70,000 at memorial united by their tears

Service for students in Littleton

Contra Costa Newspapers/April 26, 1999
By Nita Lelyveld, Gwen Florio and Richard Jones

LITTLETON, Colo. -- They stood in the drizzle and chill for hours, hand in hand, arm in arm -- parents gripping their children tightly to their chests, strangers hugging strangers. Sunday afternoon, more than 70,000 people covered a mall parking lot across the street from Columbine High School to mourn the nation's deadliest school shooting.

Over and over again, an array of speakers, from Vice President Al Gore to evangelist Franklin Graham, intoned the names of the 12 students and one teacher who walked into school as usual Tuesday morning and never walked out again.

They remembered Dave Sanders, a high school business teacher who gave his life trying to get his students to safety. And Cassie Bernall, a 17-year-old junior who was shot to death after she answered a killer's question with the words, "Yes, I believe in God."

Over and over again, too, those who addressed the crowd asked the same question: How could two teen-agers -- Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17 -- who killed themselves after shooting 13 others, have the capacity for such evil?

Gore put the responsibility at the feet of each adult.

"Parents, we can stop the violence and the hate," he told the crowd at the end of a speech heavy with quotes from the Bible. "In a culture rife with violence, where too many young people place too little value on a human life, we can rise up and we can say, 'No more.' We have seen enough of violence in our schools. We must replace a culture of violence and mayhem with one of values and meaning."

A huge cheer erupted in the crowd when Gore said, "All of us must change our lives to honor our children," and added, "If you are a parent, your children need attention. If you are a grandparent, they need your time. If you do not have children, there are kids who need your example and your presence. Somewhere, somewhere in the reach of every adult in this country is a child to hold and teach, a child to save."

One man in the crowd held a large white sign, with words in thick black marker, "STOP THE MADNESS."

Many in the crowd waved flowers above their heads -- bouquets, a few irises, here and there a single red rose.

Flowers were a theme, too, in the service's opening song, performed by two brothers who are Columbine students and said they wrote the song with their pastor. Jonathan Cohen, a junior, and his brother, Stephen, said they were selling CDs to raise money for the victims' families.

"Columbine, rose blood red, heartbreak overflows my head," the brothers sang.

Throughout the open-air service, many people in the crowd never stopped weeping -- and not just those who had lost friends and relatives.

Colleen Gates rested her head on her husband Matt's shoulder. Their daughter Jamy, 12, stood behind her. At the end of the row, Pearl Byrne, 87, squeezed her great-granddaughter close.

Gates said her daughter, who goes to school just north of Littleton, in Thornton, had not yet talked of the shooting.

"I've tried to reach her, but I can't. I just hug her," she said, crying.

The memorial service brought people from across the nation, including retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, Christian music star Amy Grant and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., who sat with other dignitaries on a hastily assembled stage built across the steps of a movie theater.

The service in this deeply religious community also attracted religious groups from near and far.

Among them were members of the Church of Scientology, who handed out yellow-and-green pamphlets promising "The Way to Happiness," and Hare Krishnas, offering mourners free vegetarian food.

The Christian Motorcyclists Association handed out cards, urging people to wear helmets and find God, and members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who often turn up at large events to spout their homophobic views, were on hand with signs blaming it all on homosexuals.

"This is straight out of the wrath of God," said one such protester, Charles Hockenbarger, 25.

Cletis Cansler of Gideon's International, the group that supplies hotel Bibles, said his people arrived at the site at 9 a.m., and gave away 8,000 Bibles -- its entire supply -- by noon.

On the edge of the crowd, Ramanuel Kimble stood behind a table, under a sign advertising official Columbine High T-shirts.

The shirts, which came in white and black, featured a pair of hands folded in prayer on the front surrounded by the words, "In Loving Memory, The Children of Columbine High." On the back was the phrase: "Stop the Violence -- Save the Children."

Kimble, a traveling vendor, said the T-shirts were designed the day after the shootings.

"I've been to tragedies before, Oklahoma City and the earthquake in L.A.," he said.

Thousands of young people stood crying in the crowd, some dressed in the same black clothes and dangling chains favored by Harris and Klebold.

Michael Joseph, 19, of Littleton, said he even had a black trench coat, but had not worn it since the shootings.

Still, he said, athletes had harassed him since Tuesday.

"Jocks say, 'Hey, it's because of you. It's your kind of people who started this whole thing at Columbine,'" Joseph said.

On his black sweatshirt, he wore a blue and silver memorial ribbon, in memory of the dead and their school colors, and a sparkly guardian angel pin next to a patch that said "Anarchy."

As preachers offered solace in God and politicians promised support, the most everyday moment in the memorial service came when Amber Burgess, a Columbine student, led her schoolmates in a cheer.

"We are," she shouted.

And they shouted back, "Columbine."

In the crowd, a toddler with a Winnie the Pooh backpack walked beside her father, and asked him, "Is this a party?"

Her father looked at her and answered softly, "No baby, it's not a party. This is a sad day."

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