It was hell even for the professionals. Water gushing from overhead sprinklers and strobe lights flashing; the clang of fire alarms hopelessly obscuring the screams and gunfire but not the explosions; reports crackling over their radios of not two gunmen but as many as six -- possibly hiding in the catwalks and ceilings of the Tuesday-afternoon war zone that was Columbine High.
Law enforcement in Jefferson County has already caught its share of flak for the Littleton massacre -- first for ignoring signs of trouble from Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and then for running a media-relations operation full of premature statements, retractions and conflicting information that, fairly or not, has made the many-headed investigation look about as organized as the stateroom in "A Night at the Opera." But what about the SWAT team on the scene? Were they bold enough? Fast enough? Ten days into the aftermath, parents, politicians and the police themselves are all asking the same question: Could the fatality list have been shorter?
"It really makes me mad, because we know he could have made it," Angela Sanders, the daughter of slain teacher William "Dave" Sanders, said in a television appearance earlier this week. The students who showed Sanders pictures of his family as he lay dying wanted to carry the teacher out on a makeshift stretcher; police said no, and by the time paramedics reached him hours later, Sanders was beyond help. Criticism has centered on the first half hour of the rampage, and whether the SWAT team did enough to stop the carnage and contain the teenage killers. Doubters have included a fellow Colorado police officer, Randy Patrick, who three days after the shootings called the SWAT response "pathetic."
But the officers at ground zero say hindsight doesn't do them justice. "People who weren't there don't understand," Deputy Paul Smoker, the second officer on the scene, told the Denver Rocky Mountain News. "It was unbelievable craziness." Part of the problem may be that the SWAT team was facing the emerging new paradigm of American crime: the school massacre. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren't bank robbers or hostage-takers; they wanted nothing except to kill, often and quickly, and they had the preparatory advantages of being insiders. Any of the hundreds of backpacks littering the hallways could have been booby-trapped with explosives; the choir room or the janitor's closet could have been wired to blow. With explosions filling the air with smoke and the alarm bells filling officers' ears (arriving SWAT officers tried to get an assistant principal to turn off the alarms, but she was so rattled she couldn't remember the code) caution was paramount -- and yet strategy was nearly impossible.