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Columbine: 15 Years Later

A Columbine Survivor's Emotional Visit to Northern Illinois

DeKalb, IL – Northern Illinois University

February 14, 2008

5 killed (6 including shooter), 21 injured

In DeKalb, Illinois, Sam met Joe Dubowski, whose daughter Gayle was one of the five students killed during the Valentine’s Day shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008. At first, Joe and his family held out hope that Gayle was safe, that she had skipped her classes that day, but after seven hours their worst fears were confirmed. In the aftermath of the shooting Joe began writing letters to his daughter as a way to deal with his grief. These letters ultimately led to a book, Cartwheels in the Rain: Finding Faith in the Wake of the Unthinkable. As part of his healing process Joe also decided to go back to school and get a degree in marriage and grief counseling at the same university where his daughter was killed. Sam was inspired by Joe’s response to his personal tragedy and hoped he could learn some valuable lessons about coming to terms with his grief. But he could only do that if he was ready to be vulnerable himself.

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Producer’s Blog: Tommy Nguyen

By the time Sam and I reached DeKalb—home to the 2008 tragedy of Northern Illinois University, where five students were killed—I noticed a marked change in Sam’s mood, even though only three days had passed since we first met. That was in Jonesboro, Arkansas. There, Sam and I hit it off instantly—especially through our professional and personal interest in documentary video work, and our appreciation for a good local bar. I was glad he was comfortable with me, since I was supposed to document Sam’s more intimate moments during his 10-day journey.

Back in Jonesboro, Sam told me he had been sleeping a lot less since the start of his road trip. Still, it seemed to me that he had a lot of energy and focus as we bounced around production ideas in our many car rides from one place to the next. It was great—perfect, really—that he already understood the daily grind of the production process. He even helped me set up some of my video gadgets when I just couldn’t figure it out myself. It didn’t take long for me to figure this out: Sam was certainly one of the friendliest, most considerate guys I have ever met in a Dateline story.

When DeKalb rolled around, I noticed the car rides got quieter. He was requesting more downtime in the evening, and a later call time in the morning. I could tell the journey was taking a physical toll—no doubt an emotional one, too. After we checked into our hotel rooms, a day before he was scheduled to meet with Joe Dubowski, I promised to give Sam an afternoon break if we just did a little more shooting around the hotel. I wanted him to show me what it was like to ask for yet another room key, to unpack his luggage again, to go another day without his friends and family around him. And, most importantly: what it was like to prepare himself for another conversation about tragedy, horror and grief on yet another school campus.

He prepared in different ways—sometimes by reflecting silently in the hotel lobby, or talking about it on the drive to the next location, or by getting his mind off things completely; when he travels, Sam likes to take home the local micro brewed beer of each place he visits -- I took him to buy a six-pack of a honeyed brown ale called Scurry. He also got through the day by contributing to his video diary. The night before he visited the NIU campus, Sam invited me to watch him set up his camera in his room. He said he often felt he didn’t have the energy to do it every night, but he knew how important it was for him to have a depository for all these emotions that could eventually build up to an unbearable weight.

The next day, Sam met with Joe. I knew he was nervous about this one, as though he was worried that there wasn’t enough in his tank to take a turn down another road. About two hours into their conversation, Sam finally broke down. It was the first time we saw Sam cry on the trip, though none of us were surprised when it happened. I suppose nothing can really prepare you emotionally for those big moments in life you are about to face. . . or even those moments you have faced already.