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Columbine's 'Boy in the Window'

Editor's Note: April 20 is the 10th anniversary of the tragic Columbine High School shootings in suburban Denver. Among the enduring images of that day is Columbine junior Patrick Ireland, clearly critically injured, climbing out of the second-floor library window and dropping into the arms of two SWAT officers as millions watched around the world. Ireland had been shot twice in the head and once in the foot more than three hours earlier; and as police forces for the most part remained outside the building, he crawled to the window with his right side paralyzed and his brain function severely affected. Doctors weren't certain that he would survive -- or, if he did, that he would be able to walk again or regain complete power of speech and other cognitive functions. Ireland had played in the Columbine basketball and baseball programs and had scored 24 points for his YMCA competitive league team four days before the shootings; he was an accomplished competitive water skier. What follows are adapted excerpts from Patrick Ireland's memoirs. The work in progress is tentatively titled, "Columbine's Boy in the Window," and is written with regular ESPN.com contributor Terry Frei.

Prologue: Reaching the Window

With my friends Makai Hall and Dan Steepleton, I was squeezed under a table in the second-floor Columbine library as two warped students continued their murderous rampage. I already was wounded in the foot. Amid gunfire, screaming, smoke, pleading, ringing fire alarms, and cackling taunts, I heard Makai moan.

Turning, I saw blood seeping from his right knee.

As the chaos continued, as my heart raced, as classmates were dead and dying around me, I reached to apply pressure to Makai's wounds.

From 15 feet away, the taller of the two gunmen -- his name was Dylan Klebold, although I didn't know that at the time -- saw my head pop up from beneath the table.

Klebold could see two, maybe three inches of my head, just the very top. It was enough.

An instant after I got my hand on Makai's knee, Klebold fired his sawed-off shotgun in my direction.

He shot me in the head.

One piece of buckshot penetrated my skull and tore through my brain, traveling eight inches through the left hemisphere, stopping in the back of my head.

The second lodged between my skull and scalp.

I'm asked a lot about how it felt, or how much it hurt, at that instant. I can't answer that. Buckshot ripped into my head, going through flesh, bone, and brain matter, but I can't remember it. I either lost consciousness immediately or didn't allow myself to remember the pain -- or to retrieve the memory in the coming months. I don't recall at all being hit in the foot.

I blacked out.

It was about 11:31 a.m. -- four minutes after the two gunmen stormed into the library with their weapons and backpacks.

I believe I regained and lost consciousness several times over the next three hours, and when I "came to," it was more of a fugue state than coherence. The piercing fire alarms alone couldn't have explained the resounding ringing in my ears. I smelled smoke. Pain enveloped me. Blood in my eyes tinted the fog red, and my clothes were splotched with it.

I couldn't focus, not even on the bodies around me, yet I sensed they were there. I had no feeling in my mangled and bloodied right foot. I didn't think to check my watch or look at the clock on the wall to try and figure out how long I had been out of it. I was confused, disoriented, and unable to convince my brain to cooperate.

I did notice that the gunfire had stopped. Where were those kids who had come into the library, challenging, gloating, hooting, and killing? My buddies who had been under the table with me were gone.

What happened next wasn't the result of reasonably weighing my options. Somehow, I knew I had to move. I had to get out. They might come back. I couldn't stay there, wait, and do nothing.

I tried to stand. I couldn't. I flipped over onto my back and started pushing myself with my left leg, moving headfirst. I shoved myself away from our table, on the south side of the library, starting toward the north door. No, I quickly realized, that wouldn't work. The north door was too far away. Who knew what -- or who -- was out there? I sensed light to my right as I dragged myself, moving backwards towards the windows over the student parking lot. The closest way out.

I had little, if any, sense of time as I moved. My blood left a trail. Every move was agony. I dragged myself under and through another table. Under that table, I passed within inches of the murdered Isaiah Shoels and Matthew Kechter. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got to the window. But I had to get there.

How many times I lost consciousness as I progressed, I don't know. When I was capable of thinking semi-rationally amid the haze, I wondered if I should stop and leave myself to fate, whether that meant waiting for help, waiting for the killers to return, or to rest and pass out, possibly for good.

No. Couldn't do that. I'd be letting everyone down.

I passed Cassie Bernall's body, a few feet to my right, under the closest table to the curving bank of windows on the west side. There were chairs and lamps near the wall, positioned for reading in relative solitude. I positioned myself next to one of the chairs, believing it would shield me in case the murderers started shooting again, and sat back against the wall. Actually, when I saw the small chairs later, I realized I was as vulnerable there as if I were in the open. It offered me virtually no cover.

I noticed Steven Curnow's body nearby, underneath the computer terminal on the end. He looked at peace. Many things about my crawl, I couldn't remember later. Steven's peaceful look, I never will forget.

Mustering the little strength I had, I got my left foot underneath me and pushed up, using the chair for leverage. The pain again shot through my left side -- the only place I could feel it -- but I managed to stand. Finally.

I heard a helicopter outside, too. It generated a warm breeze, and I could feel that coming through the window.

Voices came from a distance.

"Hang on, kid!"

"Stay there!"

"We'll come get you!"

I waved my left hand in acknowledgment. I wrote with my left hand, but was right-handed at everything in sports and normally would have waved with that hand, so even that gesture involved a bit of compensation.

I reached out and swept aside the glass, again with my left hand, and I did so carefully. Here I was, wounded twice in the head and once in the foot and bleeding profusely, and I was worried about getting cut.

I pushed myself closer to the wall, gathering myself, or at least the parts that would cooperate, and, with tremors shooting through my body, pulled myself up to the ledge. I turned over on my stomach. Other than getting out, I really didn't know what I was going to do. I didn't fully grasp that I was on the second floor, but I knew it would be a fall.

An armored truck was under the window.

I heard: "It's okay, kid, go ahead and jump! We'll catch you!"

Flopping off the ledge and through the window, I lowered myself and dropped, head-first, into the arms of two waiting men. (I later learned they were SWAT officers Donn Kraemer and John Ramoniec.)

It was three hours and seven minutes after I had been shot. The police in the building wouldn't arrive at the library for another forty-four minutes. By then, I was in surgery.

Overcoming the Wounds

Up at Denver's St. Anthony's Hospital, doctors operated on me for about four hours. They tended to the two head wounds first. They took out the buckshot between my skull and scalp, and they left the buckshot from the other, more serious wound in my brain. It's still there. Neurosurgeon J. Adair Prall later said the bullet entered my brain and traveled into the back of my head. If they had gone in after that, they potentially would have caused more damage. They knew if I made it through, scar tissue would form around it, isolating it. They cleaned out the wound, cut a hole in my skull around where the buckshot entered, and inserted a titanium, donut-shaped plate.

The orthopedic surgeon made an important decision about my foot. I didn't have much brain swelling, or far less than you'd expect under the circumstances. My parents and I believe that he must have decided that because I was paralyzed and was having other problems, despite only moderate swelling, it probably meant those effects were permanent and that I wasn't going to be able to walk and function. The orthopedic surgeon cleaned out the wound to the foot, but didn't bother to set the broken bone, and that's why my foot is crooked today.

Initially, the doctors were very guarded about the prognosis with my parents. They didn't want to be doomsday, but they didn't want to give false hope. They said that if I survived my injuries, there would be "some" improvement in my condition. By then, it seemed as if I was out of the woods, but nothing was certain. They wouldn't say or predict how much that improvement in my condition might be. So Mom and Dad for the most part were left to guess whether I would be able to walk again or regain complete brain function. There might be considerable progress; there might be only a little. Mom at times even wondered whether I might require care the rest of my life. The doctors -- and I don't blame them for this, because they didn't know -- didn't offer many answers.

Everyone around me prayed, hoping for the best.

My parents talked to me that first night, but I wasn't able to say anything back or understand what was going on.

It's easy to forget this years later, but those first few days were absolute chaos as everyone tried to sort through what happened at Columbine. With the wounded scattered at various hospitals, with the release of the names of the dead still pending in many cases, and with many false reports and wild rumors swirling, everything was being done on the fly. There was much confusion, in the media reports and everywhere else. In fact, for a couple of days, nobody -- not even my parents -- realized that I was the kid who had come out of the window. The story of how the connection was made would be almost funny, if the undertones weren't so tragic.


They moved me to the Progressive Care Unit on Friday. Even before then, many of Denver's professional athletes -- including several members of the Avalanche hockey team -- tried to visit me, but doctors wouldn't allow any of them to come into my room until I was in the PCU.

Broncos running back Terrell Davis and starting guards Dan Neil and Mark Schlereth were among the first athletes allowed to see me. I still wasn't very coherent, and one of my first memories actually is of getting a visit from fellow wounded student Michael Johnson, the sophomore who was hit outside the school that day, and also was at St. Anthony's. At first, I was wondering why my parents were introducing me to this little guy. Suddenly, something must have clicked. My parents say that even with the football players in the room, I insisted that someone take a picture of me with Michael alone. Perhaps I sensed how tough Michael was, too. He suffered a leg wound severe enough that doctors originally feared he would lose the leg. A bullet shattered his jaw, and what was left was wired shut. During Terrell Davis' visit, though, we did get pictures of the star running back with me and all my cousins, who came in from Kansas. Nuggets players Chauncey Billups, Nick Van Exel and Antonio McDyess passed through, too.

Before the shootings I experienced many times the common feeling of knowing that the word was right on the tip of my tongue. You know how it is. For a second or two, you wonder if you're ever going to be able to come up with it -- and then, suddenly, the flash of light goes off in your mind and, voila, you know what it is and you can't get it out fast enough. Well, at this point of my recovery, it was as if the word, every word, perpetually was on the tip of my tongue -- but that flash of sudden realization didn't happen. That's helplessness. That's frustration. Everything I had taken for granted was moot now. I couldn't say what I wanted to say and it both scared and frustrated me, as I worried that the horrifying feeling was going to be a permanent part of my life.

I still was shielded about the extent of the toll at Columbine. I sensed that a lot of bad things had happened. My parents shared some things with me, but only vaguely. They said things like, "There were a lot of things that happened at Columbine. There were some people who died."

For the first time, on that same Saturday, I started telling my parents -- again, haltingly and choppily -- about the day of the shootings. I told them, "Bombs were exploding all over the place. Frightening. I could not believe it was true."

Then Mom, who took handwritten notes on our exchanges that week, told me "the two boys" who did it were dead.

"Please forgive them," I said. "Forgive them."

I have no idea where those words came from. I was having trouble putting complete sentences together, and I came up with that: "Forgive them."

My mother was flabbergasted. She knew I probably overheard her calling Klebold and Eric Harris "bastards" earlier that week. She turned her head away and cried for a few seconds. She had mixed feelings about it because of how she felt about Klebold's and Harris' actions, but she had been praying that if I recovered, I wouldn't be consumed by bitterness. So when I said that, she knew I probably could overcome those psychological obstacles. But when she composed herself, she asked me, "Why should I forgive them?"

I said, "They did not mean to do it. They were confused. They were confused."

Toward the end of my week-long stint in St. Anthony's, I wasn't on morphine and other pain killers as much, so I wasn't hallucinating. Mom gave me a heart-to-heart. She told me, "We're going to go to a rehab hospital and it's going to be a lot of hard work. We want to make sure you're up for it and ready for it."

In my mind, I was thinking, Well, this is going to be a lot of hard work -- like 6 a.m. basketball practices, where you're running for three hours straight. That's how I was conditioned to think, and I managed to summon those athletic memories. I told my mom, "No problem." The connection I was making was to those mornings when I finished basketball workouts and didn't have time to shower before school started. I sprayed on a lot of deodorant and cologne, and hoped the hot girl cheerleader who sat right behind me didn't laugh at me. So that's what I was thinking about as I was heading to Craig for rehab. Except I don't think I expected to find a hot girl cheerleader sitting behind me when I was done every day. (Or maybe I did. I was a bit delirious.)

About that time, too, as my memory started to come back, one of the first things that popped into my head was that if the police had looked through my wallet, they might have found the ring for the illegal Cuban Coheba cigar from my Spanish class trip to Spain, and that I was in trouble.

I kept running it through my mind, over and over: How am I going to tell my parents about this? I still was in the mode of trying to remember things, and repeating everything to myself to do it.

"Mom … Dad … there's something I have to tell you."

They braced for the worst.

I told them about the cigar and how I suspected that I might be in hot water with the police if they found the band in my wallet.

My mom said, "Ohhhhhh, honey, it's no big deal. It's fine. We're glad you had a good time in Spain."


Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix's team still was in the National Hockey League playoffs at that point, too. On April 20, they had been preparing to open a first-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks the next day at McNichols Arena. In fact, at the time of the shootings, the Sharks were on the ice, practicing in the Denver area. Lacroix and his wife, Colombe, better known as "Coco," often took walks through Clement Park. Some of the players also had homes in the area. Star winger Claude Lemieux's regular babysitter attended Columbine, and he attended a Catholic church in our area. When he asked the family members of one hospitalized student, a fellow parishioner, if there was anything he could do, they made an offhand comment that they hadn't been able to be home much -- and Lemieux paid to have a cleaning service visit the house. (It wasn't our house.) At the Avalanche's request, the Sharks and the NHL agreed to move the start of the series to San Jose to avoid intruding on the grieving. That was a great gesture by the Avalanche -- one that could have cost the team the series. But the Avalanche won both of those opening games in San Jose and won the series in six games. The team also brought back a huge banner signed by San Jose fans on the arena concourse, expressing support to the Columbine community, and it was displayed in Clement Park.

The Avalanche advanced to face the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals and the Dallas Stars in the conference finals. The hospital had access to tickets and so did a friend of fellow Craig patient Casey Sere's girlfriend. (Casey, an Air Force Academy cadet, had suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident.) Using a wheelchair, I went to several of those playoff games with Casey and his girlfriend, Amy, and Amy's friend Allison. The Avalanche eventually lost to Dallas, the Stanley Cup champions that year, in seven games, and that series didn't end until June 3. On different nights, we got to hang out in the tunnel and outside the locker room and meet some of the guys. Before one game, we took a picture of me with Lemieux, considered a villain in Detroit, and Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey. Before another game they brought me in the dressing room, and some reports said I had given the Avalanche a pep talk. I didn't remember it that way. I pretty much just introduced myself. But if they wanted to give me an assist for a win, that's okay with me. And I also got to meet the other Peter Forsberg -- the world-famous Swedish hockey star, not my long-time buddy of the same name. I didn't get to talk with the hockey player much, though, because when I was in the dressing room, he had just been harassed and hammered by Dallas defenseman Richard Matvichuk and was in pain, just sitting there with a towel over his head. Milan Hejduk, the Czech winger who a few seasons later led the NHL in goal-scoring, was in street clothes because he was injured, and he seemed like a good guy. I also got to meet Avalanche center Chris Drury, the kid from Connecticut who led his Little League team to the World Series championship over a bunch of alleged 12-year-olds from Taiwan in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, before turning to hockey, and that was a big moment.

Ireland's road to recovery -- as recounted in his memoirs -- was arduous, testing … and ultimately incredible. With considerable help, and with support from many sports and entertainment-industry stars, he regained the power of speech and essentially retaught himself to read, write and -- haltingly -- walk. He returned to Columbine for his senior year, even as he continued his rehabilitation as a daily outpatient and in private sessions, and found the Books on Tape program to be a godsend. He attended Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he graduated magna cum laude. He still bears some physical signs of his wounds, but he is mindful of how close he came to being the shooters' 14th murder victim, and he tries to remember and honor the 13 dead every day.

In one of the final chapters of his memoir, Ireland discusses his mental state and outlook at the approach of the shootings' 10th anniversary and addresses many of the issues that came out of the shootings and are discussed to this day -- a time when the events of Columbine come into play in procedures followed at every school in the country, every day. One of the many issues he tackles -- in addition to such things as violent video games, gun control and much more -- is a myth that came out of early coverage of the shootings: that athletes' "bullying" was a major cause of the shooters' rage. That was largely debunked long ago, yet it remains widely parroted.

Reflections

There was a movie out when I was finishing up college called "The Butterfly Effect," with Ashton Kutcher. His character, Evan Treborn, discovered he had the ability to go back in time when reading his journals. He could switch one thing about an occurrence that led to something else, and he got to see how the results would have been changed. In taking a slightly different course, hoping to make things "better," Kutcher's character encountered all kinds of other problems, and he reluctantly decided that tampering with history was dangerous or counterproductive.

I thought about this more after seeing the movie: If you look back and think, Well, I made this decision and it sent me down this path and it led to this, and what if this … it brings up all kinds of interesting scenarios, but if you do that too much and fixate on it, it can drive you crazy.

I've tried to avoid that, other than wishing that the events of that day never happened and, most of all, that the dead didn't have their lives stolen from them.

During my entire rehab, I was never focused on revenge or searching for explanations. My view is that in my situation, "Why?" too easily becomes "Why me?" Instead it always was: What can I do today to get stronger? I'm not at all sheepish to say that I have been so preoccupied with getting better and moving forward, with avoiding feeling sorry for myself, and with being a victor and not a victim, that I haven't allowed myself to painstakingly analyze how two kids could be so hateful and weren't prevented from expressing it in about the worst ways imaginable.

That said, not a day goes by when I don't think about what happened on April 20, 1999, or what I had to do to overcome my injuries.

But I don't think much about Klebold and Harris specifically. I'm at a different place now. After those initial thoughts in the hospital, when I was trying to come to grips with why it happened, I've just moved on.

As more information came out about Harris and Klebold, from their journals and video tapes, the more apparent it was that one of the murderers' goals was to go down in history. They did and they have. They succeeded on that point. I hate that. That's why I'm reluctant to talk much about them, and why you'll rarely -- almost never -- hear me mention their names in everyday life.

The Governor's Review Commission, which issued its report in May 2001, seemed to give credence to the view that bullying was a problem at Columbine and that Klebold's and Harris' group was picked on at times. I won't completely dismiss that, but it's ridiculous to pretend that it was extraordinary at Columbine and that it never has happened anywhere else. There were a few guys who could be picked out as bullies, and some of them were "jocks" or football players, however you want to label them. But there were guys who had the same mindset and bullying attitudes who weren't athletes. Again, that comes down to individual accountability.

Klebold and Harris -- despite what they said when they stormed into the library about subjecting "jocks" to revenge -- didn't specifically go after athletes or even their fellow seniors, and didn't even do so in their original plans. They were hateful, irrational, and vengeful, towards everyone and everybody. As one who grew up playing basketball and baseball with many of those who became Columbine varsity athletes, and who played baseball through my sophomore year, I was both an insider and outsider in the athletic scene at the school. I'm not going to deny that one or two Columbine football players were jerks, or at least had acted like jerks, but I'm convinced it's a reach to cite that as the murderers' major motivation.

At least one player on Columbine's 1999 football state championship team has gotten into trouble with the law since we left school because of violent tendencies, and he could be obnoxious and mean-spirited in high school, too. But he was the exception at Columbine, and it's unfair to tar the other players on that team -- or on other teams -- with one brush. I bet most of the players on the Columbine teams of that era have done well since. Of the murder victims, Isaiah Shoels had played football, but they noticed him because he was African-American, and at 4-foot-11 and slight, he wasn't the typical football physical specimen. They killed one player in the program at the time of the shootings -- a 4.0 student and a truly great guy, Matthew Kechter.

I'm not defending athletes who act like jerks, and we sure see plenty of that. It's good that it raised the consciousness level about the issue, and that it might prevent or already has prevented bullying attitudes and actions from being condoned or remaining under the radar. But to simply foam at the mouth and buy into all the crap -- sorry, I can't think of a better word -- about athletes' attitudes proving some sort of "excuse" for the killers? That's offensive. They wanted to kill the football players or punish the jocks who had punished them or made fun of them, and the most logical place to go was the library? No. The truth was, their first plan -- to blow up the cafeteria -- didn't work. They were just out to do evil.

Patrick Ireland, now 27, is married to his college girlfriend, the former Kacie Lancaster, and is a field director for the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network in Denver. Terry Frei is the author of several books, including "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming novel, "The Witch's Season." His e-mail: terry@terryfrei.com.