It was Tuesday, April 20, 1999, and two boys had just killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School here in this Denver suburb. I had attended an evening prayer service, listening to students whisper their fragments of fear:
"He was shot twice. In the back."
"Right in front of me."
"My sister . . . "
I wanted so much to hold my 11-month-old baby, my Hannah, to keep her home, safe, forever.
In the years since, I felt that same shakiness with each school shooting I covered. In each city, on each campus, the same empty words echoed: It's a senseless tragedy. Our hearts are broken. We never thought it could ever happen here.
So why did it happen, time and again?
There had to be answers. I sought assignments that would bring me close to those who might have them.
I drank iced tea with the mother of Mitchell Johnson, who, at age 13, ambushed his classmates in Jonesboro, Ark., killing five on a spring afternoon.
I followed a guard through the clanging doors of the Kentucky State Reformatory to sit in a bare room with Michael Carneal, who killed three high school classmates in West Paducah, Ky.
Parents, principals, police. Sociologists, psychologists. Neighbors, roommates, survivors. Over the years, I have asked the same questions of so many.
On Friday, the day after a graduate student killed five in a geology class at Northern Illinois University, I went back and read those old stories, seeking answers, hoping for something more than "senseless."
When Mitchell Johnson and his friend Andrew Golden, 11, killed four children and a teacher at Westside Middle School in 1998, the families of Jonesboro also reached for explanations.
They searched for warning signs they may have overlooked, and found a few: Mitch had a quick temper; he was once suspended for fighting.
But his mother said that was not the Mitch she knew. He sang for elderly shut-ins with his church choir; he rocked his little sister to sleep every night; he was kind; he got good grades.
"You can drive yourself crazy with the what-ifs, the should-have-knowns," said his mother, Gretchen Woodard. "There's nothing I could have or would have done different."
Sometimes, of course, the warning signs are clear -- at least in hindsight. Seung-hui Cho, who killed 32 at Virginia Tech last spring, alarmed professors and classmates with glares and dark, violent writings.
At the Appalachian School of Law in 2002, failing student Peter Odighizuwa was known for his temper even before he killed two faculty members and a classmate.