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SWAT Team and other Officials

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The presence of the Denver SWAT team and other officials at Columbine High School the day Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attacked has been one of the most controversial topics of this tragedy, even moreso than Who said yes?. The biggest issue that's been discussed and debated: Did the SWAT team react quickly enough?

"Mark Mershon, who now heads the Denver FBI office, said his SWAT team was one of at least six sent to the school, and it also followed orders from Jefferson sheriff's commanders. He said his team was ready to go at 1:45 p.m. but did not begin a search of the school until an hour later."
-- The Daily Camera

A crowd of emergency vehicles and reporter vans cluster outside of Columbine High SchoolThe Denver SWAT took a lot of heat from various sources, from news media to local law enforcement: For not moving in quicker, for not approaching the situation more aggressively. To date they haven't offered much in their defense. They wanted to secure the perimeter, those in charge said; they weren't sure what was going on. So they decided not to mobilize till it was far too late to do anything to stop the massacre. This despite the fact that local police who arrived on the scene first did.

Jefferson County Sheriff's Deputy Neil Gardner - a community resource officer at Columbine High School - was the first to arrive, around 11:24 AM. As soon as he stepped out of his patrol car, Eric Harris fired 10 shots at him. Gardner fired four shots in return, without hesitation. Eric's gun jammed and the gunman ducked into the school to avoid being taken down.

Gardner's backup arrived in the forms of Deputy Paul Magor and Deputy Paul Smoker. Deputy Scott Taborsky and Deputy Rick Searle arrived shortly after. Gardner and the additional officers continued to exchange fire with the shooters. At 11:27 he radioed in again requesting emergency and medical assistance. He and the other officers continued to keep radio communications going, reporting what they saw and heard as they battled the gunmen. They did their best to shield students and faculty from the shooters' gunfire as they fled the school, forming a chain of patrol cars for the evacuated to hide behind as they escaped.

By 11:30 there were six deputies on the scene when the first of the reporters began to show up at the school. In their haste to get the "scoop" some of the media vehicles hopped curbs and parked on the grass. About that time the shooters had made it to the library and, killing Kyle Velasquez on their way to the west windows, they began shooting out at the deputies from there. The paramedics arrived on-scene next. Medical workers leapt into the fray; despite the fact that they were being shot at, they dragged students out of the line of fire so they could be transported away from the scene where they could be treated. Deputies provided cover fire for them and eventually the shooters ceased fire and retreated.

The first Jefferson County SWAT team, a group of 20 people thrown together during the crisis under the command of Lieutenant Terry Manwaring, made it as far as Pierce and Leawood (near the school), where they stopped to set up a staging area. It was nearly 12:00 PM - an hour after they were called to the scene - before they approached the school. Only 12 of them moved in, behind the fire trucks they moved in close to the building. Denver SWAT Captain Vincent DiManna arrived onscene about that time, with four more SWAT members. His son was a student at Columbine High and possibly still trapped inside.

A request was radioed in for an armored vehicle to be sent down to rescue the injured as the officials now in charge pronounced the area unsafe for medical. The confusion of conflicting reports the head officials were receiving contributed to the inaction; they couldn't figure out how many shooters there were or where they were. All they knew for sure was that there were shooters in the school and people - children - were being shot at. Braving the unsafe conditions, Littleton paramedics moved in to rescue victims Sean Graves, Lance Kirklin, and Anne Marie Hochhalter, who had been gunned down outside the school.

At around 12:30 Sergeant Barry Williams's team of 10 SWAT members arrived on-scene. While Manwaring's team had made it to the school's east entrance, they did not enter. Instead, Williams split his team in two, sending six of his people toward the cafeteria while the other six "provided cover fire" for the first six, even though there had not been any gunshots or explosions heard from inside the school for nearly an hour. The teams would not enter the building until nearly 1:00 PM.

Patrick Ireland is rescued from the window of Columbine High SchoolFrom the sidelines, news cameras could easily pick up the sign one student held up desperately pleading for aid for a dying Coach William "Dave" Sanders. He had been shot around 11:30 AM and students had been calling 911 repeatedly from that time for help. They were promised by dispatchers that help was on the way. But it wasn't. Coach Sanders bled to death on the floor of one Columbine's Science classroom. He was the last individual to die in the school and his family later maintained that he would not have died if the SWAT hadn't taken so long getting to him.

The SWAT was forced into decisive action at 2:30 when, to save himself from the same fate Coach Sanders was enduring, Patrick Ireland rolled himself out of the library window. He would have fallen head-first two stories onto a concrete sidewalk if the mobile armored unit hadn't rolled in to catch him. However, if he had waited in the library for help to arrive he likely would have died there waiting.

Sign posted in Columbine's window pleading for help for Dave SandersThe SWAT team finally reached the critically injured Coach Dave Sanders at around 2:40, over three hours after Sanders was shot. When they arrived, students had put together a make-shift gurney with the intent to move the Coach out themselves as they'd given up hope on a rescue. The SWAT refused to let them use the gurney and made the students leave the building at that time. Two SWAT team members stayed with Sanders to wait for the paramedics.

"While the world cheered as they watched television images of children escaping unharmed from the school, the two SWAT deputies with Sanders decided to move him closer to an exit route. After waiting for what they estimated to be 20 to 30 minutes, they decided a paramedic was not coming or could not get in, and that they would need to evacuate the wounded teacher themselves or at least move him closer to an exit.

"Their plan was to take him out a door over to the staircase, down the stairs through the cafeteria and out the side door, basically following the same route as the students just evacuated. They put Sanders on a chair so that they could move him easier and pushed him through the back doors of the science rooms into a storage area. Before they could move him from the storage room, a Denver paramedic arrived in the room. He had entered through the west side of the school and past SWAT where he was directed to Sanders. He advised the deputies that there was no pulse and, therefore, nothing more they could do. Dave Sanders had died."

- CNN covers the Columbine Report

Three suspects at Columbine
Police stop 3 suspects in a field outside of Columbine.
They were later released, declared uninvolved.

Police deputies exchange fire with the gunmen inside Columbine High School Police deputies hide students who've escaped Columbine beind their patrol cars
Before the SWAT arrived, Jefferson County sheriff's deputies were exchanging fire
with the shooters and trying to protect students who managed to escape the school.
Ambulance at Columbine
An ambulance protects officers exchanging shots with the
shooters inside the school.
Firetruck at Columbine
A firetruck acts as a shield for emergency workers to
get close to the school.
Armored unit
An armored unit
is brought in.
Denver SWAT at Columbine High School
The Denver SWAT team, securing the perimeter.
Police at Columbine
This policeman watches the school from the far end while the SWAT scrambles by to... secure the perimeter.
Denver SWAT at Columbine High School
Denver SWAT at Columbine High School
SWAT team members, still securing the perimeter, this time from across the street.
Denver SWAT rescues Patrick Ireland from Columbine library window
The SWAT team is forced to take the armored unit up to the school when Patrick Ireland, shot three times (twice in the head), rolls himself out of the library window in order to escape the school and avoid bleeding to death waiting for help to arrive.
Police at Columbine High
Police keep an eye on Columbine.
SWAT on break
The SWAT, taking a break.
Police at Columbine
Police watch as the paramedics arrive.
Paramedics at Columbine
Paramedics wait for officials to allow them to treat the wounded.
Denver SWAT team in action

Denver SWAT team in action
Denver SWAT team in action
The SWAT team penetrates the school at 1:09 PM. It was an hour after the shooters committed suicide that people were
released from the rooms next to the cafeteria but the SWAT wouldn't make it up to the library directly above till 3:22 PM.

Paramedics move the wounded
Columbine victim Kacey Ruegsegger is treated by paramedics
Paramedics move the wounded
Paramedics move the injured, rushing them off to various hospitals around Denver.

These people are the survivors of the shooting with their rescuers, the Denver SWAT team. The SWAT may not have been able to handle a couple of armed and angry teens but they knew how to deal with frightened, defenseless, wounded ones.

Columbine suspect
A suspect who was questioned and released.

Chris Morris Chris Morris Chris Morris
Chris Morris, a friend of the shooters and a member of the Trench Coat Mafia. He was
considered a suspect at the time but many hours of questioning cleared him eventually.

Sheriff John Stone
Sheriff John Stone of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department.

As a side note, it's interesting how many 'famous names' there are involved in this case, Sheriff John Stone (Sloop John B) being but one.
The New York Times ran a report: Terror in Littleton: the Police Response. The following is excerpted.

Randy Patrick, a veteran officer from Westminster, a suburb of Denver, called the SWAT response "pathetic," and told The Denver Post, "I think they should have been more dynamic."
The question is whether a specially trained unit could have entered the school immediately and perhaps saved more lives. The police have not said whether SWAT team members fired shots at the gunmen. They have speculated that the gunmen could have been dead for up to two hours after television seemed to show the school still under siege.

It has since been released that the SWAT were under orders from their superiors not to fire on the building or its occupants. They didn't enter the school till nearly 2 hours exactly after the shooters committed suicide.

ABCNews asked soon after the shootings: Did the Rescue Take Too Long?
Coach Sanders' family thought so. They sued JeffCo and the Denver SWAT, citing their response time as directly contributing to his death.

Since the shootings of April 20, 1999, Jefferson County, Denver, and many other locations all over the United States have changed their policies for how to deal with school shootings. They've added new training programs and spread awareness that this sort of incident is NOT going to be an isolated one. All across the world societies are having to cope with higher risks and the law enforcement bureaus say they're stepping up to the challenge. Time will tell.

Police tape cuts Columbine off from onlookers
FBI investigate cars in the parking lot
Bomb squad in the parking lot
The bomb squad looks under cars for bombs The bomb squad looks under cars for bombs
After the majority of the survivors have been freed from Columbine's bloody halls the
FBI and bomb squad move in to investigate, starting with the cars in the parking lot.

Neighbors of Columbine High hang a thank you banner for police, fire, and rescue workers
Neighbors living near the school hang a banner thanking those who helped.