Laughing as they killed, two youths clad in dark ski masks and long black coats fired handguns at will and blithely tossed pipe bombs into a crowd of their terrified classmates Tuesday inside a suburban high school southwest of Denver, littering halls with as many as 23 bodies and wounding at least 25 others. The gunmen, embittered youths reportedly fascinated with paramilitary culture, kept police sharpshooters at a distance for more than four hours before they apparently used their guns on themselves.
The day's horror mounted with unrelieved dread, a grim cascade that began with the startling clap of explosions and ended with a schoolhouse transformed into a tomb. No American high school has seen so much violent death at the hands of its own children--and late into the night, the day's reckoning was not yet done.
Teams of police SWAT officers fanned slowly through Columbine High School into the evening, combing the sprawling school grounds for the last of the living and the dead--a search that left officials still uncertain of the exact count of those killed. The first police SWAT officers to reach the eastern edge of the campus reported sighting as many as 25 bodies. Among them, officers radioed back, were the corpses of the two suspects, found lying in the school's library, the scene of the carnage.
Police did not disclose the names of the killers, but classmates and some local media identified them as seniors Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.
Police had pursued reports that a third suspect joined the two heavily-armed assailants as they burst into the school building shortly after 11:30 a.m. and lobbed several explosive devices. But police later said the youth was not being sought as an accomplice, but was being questioned about the motives of the two dead suspects, whose weakness for dark fatigues and black clothes led many students to deride them as the "Trench Coat Mafia."
"It appears to be a suicide mission," said a haggard John Stone, the Jefferson County sheriff. Stone said officers had come upon a scene of "craziness," a tableau of young bodies stacked on stairwells, in the library and on tables in the school's cafeteria--and accompanied ominously in several places with what appeared to be live pipe bombs. Bomb-defusing teams were called in to dispose of the suspected munitions even as a squad of homicide detectives entered the cordoned-off school building to identify the dead.
Some students emerged with chilling tales of chance encounters and random survival. "We were all running and we didn't know where we were going and who was waiting for us," said Jacob Bauer, 16, a sophomore who ran blindly up a stairwell with hundreds of other panicked students after a volley of shots sent them fleeing. "It was total fear."
One girl watched fellow students gunned down around her in the library, one after another. The gunman laughed as he fired, killing a girl next to the girl and then dispatching a boy nearby before aiming his gun at her.
"I begged him not to shoot me and he just put the gun in my face and he started waving it and said it was all because someone was mean to him last year," said the survivor, identified only as "Judy" in a televised interview.
Authorities were reluctant to disclose a possible motive for the school invasion, but one official, sheriff's spokesman Steve Davis, said investigators were intrigued by the possibility that the carnage was timed "in conjunction with the [April 20] birthday of Adolf Hitler."
That line of pursuit would dovetail with statements from dozens of students who described the tiny "Trench Coat Mafia" clique as a group of social misfits who talked lovingly of death, played out war game fantasies and, according to some witnesses, singled out black students and campus athletes Tuesday in lethal payback for old taunts and prejudices.
'They Got Picked on All the Time'
"The Trench Coat Mafia, they're people who don't like to be bothered,' said Columbine senior Denee Taylor, 17, who said she knew the youths and flirted with one of the suspects. "They got picked on all the time by the jocks and other people, saying things like 'Why do you wear black? Can't you change your clothes?' I heard [one suspect] shot a black guy right in the face, and that they went after other jocks."
Although some youths in the group wore black clothes but otherwise wore their hair short like others on campus, a few of the "Trench Coat" group affected the familiar black fingernail paint and pallid white facial makeup affected by "Goths"--teenagers who obsess on death and Satanism, dress to shock and feint with high school athletes and prayer club Christian youths.
"They seemed like they couldn't get along with anybody," said Joe Dreaden, 16, a junior.
The rampage was the latest in a succession of school killings that have ravaged American campuses in recent years. But the proportion of its four hours of chaos and its mortal toll far outstripped even the numbing terror of the earlier events.
The incomprehensible realization that a community's teenagers had planned the systematic slaughter of their peers gnawed at Littleton's adults on Tuesday night just as it baffled the parents of Pearl, Miss., West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore., in recent months.
This time, it was the affluent unincorporated tract of 20-year-old homes that takes the neighboring town of Littleton as its post office, a neatly-sculpted cluster of frame brick homes.
Residents Baffled About Violence
"It's the last place you could imagine something like this happening," said David Bauer, a lawyer whose son, Jacob, fled the school Tuesday.
Bauer's bafflement was shared by hundreds of residents who crammed inside the Light of the World Catholic Church to memorialize the dead students. And it was shared, too, by a nation of horrified television watchers and by President Clinton, who said "the community is an open wound now. We owe it to the people of Littleton to let them get on with their grieving."
The carnage came in ironic counterpoint to a looming debate in the Colorado state Legislature over whether to allow the expansion of laws allowing the carrying of concealed weapons. A vote had been expected on the proposal in several weeks.
There were reports that at least one of the dead assailants had last year threatened some sort of revenge tied to the Millennium. But other students said the numbers of the faction were small, little more than four or five--and that the unnamed suspects had shown little inclination toward apocalyptic violence.
Dreaden said the two suspects were "social outcasts" who spent much of their free time playing "war games like 'BattleTech,' but they would take them to the extreme. It's like they were role playing. They're weird."
Although police investigators were still trying to figure out how the massacre inside the school unfolded, they speculated that the shootings were well-planned and methodically carried out.
"They had it planned out, it was synchronized," said Steve Dreaden, 14, Joe's brother, who was buying a sandwich when he heard the shots. "One guy [was] in the cafeteria, a guy in the offices. They thought about what they were going to do."
The first alarms from the school came around 11:30 a.m., as more than 300 were finishing the first shift of lunch. There were several loud reports outside the school that students inside identified as the sound of pipe bombs--an indication, investigators said, that the two assailants may have blasted their way onto the school grounds.
Jacob Bauer was one of those finishing his lunch when he heard a "popping sound, like a cap gun" outside the cafeteria, which is located on the first floor, beneath the school's library. Students began murmuring and Bauer assumed students outside were fighting.
Bauer said one of the teachers, a business instructor, dashed into the cafeteria, screaming. In seconds, hundreds of students were on the floor, many diving under tables. They lay there nearly half a minute, whispering to each other until another teacher ran in, yelling "Everybody get out!"
The students moved toward a stairwell, pressing up the stairs slowly. Bauer peered outside the cafeteria window and saw a boy wearing a white shirt and black shorts crumple to the ground. He heard more shots. "I figured he just fell down, but when I heard the shots, I knew it was bad," Bauer said.
Those unable to escape in the first minutes tried to find safety wherever it could be found. Some students rushed into bathrooms and wedged themselves against the doors. Several boys crawled into ventilation shafts, shimmying along the ceilings of classrooms hoping they might find deliverance in a safe room below.
A 15-year-old sophomore, Kevin Olsen, had gone to his locker on the upper level to retrieve a book when he saw one of the gunmen loping down the hall toward him.
"I turned the corner, saw him move, saw his back, and he was firing," Olsen said. "It was like he'd come up the stairs and was headed to the library. He was wearing a big black trench coat, black pants. He had shoulder-length hair. Dark hair, I think. I didn't look too long. I turned around and ran right out the door."
As he made it outside, Olsen said, the first fire alarm went off, and students began dashing out of their classrooms, trailing him by 20 or 30 yards.
But for too many left behind, there was nowhere to run, not even a desktop to ward away fate.
The assailants were heavily armed, according to police, carrying several handguns and bombs. Witnesses said they also were armed with shotguns. One student who caught a glimpse of the cloaked assailants said "they both had two shotguns and one of them had a small pistol, maybe an Uzi." One student reported that one of the killers approached a cowering girl, yelled "Peekaboo" and shot her in the head.
As SWAT team officers secured the school, bomb squad experts worked to defuse explosives found near the bodies of the two dead youths. Bombs were also found at the house of one of the suspects and in a black BMW parked near the high school.
For four long hours, the suspects moved at will, popping up in the cafeteria, the auditorium and in the library, where, according to one witness, they shot one youth "because he was black" and then gunned down others because they played on school sports teams.
Television cameras showed a bloodied young man dangling from a second-floor window, trying feebly to clear away shards of glass with a useless right arm, until he was helped away by several officers.
At least 23 people were hospitalized, most of them with gunshot wounds. One girl suffered nine shrapnel wounds, apparently caused by an exploded incendiary device. At least 11 victims were in critical or serious condition--among them a boy shot point blank in the face.
Finally, after four hours, police using an armored vehicle moved in on the cafeteria and library, where the bulk of the bodies lay. As police moved the final yards, they liberated those trapped inside, still taking care to frisk them before letting them out to reunions with panic-stricken parents.
At one point, three black-clad youths described as friends of the assailants were rousted at gunpoint in a field near the school, frisked and taken into custody by SWAT team members in bulletproof vests.
By nightfall, police had recovered 30 explosive devices in the school, laying near bodies and hidden in lockers, and another 17 scattered outside.
Their danger was evident in the blast of a timed exlosive that shuddered inside the school as late as 10:30 p.m.
Cart reported from Littleton, Slater from Chicago and Braun from Washington, D.C. Liane Hart in Houston also contributed to this story.
Video clips, additional photos and updates on the shootings are available today on The Times' Web site: http://www.latimes.com/shootings
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Past School Shootings
Tuesday's Denver-area high school shootings were the latest in a series of incidents at schools across the United States in the last 18 months that have killed at least 14 people and wounded more than 40.
May 21, 1998: Springfield, Ore.--A 15-year-old student allegedly shot and killed two students and wounded 22 when he opened fire at Thurston High School.
May 19, 1998: Fayetteville, Tenn. --A senior at Lincoln County High School, aged 18, is accused of shooting to death 18-year-old senior Robert Creson.
April 25, 1998: Edinboro, Pa.--Police arrest a 14-year-old student at Parker Middle School after the fatal shooting of teacher John Gillette. Two 14-year-old boys were wounded.
March 24, 1998: Jonesboro, Ark. --Two boys, Andrew Golden, age 11, left, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, shot and killed a teacher and four girls at Westside Middle School. Nine girls and one other teacher were wounded.
Dec. 1, 1997: West Paducah, Ky. --A 14-year-old boy shot and killed three girls at Heath High School. Five others were wounded.
Oct. 1, 1997: Pearl, Miss. --A 16-year-old student shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and another girl at Pearl High School after slitting his mother's throat. Seven other students were wounded.
Researched by TRICIA FORD / Los Angeles Times
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Profile: School and Community
Columbine High is in the middle-class suburb of Littleton, population 35,000, southwest of Denver. Single-family homes line winding roads through the neighborhood. The high school opened in 1973. Here's a look at the school and suburb:
COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL
Enrollment: 1,870 (class size about 27)
Percent of graduates who go to college: 82%
School motto: "Stretch for Excellence"
DAILY CLASS SCHEDULE
1. 7:30-8:20 a.m.
2. 8:25-9:20 a.m.
3. 9:25-10:15 a.m.
4. 10:20-11:10 a.m.
Shooting began about 11:15 a.m.
11:15-11:45 Lunch A
12:15-12:40 Lunch B
5. 12:45-1:35 p.m.
6. 1:40-2:30 p.m.
"At Columbine High School we will teach, learn and model life skills and attitudes that prepare us to:
Work With People
Prepare for Change
Live in Harmony With Others and with Our Environment
Sources: Columbine High School Web site; Keller Williams Realty Web site; local newspapers' Web site
Date incorporated: 1890
Approximate number of families: 16,000
Median income: $40,407
Average home price: $148,500
Major employers: Lockheed Martin, U.S. West, AT&T;, National Cable Training Institute
City recreation: 26 parks, 2 golf courses, ice arena, swimming pools, bike trails
"We have our pride--our schools, our Main Street, our parks and river....In the neighborhoods there's a friendliness and a sense of community, that we're bonded by our belonging to Littleton....This is why we work here, and others envy us for our good fortune....Today, one can still find spots where the small town feeling remains.... "
--From local newspapers' Web site
More on Shooting
* PREVENTION--Government seeks applicants for $180 million in anti-violence funds.A16
* OMINOUS SIGNS--"Trench Coat Mafia" members talked openly of bombing school.A17
* GRAPHIC--Littleton, Colo., considers itself a place "where the small-town feeling remains."A17