20 years ago we survived Columbine — love, not legislation will fix this epidemic

20 years ago we survived Columbine — love, not legislation will fix this epidemic
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“Get the hell out! Someone has a gun and is shooting!” These aren’t words we ever expected to hear in real life, and certainly not as teenagers in a middle-class high school in surburban America. 

We two sisters escaped Columbine High School with our lives on April 20, 1999, after two students went on a shooting rampage, killing 12 classmates and a teacher and injuring 21, before killing themselves. But our innocence was stolen from us that day, as we survived the horror and tragedy in very different ways:


Sarah’s story: The silent concentration of a math class exam was interrupted by an explosion shaking the room — the first of many homemade explosives planted by the two gunmen. 

At first it seemed like it must be a senior prank, or a science experiment gone wrong. Minutes later, high school baseball coach Robin Ortiz ran from room to room, shouting that we needed to evacuate the school as fast as we could. We were literally running for our lives.  

After I escaped the school, my mother and I found our way to each other several hours later, only to realize that my sister Laura still had not been accounted for. We paced the floor of the public library and waited for the updated lists of kids who had been rescued. Laura’s name did not appear on the list until five hours after the mayhem began. Full relief did not come until we had her in our arms. My mom and I clung to her, hardly understanding all she had witnessed, and there began our 20-year journey to healing.

Laura’s story: Wading through a foot of fire-sprinkler water filled with half-eaten food and soaked backpacks, heart racing and tears falling, I couldn't believe what I saw. The windows of the cafeteria had been shattered and glass was scattered everywhere.

Rewind four hours: I sat enjoying my first few bites of lunch and then suddenly was crouching under my table with other students. “Did you hear that?” I asked, listening to what sounded like distant gunshots. Before I knew it, chaos erupted as hundreds of students ran for their lives. 


Now it was dark, muggy, and very quiet: I had ended up in the school’s choir office with some 30 other students, after bolting from the cafeteria to flee the bullets. Packed in like sardines, we listened to a fellow student call the police, and then call her mother: “Mom, I love you so much. I don't know if I'll ever see you again, but I want you to know I love you.” Hearing the gunshots and explosions was emotionally taxing and horrific. But what worried me more was that my older sister was somewhere in the school. After much prayer and agonizing, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm, knowing that wherever she was, she was okay. I could now let go of the fear I felt for her. 

More than four hours later, loud banging on the office door startled us until we realized the police SWAT team was there to rescue us. Coming out of the hot, dark office into bright lights and machine guns pointed right at me turned my relief into fear once again. In single file, we were ushered out. Lying dead at my feet was a classmate with whom I had gone to school since second grade, Daniel Rohrbough. Screaming, I stepped over his body and ran up the stairs, where Rachel Scott lay dead. These are things that no person should ever see, yet they are permanently etched into my memory. 

“What is your opinion on gun control?” It’s one of the most common questions we are asked, along with “Did you know anyone who died?” and “Did you know the people who did it?” Each time there is another mass shooting, we feel our scars torn open a little. We remember how much it hurts, and grasp at anything that makes sense. We watch while the nation races to take action. Everyone is looking for the easiest fix for what will stop these shootings, once and for all?

We have had a long time to think about these questions. We want such shootings to stop, just like everyone else. Yes, making the process more difficult to obtain weapons is a start. We need to stop treating the symptoms of this epidemic and get to the root cause. The cure isn’t easy and cannot be solved by legislation. The problem begins in the family as the primary institution in society. 

The institution of the family is vital to the success and health of a society. Family provides love and stability for children. Kids and parents alike today spend inordinate amounts of time on their phones, alone in their rooms, completely immersed in the world of social media. As a society, we are severely lacking in human connection. Humans need physical touch and interaction. Kids need to connect with their parents and family. They need a safe place where they can confide in someone and discuss their problems without risk of judgment.  

These are just a few of the most crucial steps that need to be taken in order for the real changes to happen. 

When the decision is made to bring life into this world, it needs to be followed by constant, unconditional love. Hug your children. Open the dialogue and make it known, in every way, that you are there to be a constant support and source of encouragement for them. 

With this foundation, we believe these senseless acts of violence might become less common. By strengthening our families and relationships at home, we provide a strong support system for emotionally and mentally prepared children.  

And if, heaven forbid, they find themselves in our shoes some day, they’ll be better equipped to heal and to cope.

Sarah Bush and Laura Hall are sisters who survived the Columbine High School shooting. They recently ran the Boston Marathon.