It is 11:18, and the school is “intact.” Their devices, the boys know, “should have blown by now.” As students continue to leave the building, heading out for their lunch breaks, the boys decide to go to Plan B—though “there [is] no Plan B,” so “staggering” was Eric’s self-assuredness while planning the attack. Eric, Cullen says, “left no indication that he planned for contingencies, [while] Dylan left no indication that he planned much of anything.”
The second of the killers’ failures comes in the form of the undetonated propane bombs, which had been the centerpiece of their attack and provided the opportunity to leave behind the highest body count in the history of American terrorism.
Though no eyewitnesses observe the boys actually making the decision to proceed with “Act Two,” at 11:19 they are observed climbing the outside stairs toward the building’s west exit. There, they ready their weapons and began firing. Eric “sho[ots] at anyone he [can] see. Dylan cheer[s] him on [but] rarely fire[s].” They begin tossing pipe bombs down the stairs and into the grass nearby, and are observed and recorded by security cameras laughing “heart[ily.]”
It’s unknown what transpired in the parking lot between Eric and Dylan, or how they made a plan to go forward with a new line of attack. Their attack quickly transformed, however, from a bombing into a shooting.
The first two students down are Rachel Scott and Richard Castaldo—Rachel dies instantly, but Richard, alive and frightened, plays dead. Danny Rohrbough and his friends assume the shots are part of either a paintball game or a senior prank, and “rush to get closer to the action.” Danny is gunned down, and his body lies face-down on the sidewalk. His friend Lance Kirklin is also injured, along with another friend, Sean Graves. Lance begs for help; one of the boys approaches him, says, “Sure, I’ll help,” and shoots him in the face. He blacks out.
The students of Columbine are unable to believe that a shooting could be happening at their school—either confused or in denial, though Cullen cannot say, students actually approach the gunfire as they believe it to be part of an elaborate prank. The coarse, taunting language that the shooters will use against their victims throughout the attack is already on display in its early moments.
A student from inside the cafeteria runs out to grab Sean and pull him to safety. A janitor advises Sean to play dead, and he does. Dylan steps over Sean’s body and enters the cafeteria, where a “stampede [is] under way.” Coach Dave Sanders runs into the cafeteria and attempts to shepherd students out of the commons. He leads the way up the staircase to the second floor. Nearby, in a science classroom, students taking a chemistry test hear what they think are “rocks being thrown against the windows.” Their teacher tells them to stay seated and concentrate.
Columbine is such a massive school and so much is happening at once that students and staff are having totally different experiences depending on which part of the school they’re in. The cafeteria has been thrown into full-on chaos, while students in the science wing are oblivious to the violence erupting nearby, and their teachers chastise them for seeming distracted.
Dylan enters the cafeteria just as it empties out. He “watche[s] students [flee] up the stairs,” but does not fire his weapon.
Cullen again makes note of Dylan’s secondary role in both the planning and the execution of the attack.
Eric, still outside at the top of the stairs, shoots at a student named Anne Marie Hochhalter—she keeps running, and is shot again. Another student helps her out of Eric’s line of sight, then abandons her. She narrowly misses being caught by a nearby pipe bomb. Dylan rejoins Eric on the stairs, and the two of them realize that they no longer have any “easy targets”—most of their classmates have fled or hidden. It has been four minutes since the two of them began shooting.
The killers failed to amass a high body count in seconds with the help of the propane bombs, and have had to resort to a shooting spree. That spree has inspired chaos, fear, and confusion, and the next phase of the attack will not be so “easy” for them.
Officers are alerted to reports of gunshots at Columbine. The dispatch reaches police at 11:23, and a local deputy pulls onto the scene.
Every minute in a shooting is crucial, and four minutes have already gone by since the first shot.
Four minutes into the attack, many of the students at Columbine are still “oblivious.” While students hear commotion outside and in the halls, they continue to sit quietly in class. Teacher Patti Nielson, hearing the ruckus, looks down a hallway and sees one of the shooters with a gun. Assuming it is a prop, she approaches him to reprimand him for being “inappropriate”—it is Eric, and he fires directly at her, shattering a glass door between the two of them. Nielson runs, and a second shot fills her shoulder with shrapnel. “Desperate for a phone,” Nielson runs to the library, orders the students in there down on the ground, and calls 911.
Just as the students outside when Eric and Dylan were on the stairs were in denial, teacher Patti Nielson is also in denial—until the shooters fire on her directly. Just as all the simple, banal choices made on the morning of the 20th will have unforeseen consequences, so will Patti’s choice to direct students in the library to get down on the ground rather than to flee for their lives.
Outside, Eric fires at Deputy Gardner—the first officer on the scene. Dylan flees inside. Gardner fires back, and believes he makes a hit—but Eric reloads his gun and returns fire, then runs inside. Both shooters head for the library.
Eric’s reckless shooting at an officer continues to demonstrate his inability to believe in the fact that he could fail—despite having already done so.
Dave Sanders, having heard the gunfire aimed at Patti Nielson, runs toward it. He sees the shooters at the end of the hall and turns the corner, telling as many students as he can to find cover.
Dave Sanders, dedicated to his students, seeks to protect them as the shooters enter the school and begin firing.