When the tragedy at Columbine happened on April 20th, 1999, I was at a Broadway event to raise money for AIDS research. I had turned off my cell phone, and someone came in and pulled me out to say there had been a school shooting. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane headed to Denver where I would eventually make my way to Littleton, Colorado -- a town in shock, a town wishing it could turn back the clock and change the course of events on that horrific spring day.
Fast forward eight years: similar circumstances, different place, slightly older students. It was a Monday like any other, as President Bush said at the school's convocation on Tuesday. And while it should have continued that way, with students carrying backpacks, pronouncing new German words, listening to a lecture in a civil engineering class, the day unfolded in a sick, unimaginable form. I can't help but think of the disbelief and horror these students must have felt as this demented and terribly disturbed young man extinguished lives in an instant. The terror felt by parents upon hearing the news but not hearing from their children. The photographs of these innocents. The "Facebook" entries with typical teenage comments like "let's go buy some shoes!" The intrusion of scores of satellite trucks lined up like soldiers on the campus so that information could be dispersed to the rest of the world stunned by the images of terror and death. The importance, as the parents of Austin Cloyd, an international studies and French major, said of "making happy memories with your children." I still think of those mothers and fathers, waking up after their only escape, sleep, living with the aftershocks -- the reality that it wasn't simply a bad dream.
After the broadcast on Monday, as I left the Holtzman Alumni Center, set up as a media outpost and gathering place for families, I witnessed family members walking up some steps, wailing, their audible loss reverberating in the stairwell. It was raw, primal pain I will never forget. And this tragedy, of course, has a ripple effect. As I left an interview with President and Mrs. Bush, I ran into Karl Rove, who told me a heartbreaking story of a police chaplain who came undone after informing the 23rd family that they had lost a child. He later wrote Rove a note apologizing for his well-deserved display of emotion.
On the plane back from Virginia, a woman in her early 70's approached me and with a thick accent told me how our coverage had touched her heart. Then she said, "I am the wife of Liviu Librescu," the Holocaust survivor and engineering lecturer who had barricaded his classroom door so that his students could escape. My heart immediately sank. She told me her husband's students had emailed her describing her husband's last minutes. One student wrote, "We heard people screaming after many quick, intermittent gun shots." Another said that "if your husband was not at the door, I don't know what would have happened to me or the other students," and a third said that she knew her teacher had "died trying to block the door so we could all jump out the window. We tried to get him to the back of the classroom with us, but he insisted on staying by the door." Mrs. Librescu told me she was taking her husband's body to Israel for burial.
On April 16, 2007, 32 people lost their lives -- changing everything for their families and the family of this criminal man who was so full of rage, for whom life, including his own, had become worthless and expendable.
We'll go on with our lives, go about our business, cover other stories, and we will perhaps forget about the broken hearts that have been left in the wake of this tragedy. But for many, it is another unsettling reminder of the unpredictability and fragility of life. For some reason, the first words of T.S. Eliot in his aptly named poem, "The Waste Land" echo in my ears: "April is the cruelest month," he wrote. Once again, for too many families who did nothing to deserve this pain, it is.