Lessons of Columbine

Lives have been saved because of what was learned at Columbine

This is the story of two lives that intersected at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and have intersected again, both discovering they’ve been on parallel paths to help others.

Twenty years ago, Heather Martin was hiding with 59 of her schoolmates in the choir room office at Columbine High School.

Outside the walls of that room, they could hear gunshots. And screams. Inside, they had barricaded the door and huddled together on the far side of the room, as far from the outside walls as possible to avoid any piercing bullets.

They hid for three hours, expecting the gunmen to find them at any moment.

‘’We talked about the things that we wouldn't be able to do because we were going to die,’’ Martin recalled.

Jefferson County Regional SWAT officer A.J. DeAndrea was making his way through Columbine High School at that moment, trying to get to students he was told were hiding near the choir room. He and three other SWAT members were about to rescue the 60 kids when a second call came through on the radio.

‘’We heard from one of our snipers that...there was a sign in the window saying someone is bleeding to death,” he said.

“Was it real? Was it a ruse? Were we getting lured into an ambush? We didn't know any of that…We were told that there were six gunmen inside this building, barricading unknown location, taking hostages.”

DeAndrea had a decision to make: “Do you leave the 60 to try and find the one – and not knowing if it's really one?”

DeAndrea chose to rescue the 60 kids.

It turned out there was one bleeding to death: Beloved softball coach Dave Sanders. He died before rescuers reached him.

“If you asked the family of the 60 if we did the right thing, they're going to say yes,” DeAndrea said. “If you ask the Sanders family if we did the right thing, they're going to say no. And that's the dilemma of law enforcement. We have to make decisions based off, you know, split second things going on. And we do the best that we can.

“I can live with the decisions I made, but you always wonder, right?”

Coni Sanders, Dave Sanders’ daughter, says DeAndrea made the right decision.

“I’m glad he did,” Sanders said. “The one thing that is just heartbreaking is that at the time the officers did what they thought was the right thing to do. And my dad would have wanted them to save a s many kids as they could.”

Sanders said her father was shot while trying to save more kids himself. “That was the reason he ran through the cafeteria and up the stairs,” she said, where he was shot.

When Heather Martin realized the long-term effects of trauma in her own life, she and other survivors decided to create The Rebels Project, named after the Columbine mascot. The Rebels Project offers support for anyone impacted by a mass shooting, and has drawn people from all over the nation and world.

“So that people who have gone through these experiences don't feel so alone like I did for so long,’’ Martin said.

It was through her work with the project that she heard a SWAT officer give a presentation at Columbine High School. It was A.J. DeAndrea, whose name she had not known, nor had she seen him since the day of the shooting.

“I really just wanted him to know that I was thankful that he did choose to save us in the moment with the information that he had,” Martin said. “And that I am so sorry that he even had to make that decision.”

DeAndrea has spent the last two decades training other first responders and educators to protect themselves in case of a mass shooting.

The two met after work one day earlier this year to share their stories.

“I'm sitting across from a SWAT team member who saved me 20 years ago as a 17 year old kid,” Martin said. “You know that part is unique.”

“To see such a young vibrant woman having been through this…and living her life to the fullest, that was good for me,” DeAndrea said. ”She's helping a lot of people. She really is. She's making a difference.”