The chatter from the stream of families leaving the Northridge Recreation Center — for today, a family reunification hub — was disturbing, and not just because we’ve heard nearly the same words so many times before.
“My whole focus was trying not to die.”
“I was in study hall and everyone started running.”
“Did you hear? They broke down the door and there was blood all over the place.”
Reporters are used to the stomach-turning feeling of rolling up to the scene of something horrific and approaching scared, grieving people during what might well be the worst moment of their year or even life, then politely bothering them to say, hi, I’m a reporter, and do you have a moment to talk about what just happened?
My natural discomfort with this ritual is trumped by my belief in the importance of reporters as community storytellers. Even — maybe especially — in communities’ darkest hours. And so I walked over to the rec center to do what I’d do on any scene: talk to people involved and try to come away with a story.
“Worst nightmare,” a mom said.
Her son, 8th-grader Gianni, chimed in. He talked about the gunshots he heard, about how everyone fell quiet, about how he “just sat there and prayed.”
Gianni said he wasn’t surprised by what happened. He was remarkably composed for a kid just hours removed from such a harrowing scene.
“I always knew. I live close to Columbine. I always knew this would happen,” he told me. “It’s bound to happen sooner or later.”
Through the basketball court at the rec center, past some cops and a pair of little girls handing out water bottles and snacks to the families spilling out, there were TV crews and their broadcast trucks and no fewer than 20 cop cars in sight. The parking lot was full and hundreds of people had abandoned their cars on the side of the road.
It was about 5:30 p.m. — 3.5 hours after the shooting. Some people were still visibly emotional. Many more faces were just blank.
Emily, an 8th grader at STEM, had been crying all afternoon and her face was swollen and red as a result. What a horrifying stream-of-consciousness account she gave:
“I heard gunshots, right where I was. There was screaming and then suddenly there wasn’t screaming. No screaming at all. There were sirens, police cars. There was glass breaking, I think. There was a lot of stuff happening. A lot of yelling. I don’t know who it was from. A lot of yelling outside. And a couple more gunshots. Then there was nothing. The police came in and let us outside.”
Tell the reporter what you saw, her mom encouraged her. This girl had clearly witnessed something especially awful during the shooting. She started to say more, then started crying again and never finished that thought.
After collecting herself, she added, “Part of you feels like it’s never going to happen to you. Part of you expects it to happen. I kind of expected it to happen eventually,” she said.
In several more interviews over the next 20 minutes, every kid and parent, to a person, talked about how shocking yet unsurprising it is that the latest chapter in America’s ongoing gun-violence horror show had unfolded at their school.
A dad and his three boys, all STEM students, were among the last families to leave the rec center. One of the boys, Connor, said he’s done active shooter drills at least every month since he was in kindergarten — some 40-plus times.
Connor’s dad, Shane Lussier, called Tuesday’s shooting “inevitable.”
“I’ve lived in Littleton since 1992,” he said. “I was here watching Columbine in 1999. I was here for (the 2013 shooting at) Arapahoe High School. We’ve had friends and family impacted by this for 20 years. It never stops.”
It was almost chilling how poised he was, given the terrible circumstances. As if he knew he’d have that conversation with a reporter one day. He probably did.
As Gianni told me, “That’s just the U.S. It’s sad, but it’s reality at this point.”