It takes twenty-eight minutes for reports of a shooting at Columbine to hit TV. The information coming in is muddled and confusing, but it’s clear that “something awful” has happened—and is still happening. A war is happening abroad, and all network news has been fixed on Kosovo, but by six minutes til noon Denver time, CNN has abandoned its coverage of Central Europe in favor of “lock[ing] in” on Columbine.
Though the coverage of Columbine takes a little while to hit televisions, once it does, it becomes the most absorbing and high-stakes story around the country, topping even a violent war in Europe. This is a more immediate horror, and an unprecedented one—a school shooting captured live, not after the fact.
Students with cell phones still trapped inside the building make frantic 911 calls with conflicting information, “overwhelm[ing]” 911 operators. When calls to the police can no longer go through, many students call the local TV stations directly, and are interviewed live on television. There is no shortage of “witnesses,” though not all of them have actually seen anything, and those who have are deeply confused. Because Eric and Dylan each removed their trench coats at different points in the attack, students report seeing many shooters, all dressed differently.
As students find law enforcement unable to respond to their cries for help, they turn to the media, which is laser-focused on what is happening inside the school. The media is hungry for eyewitness accounts to feed their coverage, and the students are desperate for help of any kind.
As students begin returning from lunch, they find their school barricaded. Nate Dykeman, who had gone home for lunch, returns to campus, sees the mayhem, and begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together—Eric and Dylan missed class that morning, and have recently been bragging about gathering ordnance--building pipe bombs and buying guns. When Nate learns that the shooters are in trench coats, he knows for sure that his two friends are the attackers. Nate heads home, and begins making calls to his friends. He plans to call Dylan’s house “soon.”
Though Eric and Dylan’s friends did not suspect them of plotting murder or violence, the pieces of the puzzle fall together for their friends relatively quickly. Friends like Nate failed to see how the boys’ actions in the months before the attacks were adding up.
As police officers, firefighters, and paramedics rush toward Columbine, students continue to rush from the building and provide desperate, confused reports of the chaos inside. One injured student tells an officer that he was shot by “Ned Harris.” Not one officer goes into the school. This is “protocol [which] call[s] for containment.” Deputies set up a “perimeter,” and paramedics “establish triage areas.” Cullen writes that “half a dozen cops arrive every minute [but] nobody seems to be in charge.” Some want to breach the perimeter and go into the building but others are afraid to reject protocol. The perimeter is reinforced, and no officers will fire on or approach the school for another half hour.
The attempt to contain the violence within the school and establish a perimeter will come to be perceived by many as a major failure in the way Jeffco handled Columbine. However, with so many confused and conflicting eyewitness reports, officials themselves are confused, apprehensive, and desperate to stop the loss of life in whatever way they can.