Ripples of Columbine

What survivors and families say 20 years later

If there’s a message for mass shooting survivors from those who survived Columbine 20 years ago, it may be this:

It will be hard at times, but you can endure and thrive. The hard times can’t always be predicted. Some may come right away. Some may come years later. But it will get better.

Makai Hall was shot in the leg and saw friends shot, too, at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. He struggled on and off for years with anger and depression. But it did get better.

“If you find yourself after an experience like this or having experienced violence in a bad place, it’s not hopeless,’’ Hall said. “There’s a way to kind of come back to the light.”

The message may resonate with a growing number of people. More than 220,000 kids in the U.S. have been at school during a shooting – more than 6,000 in Colorado alone, according to data collected by The Washington Post. That includes the nearly 2,000 students at Columbine 20 years ago.

Rocky Mountain PBS interviewed dozens of Columbine survivors, first responders, and school safety experts to discover what was learned from Columbine, and how those lessons have rippled through time.

Lance Kirklin was shot five times at Columbine. He battled through some 35 surgeries. But while he could face the physical impact of the shooting, he gave little thought to the psychological impact.

“I actually went to two different therapists,” Kirklin said. “And it just felt like a waste of time.”

It wasn’t until 16 years after the shooting that he realized the mental impact.

“For the most part of the last 20 years, I felt mentally fine, physically fine, until about 2015,” he said. “I got really stressed out and I think the stress and the pressure kind of broke me. And finally, you know, I was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and was drinking a lot to try to help myself self-medicate.

“Noticing my symptoms and being able to deal with them, that gives me hope, you know, for a brighter future.”

For those without physical scars, the mental impact can seem unexpected and misunderstood.

“Physically uninjured survivors feel like they don’t have the right because they got, well, they didn’t lose a loved one. They weren’t shot. They didn’t lose a child,” said Heather Martin, who with other survivors, started The Rebel Project to help other survivors of mass trauma.

Now people from all over the world come to Colorado for support from the project, named after the Columbine High School mascot. Part of the healing, Martin said, is being able to understand how trauma changes people.

“It’s okay that I’m changed, and it’s okay that I’m not the same person that I was before the shooting,” Martin said. “Because none of us are ever going to be that person again.”

Many also experience survivor’s guilt. During the Columbine shooting, Diwata Quach was in the library, where ten of the 13 deaths occurred. She hid under a table with her friends. All the others were shot and Lauren Townsend died. Quach was miraculously uninjured.

“I mean, there definitely is survivor guilt, which I felt -- I still feel,” she said. “It’s palpable. It’s real.

“Why didn’t I put myself in front of the gun instead? Why didn’t I roll my body over Lauren? Why didn’t I pull Jeanna out with me?...I was really angry at God, really upset. Why didn’t I get hurt? Why am I still here?”

With time, Quach began speaking about her experience in church groups. Answers began to form.

“There’s a reason why I survived,” Quach said. “Because I survived, I’m a stronger person. Because I survived, my daughter is here. My son is here. I’m married. I have people around me who love me. I’m God-fearing. Because I survived I have something to do in this world.”

This kind of message of hope is one that Hall shares with his three young daughters.

“I don’t want to transmit my fear onto them,” Hall said. “…There’s no need to have a crippling fear about going out and living your life.”