My name is Heather Martin, and I was a senior in 1999 the year of the shooting in Columbine. I was 17 years old, I actually turned 18 two days later, and I was barricaded in the choir office. There were 60 of us in there for about three hours.
So, first a student came running up the stairs and they said, ‘Someone has a gun downstairs and they’re shooting.’ And so we all stand up and know the teacher is like, ‘Sit down!’ and we kind of sit back down, and then the gunfire erupts outside the door and it was really loud. It was like ‘Boom!’ So, everybody just kind of ran, if they could get out, and for whatever reason I didn’t run. I think I was just in shock or trying not to overreact. Obviously a very… you just don’t believe that it’s going to happen in your school, and especially not in 1999.
So, I did eventually make into the choir office, with a bunch of other students, where we pushed the teachers’ desks in front of the door to block it.
And I remember the first time I really was like “that’s gunfire, those are gunshots,” and crying and then, like, one of my friends seeing me cry and he pulls me into a hug. But… we talked about dying. We talked about the things we wouldn’t be able to do because we were going to die. And that’s very weird like looking back on it, I’m like we’re just having some rational conversation, just like chilling in some office, like, super hot, talking about the things we wouldn’t be able to do because we were going to die.
We are kind of…where the room is located is kind of catty-corner to the library. So, while we were in there we did hear gunfire, lots of gunfire outside. We heard gunfire and screams outside while we were hiding. The swat team did eventually save us. They came to the door, the way I remember is, they knocked on the door and said, ‘SWAT team! Open up!’ And for us, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
We went to the side of Pierce Street where we gave our statements. It’s the first time I think I really understood the scope of what was happening. Because the roads were closed off, and this was where I saw all of my friends, and I kind of started to hyperventilate and somebody got me calmed down.
I don’t have a clear memory really of getting home. I’ve talked to my sister since then, and my sister was a freshman, and she says when I walked up the driveway that she came out to run and hug me and that I was just a shell of a person.
In the days and the weeks following, I was angry almost all the time. I was angry at the media, I was angry at the people who had invaded my life and were keeping it from getting back to normal.
The first couple of months were really hard because I didn’t want to be alone. My younger sister was a freshman and she got out right away and we wouldn’t leave each other side. I mean here I am I’m like, ‘Hi Ashley, um I have to go the bank,’ that means we’re going to the bank, you know. ‘I have to go get gas,’ and we’d have to go get gas together. And we spent…we were inseparable, we slept in the same room together, we slept with the lights on. I couldn’t get too hot because it was really hot in that room for so long. So, if I started to get too hot I would get really anxious and wouldn’t be able to sleep.
One thing I didn’t remember until much later was that the fire alarm was going off the whole time. That sounds totally crazy and weird because it’s super loud, and why would you not remember that the fire alarm was going off? But it was actually about six months later when I was in college and they did a fire drill and the fire alarm went off, and I just started crying in the middle of the class. And that’s the first time that I can really remember being completely blindsided by a trigger.
I struggled a lot in college, mainly because I wasn’t around people that had been there with me. And, you know you don’t ever want to compare experiences, or compare traumas, but you know, not being able to go back to a space where people knew what you had been through and understood was really hard. So, other students had to go back into that school every day and that’s something I can’t… I can’t imagine what that felt like. But I do know that when the fire alarm goes off and you start crying in the middle of class and nobody knows what you’ve been through and you just look like you’ve lost your mind. I eventually dropped out of college, I developed an eating disorder to try to sort of gain that control back. I started using drugs, I’m lucky that they weren’t addictive, it was just sort of recreational drugs that weren’t hard for me to stop using.
And it had been a year so, you know, I thought I should be over it. Actually, I thought I should be over it after one month, and after three months I was surprised that I was still feeling the after-effects of trauma. I did go into therapy for about a month and a half, it really helped me just because they gave me permission to feel traumatized.
Physically uninjured survivors feel like they don’t have the right, because they… they got… well they didn’t lose a love one, or they weren’t shot, or they didn’t lose a child. You know that’s just, it’s different. At least you walked away, at least you’re alive.
10-YEAR ANNIVERSARY I went out of town every year on the anniversary. I just didn’t want to think about it, I didn’t want to remember it, I definitely didn’t want to see the news media descend on Littleton, Colorado again. And you know, I’d road trip with a bunch of girlfriends down to New Mexico or Oklahoma where I had family.
And finally, after… after nine years of doing that there was an invitation from Mr. D [former principal Frank DeAngelis] inviting the class of ‘99 back into the school for the 10-year anniversary. And I decided to go. I was really nervous, I was really anxious, and I went with my family. And I was really surprised that instead of feeling scared in that space and in that school and having flashes of that day, it was definitely overshadowed by my happy memories that I had from high school.
Being in the choir and being in the musical and laughing with my friends. And it was just completely different from what I expected it to be going back into the school. We did go back into the room where we… where we hid during the shooting.
And we climbed back into the ceiling tiles to see if our names were still written up there, because we’d written our names… we written the names up in the ceiling tiles so that people would know that we were there if we died.
So, we climbed back up there to see if they were still there and they weren’t, they had painted over them in the remodel.
But that was a huge turning point for me, was 10 years.
BECOMING A TEACHER
After that 10 year anniversary, I, you know, rallied some of my family and friends for support and I went back to school and I got my teaching license and my English degree and now I’m a teacher.
I teach seniors in Aurora and it’s the greatest job in the world.
I frequently get asked, ‘Wow, how can you be a teacher after all that you’ve been through?’
My kids will ask, ‘So what will happen, what will you do if it happens here,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I have a plan. I have a backup plan, I’ve got a backup plan to my backup plan. Like, I’ve got this worked out,’ and I just don’t want them to worry, and I don’t want them to feel unsafe.
I did some investigating into my past because there’s definitely, like, a before and an after. Like, who you are before and who you are after. And I found that even before the shooting happened that I think I always wanted to be a teacher. I went back and found my old yearbook and read through some of the things that people wrote in it and my senior English teacher said, ‘I hope you major in English and become a teacher because your students would love you,’ and you know I did.
I eventually got where I’m meant to be. It just took a little longer.
In 2012, after the shooting at the Aurora theater, which isn’t far from Littleton, me and another class of ‘99 Columbine survivor decided to start a group called The Rebels Project, and it’s called The Rebels Project named after the Columbine mascot, we’re the Columbine Rebels.
Essentially, we wanted to provide a resource that we didn’t have in 1999 and that was someone to talk to, that knew what it was like. So, we connected with the Aurora community and we started holding monthly support meetings. And this is where I really learned the threads that connect all of us that have been through a trauma that’s so big, on such a large scale.
So, I befriended one of the students at Stoneman Douglas and she graduated last year and now she’s at college. So, we’ll talk about what that’s like to graduate and now move on into the world where you’re not in that same environment and what that feels like. And so many similarities, the things cross over, and you learn that you are not the only person who is hypervigilant, you are not the only person who has nightmares, you’re not the only person who hates the sounds of helicopters, or sirens or fireworks.
The Rebels Project has done many, many, great things for me and one of them is really learning what it means to take care of yourself before you help others. And it’s really important as I connect with other survivors through The Rebels Project that I am taking care of myself and making sure that I am healthy enough in order to help other people.
It’s really helped me along my recovery journey too, because it’s forced me into that position to reflect on what I’ve been through and what has worked for me and been successful and what didn’t really work for me.
And Columbine sort of has, you know, what I would call the gift of time. We’ve got time to figure this stuff out, and if I can share my story and my struggles and what I’ve learned from what I’ve been through, it might of shorten someone’s journey just a little bit, or at least make them feel not so alone, which is what I felt for 10 years before I connected with more of my classmates.
Heather Martin was one of 60 students who barricaded in an office off the high school choir room. She heard the shooting in the adjacent hallway and in the library and believed she was going to die. But a SWAT group, headed by AJ DeAndrea, rescued her and the other students and led them out of the building to safety. She is now a high school teacher and a co-founder of The Rebels Project, a group named after the Columbine mascot that seeks to help those who are victims of trauma resulting from school shootings and other traumatic incidents.