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Day Of Dread

Shots fired at a high school. Paramedics called. Law enforcement on the scene. After last year's tragic school shooting sprees around the country, the scenario that unfolded at Columbine High School oddly seemed almost routine. But of course it turned out to be anything but.

Just after the shootings, I waited for eight hours outside the emergency room at Swedish Medical Center in Denver for word on the victims and, at first, the news did seem routine and fairly positive. Several of the students were wounded but none were in grave condition.

There were only four victims at Swedish and just a few others at nearby hospitals. No one had yet been reported killed, although each of the young men and women I saw brought to the hospital had suffered multiple gun shot wounds.

One young student, whom I can happily report is now in stable condition, had nine wounds to her chest. Someone ordered pizza. A few cameramen joked around. Even the hospital staff seemed a bit relieved.

But then like lightning, around 4 p.m. local time, a local law enforcement official, speaking during one of the dozens of impromptu press conferences at the scene of the shooting, in an off-hand way mentioned that he thought there were up to "25 fatalities" at the scene.

We were watching the press conference on tiny monitors and many of us-- including several police officers standing with us-- gasped when we heard that news. In fact, several of the folks I was standing next to were sure that the official had made a mistake; that he had meant that 25 students were injured or wounded and for several minutes there was quite a debate about what the fellow actually had said.

A few minutes later, though, the news of the enormity of the massacre became more definite. A few reporters wiped away tears before their live reports. Some of the cops just shook their heads. Since the emergency room entrance faces the street, passersby huddled around the monitors and asked what all the fuss was about, not knowing what had happened only a few miles away.

When we told these folks what was happening, they seemed shocked. No one ever thinks something like this can happen near them. But that's what the folks in Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Oklahoma City used to think, too. And the shooting here yesterday was more serious and severe than any of those other school killing episodes combined.

And then suddenly the police officials who had been relatively relaxed to that point began moving with more urgency. Several went to their cars and emerged with shotguns. We were told that an ambulance leaving the school had apparently been followed - or the police believed that it hadbeen followed - by a truck or van of armed men or women.

Details were sketchy but everyone became quite tense until it became clear that if this bizarre scenario actually was unfolding, the ambulance was not headed to Swedish.

We wre then briefed by hospital officials, who were professional and patient throughout the day. We were told that the wounds of the victims at Swedish were consistent with "shotgun and shrapnel" shells.

Around the same time we were hearing from folks on scene at the school that the shooting suspects had been heavily armed and had used homemade pipe bombs and gas bombs during their attack.

We were told that several of the students still were in surgery and around that time a truck pulled up and loaded extra blood supplies. I walked inside the emergency room and saw some family members or friends of the shooting victims - I didn't approach them but I noticed that they were sitting in a room where a television blared the gruesome news. I cannot fathom what went on in their heads at that moment.

Meanwhile, five priests were huddled together in the lobby and still another paced apart from that group - apparently, several religious leaders had been called to the scene.

We were told that another two or thee victims would be brought to the hospital but those folks never came. Rescue helicopters came and left from the roof of the emergency room but we were told that they were empty arriving and empty leaving - "good news" the hospital spokesman told us.

And then a doctor came out and updated us about the condition of the students. Some were doing better than others. One still was in surgery and in pretty bad shape.

Finally, we were given the names of the four student-victims. Valeen Schnurr. Ann-Marie Hochhalter. Sean Graves. Richard Casaldo. I never met them and probably never will. But I am rooting for them now and will root for them the rest of my life. No one deserves the day they had. And no one deserves the grief that awaits them and the other family members and friends of the victims of this senseless and brutal act.

by Andrew Cohen. ©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved

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