Columbine massacre survivor looks to the future with hope
LITTLETON, Colo. – Sean Graves knows exactly how he will observe Tuesday’s fifth anniversary of the Columbine High massacre: He will rise early, head to the school before the crowds and find the exact spot where he fell after he was shot four times and paralyzed from the waist down.
He’ll look down at the grass where he lay injured and rubbed blood on his face to make the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, think he was dead. He will place a cigar on the ground where his friend, Daniel Rohrbough, died a few feet away.
“Watching my friend die is still traumatic, but it is in the past,” said the soft-spoken Graves, now 20. “I’m not trying to be mean. I just have to focus on today and looking at the positive and the future.”
The attack at Columbine remains the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Harris and Klebold killed a teacher and 12 of their classmates – two outside of the suburban Denver school and 10 more huddled under tables and chairs in the library – then killed themselves on April 20, 1999.
More than 20 students were wounded, including Graves and two others who were partially paralyzed.
Some survivors have healed, moving on to college or careers. But others have struggled – one lost her mother to suicide, while others have had their families break up or plunge into financial crisis.
Graves spent two years in grueling rehabilitation and hasn’t used a wheelchair since his graduation from Columbine in 2002. He used a crutch to walk across the stage for his diploma, an act his mother said was “thumbing his nose at the two who paralyzed him.”
His mother is trying to heal her own emotional scars.
“We had to first heal our kids and families,” Natalie Graves said. “We had to be strong for everyone. Our time to break down had to wait.”
Natalie Graves said she repressed her anger with Klebold and Harris until her son was well on his way to recovery. “Those two got five years of my life and they won’t get a minute longer,” she said.
Other survivors avoid talking publicly about Columbine. Lance Kirklin, a sophomore who was shot, became a father last year. Anne Marie Hochhalter, who remains paralyzed, attended college and lives in the Denver area; her mother committed suicide six months after the shootings.
Mark Taylor, hit by more than a dozen bullets and with one still lodged near his heart, struggled to finish school and find work. His father left the family in 2001 after 34 years of marriage, telling his wife he couldn’t handle the stress of their son’s problems.
Soon afterward, his mother lost her job and a grandmother died of breast cancer. The family struggled to pay bills and turned to the Salvation Army for help.
Natalie Graves and her husband, Randy, divorced nearly two years ago. “We had issues before Columbine,” she said. “Columbine probably helped us stay together for a little longer.”
Some survivors became identified with the massacre, said Krista Flannigan, a victims’ consultant who worked with Columbine and Oklahoma City bombing survivors.
“As time goes by, it is a part of who they are, but it does not define who they are any longer,” Flannigan said. “Now, some of the students identify themselves as college students and they may, or may not, mention they also survived the Columbine shooting.”
Graves’ girlfriend, Kara Dehart, was hesitant to ask about the shooting.
“I knew, because my cousin went to Columbine,” she said. “We just started talking about it one night and it really hasn’t come up since.”
Graves doesn’t relish talking about Columbine, but feels a responsibility to recall the bloodshed.
“I never think about why it happened,” he said. “It was just straight and simple evil – just evil.”
Graves, Rohrbough and Kirklin were ambushed outside the school cafeteria. Graves watched in horror as Klebold returned, shot Kirklin in the face and then fired the shot that killed Rohrbough.
Klebold stepped on Graves’ limp body.
Even before the massacre, Graves said, he had nightmares about being shot.
“Deep in my heart, I knew this was meant to happen,” he said. “I used to have nightmares of being paralyzed.”
While he waited for paramedics to help him, he couldn’t move his legs.
“I knew right then, that my worst nightmare had come true,” he said.
The nightmares have vanished since the shooting.
Graves is taking computer classes at a community college, and said his only disappointment since the shooting was lagging in his credits. He wants a degree to make his parents proud.
His mother takes a deep breath and sighs when told of his wish.
“I’m proud of him just because he is alive and breathing,” she says. “I’m proud of him all of the time.”