Log In

Reset Password

My View: Notes from Rocky’s newsroom during Columbine

I worked at the former Rocky Mountain News in Denver when on April 20, 1999, at 11:23 a.m., a dispatcher on our scratchy police scanner said: “Shots in the building. Female down.”

This would be the moment our newsroom began covering the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, where 12 students and one teacher were killed.

A couple of parents with children who attended Columbine – or knew students there – called anyone closer to the school than our downtown office, and yelled into the receiver: “Pick up!”

One parent didn’t say a thing. He just got up and walked out. Others collapsed in relief onto their desks, their backs convulsing, hands covering their faces, when they learned their kids were safe.

Seasoned wartime journalists were among our first wave of reporters and photographers on the scene, yet they could barely hold it together.

Our Page One headline the following morning could only be “Heartbreak.”

Later, I sorted through gruesome images and separated them into stacks of what could – and couldn’t – be published. My hand instinctively covered my mouth as I began to get sick.

Over the following days, commotion would peak with editors shouting updates to stories and moving between villages of cubicles. Our altered newsroom of desks topped with school photos of smiling students, layout pages and coffee cups would be where we spent most of our waking hours for more than a month.

All hands were on deck, all vacation time canceled. The coffee pot stayed on for weeks straight, and its burnt, bitter stink permeated the newsroom. Most of us arrived to work early, then stayed late. No one complained.

We helped each other more, trying to make sense of senselessness. We picked through a riot of possibilities – no matter the false bottoms – to identify a reason for the Columbine killings and determine when the shooters’ souls become irredeemable.

Students’ obituaries, collages of young and untested lives, were filled with their quirks and dreams. Bright lights to their loved ones. Angels, even.

I mined words selectively, pulling details from lives to capture a glimmer of someone’s personality. Someone I didn’t know.

Something was alive there, in those stories. Like still-beating hearts.

I was not yet a parent during the Columbine coverage, so I had all of myself to pour into work. Being unable to turn away from the hurt, I contoured myself around it. A caretaking spirit seemed to guide me as I counted on language to be useful, showing the uniqueness of each person.

As if words could have healing powers. I was wrong to think this might help.

More than a week after the shootings, the phones at the Rocky had not stopped ringing. Continual interruptions made it difficult to produce the news we did have. The phone rang again.

“News desk,” I said, likely with some irritation in my voice.

A woman’s voice on the other end of the line caught on subtle sobs. After a moment she said, “I put the story about my dead child in my Bible.”

I squeezed the receiver closer to shut out the pre-deadline noise. “Hello, who is this, please?” I said.

I could hear her false starts at answering, then her weeping, which gained energy and strength. She hung up.

I lost my place in the story I was editing. I lost my grounding and momentum. I don’t know which mother of which Columbine student she was. But I’ll never forget her voice.

Ann Marie Swan is Opinion Editor at The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez. These views are hers alone and not the editorial board’s.