LITTLETON, Colorado—The day Amy Over kissed her daughter Brianna goodbye on the junior kindergarten steps, she was expecting to feel joy. Instead, her heart was beating so fast, she thought she was going to die.
“The walls were closing in. It was so isolating. I turned red and got hives,” Over said. Later, in the emergency room, she found out that she wasn’t dying.
“Have you ever had a panic attack?” the ER doctors asked her.
“I didn’t put two and two together,” Over said, realizing that leaving her daughter in class had triggered the most horrific day of her life: April 20, 1999.
Nineteen years after 12 students and a teacher were murdered at Columbine High, school shootings have become part of America’s landscape, most recently in Parkland, Florida.
Though it wasn’t the first high school shooting, it is the first one most people remember because of the shocking aerial video showing teenagers lined up single file with their hands in the air. Social media was virtually nonexistent in 1999; but the two Columbine killers left plenty of clues behind which outlined their year-long plan, including money they saved from their jobs at a pizza place to buy their bullets and propane tanks.
“Columbine was brought into America’s living rooms,” explains former Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis. “You say ‘Columbine,’ and people remember where they were when they found out about it.”
The Columbine survivors like Over, now in their mid-thirties, with children of their own, know it can happen anywhere because it happened to them.
John Nicoletti, a police psychologist who was on the scene at Columbine, travels the country teaching schools and companies how to identify, assess, and diffuse attack-related behaviors. He says shooting survivors like Amy can never unsee what she saw or unhear what she heard. Triggering events like the one when she sent her daughter to school for the first time activated long-suppressed memories he calls the “Book of the Dead.”
After years of therapy, Amy thought she had chased away her ghosts, but they were still in her head. She re-entered counseling to deal with a fear she didn’t even know she had.
“You can live in denial, become a stress case, live in avoidance, or learn to live a new normal,” Nicoletti said.
Since Columbine, there have been at least 200 shootings on school campuses, leaving hundreds or thousands of victims and their families in their wake.
And perhaps creating an environment of nervous parents, especially those who have been directly affected by a shooting.
“Parents think they’re hiding emotions. But kids pick up on those feelings.”
Or as Over explained, “Raising a child as a survivor is tricky.”
Brianna, 12, has experienced two school lockdowns in her own short life.
Just the other day while Over was braiding Brianna’s hair, Brianna started crying.
“She said, ‘Mom, I’m scared to go to school,’” Over said. “She hears stuff. I had to tell her the truth: that I hope a shooting doesn’t happen to her. I tell her the chances are slim. I teach her to be aware of her surroundings.”
She tells Brianna not to call her with her cellphone if something bad happens. “Just get out as fast as you can. THEN call.”
Over got out of Columbine’s cafeteria as fast as she could, but only because her basketball and track coach, Dave Sanders, stood over the hundreds of kids in the cacophony of the Columbine cafeteria, screaming and herding students who were paralyzed with fear.
“The windows were getting shot out, we were under tables. We were covering our heads,” says Over.
It was around 11:20 a.m. Outside, several students had already been shot and killed, picked off on the sidewalk.
Sanders followed the shooters upstairs where he was shot. He eventually died as students rocked him back and forth to keep him awake. He bled to death waiting for help in a science classroom. “He saved our lives,” Over says.
The Parkland shootings hit many Columbine survivors hard because of the similarities between their own fallen hero, Sanders, with Marjory Stoneman Douglas football assistant coach Aaron Feis. Students have reported that Feis died shielding two students from gunfire.
Columbine survivor Heather Egeland Martin, 36, was in the choir room when the gunfire started. After the shooting, she tried to go to college and dropped out, a casualty of CHS’ “Lost Class of 1999.”
She remembers being “surrounded by people who had no idea what I’d been through. The Columbine shooting was in one of my text books.”
After 10 years of restaurant work, she re-entered college, became a teacher and was assigned to a high school in Aurora, Colorado.
Several of her students became survivors of Colorado’s next biggest shooting at the Century 16 Theater on July 20, 2012.
“I was horrified... and overwhelmingly sad that their journey was just beginning,” Martin wrote in a text to The Daily Beast.
Martin makes sure her experience living through Columbine is no secret to her students. During one of their conversations, one of them asked, “So are you just going to leave us?”
At Columbine, Martin froze; but she reassures her kids that she won’t do that again if an attack happens on her watch.
“I have a plan, a plan B back-up, and a back-up for plan B.”
Martin, who is married with no children of her own, says, “I lived for so long being scared, I can’t afford not to think that way.”
She runs a survivor group no one asks to belong to. It’s called “The Rebels Project” which meets regularly. Once a year, they rely on donations to fly 50-60 survivors of the latest tragedies to Colorado to share experiences. “It’s not just shootings,” she says. “It’s stabbings, bombings... we have survivors from 9/11.”
The stories are getting too common, and now they are intermingling in the strangest ways. The day Amy Over spoke with The Daily Beast, she was driving Brianna to her dance rehearsal wearing orange ribbons to honor Jaime Guttenberg, who was shot and killed at Stoneman Douglas. In a jarring coincidence Jaime had at one time danced at the same school in Colorado as Brianna.
Last year, on the 18th commemoration of the Columbine murders, Amy took Brianna on a journey through her old high school which she says was as horrible as it was healing. She showed her daughter, “I hid right here. This is where I ran. We handed out flowers and we cried.”
As awful as Columbine was, survivors like Over and Martin’s 19-year journey has helped clear the road for the maiden steps Stoneman Douglas victims must walk.