LITTLETON, Colo. – Hundreds of people gathered under blue autumn skies Friday to dedicate an expansive hillside memorial to the Columbine High School massacre victims, after more than eight years of money struggles and occasional disputes.
The placid, stone-walled oval nestled in Clement Park is next to the suburban Denver school where two student gunmen killed 12 classmates and a teacher before killing themselves on April 20, 1999, plunging the community into mourning and disbelief.
"I stood in the park 8 1/2 years ago and I wished I could do something for everybody impacted by Columbine," said Kirsten Kreiling, a member of the memorial planning committee. "All of us were heartsick and all of us were deeply troubled by what happened at Columbine."
The memorial consists of a broad oval sunken into the rolling park terrain, sheltered from the breeze that usually blows down from the high mountains on the horizon. The outer wall is called the Ring of Healing. A smaller interior circle formed by a lower wall is called the Ring of Remembrance. Both are built of red stone.
"It's its own place," said Paul Rufien, a memorial committee member. "It gets quieter once you get in there."
Dawn Anna, whose daughter Lauren Townsend was killed at Columbine, said the memorial would give people a place to remember the lives lost that day.
"Remember how their impish smiles could light up a room. Close your eyes, close your eyes. Feel the breeze against your face, they're here. Kissing you, reminding you that they're always near with everything you do, reminding you of their inner strength," said Anna, who was chosen to speak for the victims' families.
Messages from the 13 victims' immediate families are inscribed in the inner wall. One, by Brian Rohrbough in memory of his son Daniel, ties the 1999 shootings to abortion and moral decline, and accuses public officials of lies and cover-ups.
The memorial committee asked Rohrbough to soften the tone of his words, but he refused, and the organizers eventually accepted them as written.
"It was the way he wanted to remember his son," Rufien said. "So yes, that's the place for it, and that's where it will be."
Rufien said the memorial is meant to nurture memories.
"We're going out of our way to avoid the word closure, because closure sounds like we mean forgetting. This place is about remembrance," he said.
Two impromptu memorials sprang up in Clement Park immediately after the shootings. At one — where the permanent memorial now stands — 13 wooden crosses bore the names of the victims.
At another, well-wishers left mounds flowers, books, teddy bears and other keepsakes. Some of those items are archived in museums, Rufien said.
Planning for a permanent memorial started two months after the shooting.
Organizers originally envisioned a $2.5 million project, but fundraising was slow and much of the community's energy was focused on more immediate needs, including rebuilding the school library where many victims were shot.
The task of raising money was also made more difficult by an economic downturn and by the 2001 terrorist attacks, a southeast Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and other tragedies that dominated potential donors' attention.
Fundraisers scaled back their goal to $1.5 million and finally reached it in April of this year. They got a boost from former President Clinton, who came to Colorado twice to raise money and chipped in $50,000 himself.
The final cost was about $2 million, including $400,000 worth of donated materials and in-kind services.