School Climate & Safety

‘We Thought It Was a Senior Prank’

By Joetta L. Sack — April 28, 1999 1 min read

Josh Ortwein’s senior year at Columbine High School has ended a few weeks early.

The 18-year-old choir member was at a rehearsal last week when a student burst into the room and warned that gunmen had entered the school in Jefferson County, Colo. “We didn’t take it seriously,” he said in a telephone interview last Thursday, two days after a shooting spree by two students. “We thought it was a senior prank.”

But the sound of gunshots and ensuing screams came quickly. Many of the 110 students in the choir room fled into the hallways, while Mr. Ortwein and about 60 classmates crammed into the 8-by-10-foot choir director’s office and shoved a filing cabinet in front of the half-glass door.

From there, they could see flashes of gunfire and feel eruptions from bombs. They used the office phone to call the police and hoped the gunmen wouldn’t discover their hideout.

“We were just trying to stay as quiet as we could, so no one would know we were in the room,” Mr. Ortwein said. “You could hear the bombs exploding outside in the hall.”

Three hours later, police knocked on the office door and ordered the sweltering mass of students onto the floor so that they wouldn’t rush out into the bomb-laden classroom.

Instead, they crawled single file across the room, cautiously stepping over a backpack with a bomb that was lying in the doorway. They were guided through the wreckage of the auditorium and cafeteria. “There were bullet holes everywhere,” Mr. Ortwein said.

Shock and Anger

Once outside, Mr. Ortwein rode in a police cruiser to a local park, where a firefighter let him use a cellular phone to call his father. His mother, a counselor, was already at nearby Leawood Elementary School to help the families gathered there.

Mr. Ortwein was still in shock late last week. He attended memorial services and visited a close friend who was injured. He watched news reports on the wreckage at his high school, with its flooded ground floor and bombed-out library. And he said he became angry that the parents of the gunmen apparently didn’t notice that the two young men were assembling an arsenal.

The memorial services, he said, “were really emotional, but you got a chance to see all your friends. ... I couldn’t believe how many were killed.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 edition of Education Week as ‘We Thought It Was a Senior Prank’

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