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Most people watching the live television coverage that day saw them too, the nearly 800 police officers who would eventually mass outside the high school. The TV audience saw SWAT-team members who stood for hours outside, while, as far as everyone knew at the time, the gunmen were holding kids hostage inside. For the parents whose children were still trapped, there was no excuse for the wait. "When 500 officers go to a battle zone and not one comes away with a scratch, then something's wrong," charges Dale Todd, whose son Evan was wounded inside the school. "I expected dead officers, crippled officers, disfigured officers--not just children and teachers."
This criticism is "like a punch in the gut," says sheriff's captain Terry Manwaring, who was the SWAT commander that day. "We were prepared to die for those kids."
So why the delay in attacking the gunmen? Chaos played a big part. From the moment of the first report of gunshots at Columbine, SWAT-team members raced in from every direction, some without their equipment, some in jeans and T shirts, just trying to get there quickly. They had only two Plexiglas ballistic shields among them. As Manwaring dressed in his bulletproof gear, he says, he asked several kids to draw on notebook paper whatever they could remember of the layout of the sprawling, 250,000-sq.-ft. school. But the kids were so upset that they were not even sure which way was north.
Through most of the 46 minutes that Harris and Klebold were shooting up the school, police say they couldn't tell where the gunmen were, or how many of them there were. Students and teachers trapped in various parts of the school were flooding 911 dispatchers with calls reporting that the shooters were, simultaneously, inside the cafeteria, the library and the front office. They might have simply followed the sounds of gunfire--except, police say, fire alarms were ringing so loudly that they couldn't hear a gunshot 20 feet away.
So the officers treated the problem as a hostage situation, moving into the school through entrances far from the one where Harris and Klebold entered. The units painstakingly searched each hallway and closet and classroom and crawl space for gunmen, bombs and booby traps. "Every time we came around a corner," says Sergeant Allen Simmons, who led the first four SWAT officers inside, "we didn't know what was waiting for us." They created safe corridors to evacuate the students they found hiding in classrooms. And they moved very slowly and cautiously.
Evan Todd, 16, tells a different story. Wounded in the library, he waited until the killers moved on, and then he fled outside to safety. Evan, who is familiar with guns, says he immediately briefed a dozen police officers. "I described it all to them--the guns they were using, the ammo. I told them they could save lives [of the wounded still in the library if they moved in right away]. They told me to calm down and take my frustrations elsewhere."