Rather than use this moment to save himself, Jesse called to some fellow first graders who were standing off to the side, holding hands.
“Run!” he told them.
In the next moment, Jesse was killed, but the other youngsters escaped. Six of them, four boys and two girls, ended up outside a small yellow frame house nearby that is home to a psychologist named Gene Rosen.
“We can’t go back to school,” one of the boys reportedly told Rosen. “Our teacher is dead.”
Rosen brought them inside and took out some stuffed animals he keeps for his grandchildren and began calling parents. One little girl sat clutching a toy dog, silently staring out a window until her mother came.
The last of the six survivors had been picked up when a woman appeared at the front door with a face that Rosen would later describe as frozen in terror. She had heard that some kids had come to the house and she hoped that maybe by some miracle her child was among them. The miracle was not to be. The child she named would be listed among the 20 kids who had been murdered along with six adults.
In the mid-afternoon, I found the house empty and still, the stuffed animals where the children had left them as they headed home, having escaped the killer thanks to the monumental courage of a tiny hero. I took note of a wood plaque that attested to the year the house had been built.
That was 30 years before the Declaration of Independence, 45 years before the ratification of the Second Amendment. I wondered what the founding fathers—whom the gun rights people love to invoke—would have said if they had happened to pass by here back then and been suddenly bestowed with the gift of prophesy.
They no doubt would have been horrified enough if they could have foreseen the 1999 murder of 12 students and a teacher by a pair of teen killers at Columbine High School in Colorado. I was there in the immediate aftermath of that shooting as well. I remember standing in the parking lot, staring at a maroon Acura Legend that 17 year-old Rachel Scott had driven to school before becoming the first to be murdered, shot numerous times as she ate lunch.
Her friends were now covering the car with flowers and ribbons, placing four candles on the trunk along with a Bible that the gusting wind blew open, rustling the pages as if an unseen hand were searching vainly for an answer. A classmate in jeans and a brown flannel shirt used a fingertip to inscribe a message into the road grime just above the rear bumper.
“We love you.”
The biggest testament was the diversity of the mourners. A girl with Day-Glo red hair embraced a born-again Christian. An athletic-looking 16-year-old named Joe Dreaden explained that Rachel Scott had possessed a unique ability to reach across social cliques.
“Rachel was who she was,” he said simply.
In the late afternoon, that great mix of friends formed a circle around the car, holding hands as they prayed. They then prepared to release three dozen balloons, grey and blue, the colors of their school. A balloon popped and the sound was enough like a gunshot to make everybody jump.
“That was not fun,” one of the friends said.
The remaining 35 balloons sailed up into the fading daylight, vanishing as they were blown northward by a weather front that brought rain and then snow that the friend Dreaden later brushed away from the car, which Scott had been paying for by working in a sandwich shop. He uncovered a handwritten message another student had left.
“God danced the day these children were born. The Angels cried the day He carried them home.”
Among the survivors who had run in terror from the lunchroom when the shooting erupted was Regina Rohde, then 14. She was 22 when I encountered her in 2007 at Virginia Tech in the aftermath of the mass shooting there. She had been preparing to head for class when she got word of the killings, and this time she was spared the sound of gunfire. She stood holding her small, brown dog, declining to say anything to the press about either shooting. She did allow that she had not looked at the images of himself this latest killer had express mailed to NBC as he embarked on a spree that left 32 dead.
“I haven’t seen them,” she said.
I went from her to a gun store by Virginia Tech’s main gate where the killer was said to have ordered one of his pistols. I then proceeded to a nearby outdoor shooting range maintained by the U.S. National Park Service. The killer had practiced his marksmanship there, firing with the same methodical deliberation that would be recalled by the survivors. He is also believed to have filmed in the parking lot some of the images of himself he later sent to NBC.
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