” she said.
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