The Community Response
New York— – Psychologists have likened the Columbine shootings to a rock being dropped into a lake. Those nearest the point of impact felt the effects most profoundly, but the sadness rippled outward in ever-widening circles, touching people far beyond the county’s borders.
A Field of Memorials
The public grieving began almost immediately and increased as the days wore on. Clement Park, which sits adjacent to Columbine High School, was the center of the mourning. It became the site of literally thousands of informal memorials, as people from around the world came to leave signs of remembrance and support for the students of Columbine.
Foothills Park and Recreation District, which manages the facility, estimates that more than 200,000 people traveled to the park before the memorials were dismantled in May. The visitors left stuffed animals, crosses, angels, candles, bouquets, photographs, ribbons and numerous other items.
A pick-up truck and a small compact car, discovered the next day parked in a Clement Park lot by Columbine students, became memorials to two of the slain students. The vehicles were nearly unrecognizable as friends and strangers covered them with flowers and countless pictures, cards, letters and drawings in memory of the owners.
Mourners mingled with the media, which were set up at Clement Park to cover press conferences and response efforts at the school. The high volume of foot traffic and wet weather wreaked havoc on the park. The Foothills staff placed tents, plastic and more than 2,000 bales of straw around the memorials and grass to minimize the damage.
A Symbol of Grief and Remembrance
On the evening of April 20, local Red Cross leaders developed a plan to help the community show support for the people of Columbine. The Red Cross took silver and navy blue ribbons—the colors of Columbine High School—and twined them together with a pin. The group publicized the concept through the media and distributed more than 15,000 free ribbons through its Mile High chapter offices. One local business placed a giant reproduction of the symbol atop its skyscraper in downtown Denver.
Different groups designed various pins – with designs incorporating such symbols as Columbine flowers, 13 stars to represent the 13 victims, hearts with ribbons, and more ribbons. Profits from the sale of pins were donated to funds for Columbine victims. Long after the memorial services were over, residents continued wearing the pins as a way to express their grief over the Columbine shootings.
Public Memorial Service
As citizens streamed to the park to remember the victims, state and local leaders began planning a public memorial service for Sunday, April 25. The ceremony drew more than 70,000 mourners, and millions more watched the proceedings on television.
Using the Columbine Public Library as a base, Gov. Bill Owens and his staff worked with the county, school district, Sheriff’s Office and City of Littleton to plan the event. At the request of local ministers, the event was held at 1 p.m. to allow residents to attend regular church services before coming to the community-wide memorial.
The most difficult task was finding a suitable site to handle the crowds. After considering several alternatives, the planning committee finally selected the Mann Theatre parking lot and front entrance at Bowles Crossing, a shopping mall just across the street from Clement Park and northwest of Columbine High School. The Governor’s Office worked with businesses in the area to close for most of the day and arranged for portable toilets, water, shuttle buses and volunteer help.
The next step was to choose speakers and performers for the service. Vice President Al Gore asked to participate, and countless celebrities and singers volunteered their services. Those selected represented a variety of faiths, musical genres and national, state and local communities.
The memorial included: the Arapahoe Road Baptist Church Choir; the Massed Pipes and Drums of Colorado; the Most Rev. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Denver; Jefferson County Commissioner Pat Holloway; Superintendent Jane Hammond of Jefferson County Public Schools; musicians Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant; Mayor Pat Cronenberger of the City of Littleton; Pastor Jerry Nelson of Southern Gables Church; musician Phil Driscol; U.S. Vice President Al Gore; Columbine High School students Amber Burgess and Heather Dinkel; Pastor Franklin Graham; Gov. Bill Owens; Rabbi Fred Greensphan of Beth Shalom; and Columbine students Jonathan and Stephen Cohen, who performed a song entitled “Friend of Mine” that was written in memory of the victims.
Once the program was set, the planning committee turned its attention to other issues, such as security and traffic control. Many of the agencies involved in the preparations set up shop at Columbine Public Library, which was already in use as a communications center. Each group had space at the library and access to aerial photos provided by the county’s GIS Department. Some groups, such as the State Patrol and U.S. Secret Service, needed more extensive facilities and worked elsewhere.
The memorial service was over within a few hours, but residents stayed to express their grief. Among the mourners were General Colin Powell, the president of Ghana, several members of congress and countless other dignitaries who came to pay their respects.
A Continuous Outpouring
Meanwhile, the media information line at Columbine Public Library had been broadcast worldwide, and the lines lit up with calls. Young people called to cry, teachers phoned wondering how to talk to their students and strangers from across the nation asked where they could send cards or gifts. The deputies and public information officers referred them to grief counseling hotlines, donation centers and memorial funds. The school district had also set up a hotline staffed by volunteers, who took thousands of calls in the ensuing weeks.
The days passed, but the media stayed and the phone calls continued. Although Columbine Public Library serves 1,400 patrons on an average day, the library was used exclusively for the Columbine emergency response from Tuesday, April 20, until Friday, May 7, 1999.
The staff at the Foothills Park and Recreation District continued to maintain the memorials at Clement Park as well. Five weeks after the shootings, the district worked with the Colorado Historical Society to take down the memorials and begin preserving them for future museum displays.
Items from the informal memorial were removed and put in storage in a vacant building at the Denver Federal Center. The district staff provided all of the logistics and volunteer coordination for the removal of the memorial items, a process that took three days to complete with over 300 volunteers. Under the direction of the Colorado Historical Society the main focus for the memorial removal was to be sensitive to community needs and save as many items as possible, while recognizing the need to return the park to normal operations within a reasonable time frame. The inventory of items removed from the park included over 2,500 stuffed animals, 250 crosses, pictures, artwork, a new bicycle, and over 300 banners from all over the world. In addition, thousands of flowers were recycled into potpourri or mulch for planting beds.
A number of park and recreation agencies from throughout the Denver area stepped forward to help with the park cleanup. Their help was invaluable and, today, the park looks as it did before the shootings. But within the community it remains a symbol of ongoing grief.