Patti Nielson is a woman with an outwardly sunny disposition. As she welcomes an NBC News crew into her home, she jokes about how the place has been turned upside down by the guys refinishing the floors. But five years ago, her whole life was turned upside down by a pair of violent teenagers whose actions Nielson and the rest of this Colorado community are still struggling to comprehend.
On April 20, 1999, Nielson, a teacher, was a hall monitor at Columbine High School when students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, armed with sawed-off shotguns, a rifle and an automatic pistol opened fire, sending their fellow students running for their lives.
“I can put myself right back in that place,” Nielson said, “and remember the panic.”
At first, she didn’t believe it was really happening. “I thought it was probably a video production,” she said, “so I went out there to tell him to stop.”
It was then she realized it was real as one of the young gunmen turned around and fired in her direction. “I felt something in my shoulder,” Nielson said, her voice quavering slightly, “I got grazed by a bullet.”
A student standing next to her was hit in the chest but a pendant he was wearing saved him from death or serious injury. Immediately, Nielson and several students retreated into the school library, where she found a telephone and called 911. Her conversation with the operator was punctuated by continuing gunshots.
“The gun is right outside my door,” Nielson frantically told the 911 operator. Then she was heard yelling at the students in the library, “Get down! Get down! Get down!”
Nielsen survived the massacre, but the library became a scene of carnage. The two gunmen, Harris and Klebold killed themselves in the library. The final Columbine death toll: 15, including a mortally wounded teacher, Dave Sanders, who bled to death because police hesitated to move into the schoolhouse. Help reached him too late.
Nielson admitted she had to undergo therapy to deal with post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of Columbine. “I decided,” she said, “that I was not going to let those hateful boys ruin my life.”
Could it have been averted?
Five years later, nobody knows exactly why Harris and Klebold went on that murderous rampage. But some Columbine parents believe authorities ignored prior warning signs—that the massacre might have been prevented.
"It's the worst mass murder in school history in the United States,” said Judy Brown, the mother of Columbine student Brooks Brown, “ It shouldn't go away." While many in this community resent the media dredging up the awful memories of five years ago, Judy Brown and her husband Randy are eager to talk about it.
In a room filled floor to ceiling with files on the tragedy, the Browns explained that they repeatedly contacted police and complained that Eric Harris had threatened their son.
"He wanted to kill Brooks,” said Randy Brown, “so we went to the police with that. We went to the police twice."
But strangely, on the morning of the Columbine massacre, Harris warned Brooks Brown to go home just before the shooting started.
Questions linger: why didn’t police follow up on the Browns’ complaints? Also, why are some of the written records of the prior warnings now missing? Colorado Attorney-General Ken Salazar said, “I don’t think that anything that law enforcement did was negligent,” but added that he’s still investigating whether the police tried to hide some of their mistakes.
“I’m not ready to reach a conclusion today that there was a cover-up,” Salazar said.
Other investigations have concluded that on the day of the Columbine massacre, police should have acted more rapidly. Ted Mink, the new Sheriff of Jefferson County, Colorado, said that Columbine has indeed caused police all over the country to revise their tactics. “The old tactics didn’t work,” said Mink, noting that now, “the first responding officers that get to the scene of an active shooter engage that shooter as soon as possible to neutralize that threat.”
As the finger-pointing continues five years later, Patti Nielson said she has finally realized she can’t alter what happened that day, adding, “I can’t change whatever went wrong with those boys. And I probably will never have an answer to what went wrong.”