Columbine victims' families decry release of video
GOLDEN, Colo. - Large pools of blood soak into beige carpet, marked by yellow paper cards bearing victims' names. Calculators and pencils lie next to open books on tables. A computer monitor is blown to bits.
To the horror of Columbine victims' families, authorities released videotapes Wednesday that offer the public the first glimpse of the high school's library at least a day after two students killed 12 schoolmates and a teacher before committing suicide on April 20, 1999. Ten of those students and the gunmen died in the library.
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Authorities charged $25 for each tape.
The nearly three-hour tape, part of it set eerily to pop music that was added when it was turned into a training video, was mostly shot by firefighters. It also includes aerial footage taken by TV news teams that showed wounded students and two slain ones outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
"For the first time today, I saw my daughter being dragged over to the fire engine. I don't need to see that, and nobody else needs to see that," said an angry Beth Nimmo, mother of slain student Rachel Scott.
"It's something you'd see on a gory music video," said Ms. Nimmo, her voice choked with anguish.
"It hurts. They have pictures from the helicopter of dragging Richard by his feet," said Connie Michalik, whose son, Richard Castaldo, was shot outside the school and left paralyzed.
Jefferson County Attorney Frank Hutfless released the videotapes to the victims' families Tuesday to comply with a court order. He said he then released them to anyone who asked for them "to avoid additional lawsuits by the public or news media."
With Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" playing in the background, the camera enters the open doors of the library, lined by windows that have been shattered by gunfire.
It shows books pulled to the floor. Chairs are askew, as if pushed out of the way hurriedly. Bullets have punctured walls, and a window blind is jumbled from the escape of one student.
But the pools of blood on desks and on the earth-tone carpeted floor most capture the eye. Folded yellow cards are carefully placed near the stains to mark the names of Lauren Townsend, Daniel Mauser, Corey DePooter and other victims. Numbered cards mark pieces of evidence.
"Each one of those pools of blood is where someone's child died or was seriously wounded," said attorney James Rouse, who represents some of the victims' families.
The video does not show bodies inside the school. It has scenes of the cafeteria, which was heavily damaged by gunfire and bombs, but it does not include the surveillance footage from a cafeteria camera that was broadcast on some news programs last fall.
The gruesome images are intertwined with typical school details - trophy cases, rows of desks in classrooms, a neon light blinking messages about report cards and wishing spring sports teams "good luck."
School and mental health officials said the tapes' unexpected release bruised psyches in a community that has become extremely sensitive to any reminders of the tragedy - and that has gone to extraordinary lengths to try to control the reappearance of images from that day.
Last week, two days before the first anniversary of the massacre, the Jefferson County school system dispatched a two-paragraph appeal to journalists across the country, saying that Columbine students and staff members were concerned that some news organizations "are continuing to show very disturbing images of [the shootings that] . . . are creating great stress in our community."
Parts of the tape released Wednesday were broadcast on the evening newscasts of all three major television networks, with NBC showing bloody scenes in the cafeteria and CBS airing a picture of a blood-covered book.
Six victims' relatives had sued to gain access to the tapes to prove authorities mishandled the rescue and failed to heed warnings of the rampage. Authorities have denied those allegations.
But many Columbine families had hoped the tapes would not be released to the public as well.
"I'm totally disgusted they're selling the tapes for $25," Ms. Michalik said. "Where is the $25 going? We had to fight like crazy to even get these tapes released."
County officials have not said what the money will be used for.
A handful of people showed up at the county attorney's office to get copies of the tape. Robin Brandfas, with her two sons and a son's friend in tow, was first in line. She said she wanted a copy of the videotape to try to teach her sons "what can happen."
"I feel really bad for the parents and everyone involved," Ms. Brandfas said. "I just want to see for myself. You hope it never happens to your kids."
Victims' relatives said they were outraged that the videotape, adapted by a Littleton firefighter for the training of police and fire personnel across the country, contained added background music, including "If It Were Up To Me," by Cheryl Wheeler.
Lyrics include: "Maybe it's the movies, maybe it's the books, maybe it's the bullets, maybe it's the real crooks, maybe it's the drugs, maybe it's the parents." It concludes: "Maybe it's the end, but I know one thing. If it were up to me, I'd take away the guns."
Mr. Rouse, the relatives' lawyer, said some family members turned down the sound as they watched.
"I don't know why you'd call it a training video. It's more of a documentary with a musical background," he said.
Littleton fire officials did not return calls for comment about why the firefighter added music to the tape. In a written statement, they said the firefighter produced the tape on his own time, using his own equipment.
They also objected to the release of the video, saying it is "not suitable for public viewing."
For its part, Ms. McLachlan's record label, Arista, demanded in a written statement Wednesday that her song be removed "from this exploitative video tape."
Kelli Narde, a spokeswoman for the city of Littleton, defended the tape, saying it was used in 82 training seminars in the United States and Canada.
The tapes' release is the latest episode in a grudge match between Columbine families and Sheriff John P. Stone, the target of a recall effort by some residents who have accused him of grandstanding and insensitivity since the attack.
In October, a tape of the killers made by a security camera in the school cafeteria at the start of the attack wound up on the Internet after the sheriff's department lent a copy for a law-enforcement training course in New Mexico. A CBS-affiliated television crew from Albuquerque attended the class and posted the video.
Two months later, Sheriff Stone shared with Time magazine a videotape that the assailants had made in the weeks and hours before their rampage. The sheriff said later that he had believed the journalist had agreed not to divulge its contents.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.