The day that changed everything

A Columbine survivor looks back, to move forward

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 2/9/21

It started off as a beautiful day, he said. The kind of Colorado day we get in late April, when students sit outside at lunch and think about the summer ahead. It was the kind of day, he said, that …

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The day that changed everything

A Columbine survivor looks back, to move forward

Posted

It started off as a beautiful day, he said. The kind of Colorado day we get in late April, when students sit outside at lunch and think about the summer ahead. It was the kind of day, he said, that he wore all of his favorite clothes — T-shirt, windbreaker, shorts, because the laundry just worked out that day. It was the kind of suburban day in a place where it seems like nothing really bad ever happens. There are things like skateboarding injuries and unrequited teenage crushes, but nothing evil, he said. It was that kind of day… and then it wasn’t.

Sean Graves remembers that day in startling detail. April 20, 1999, the day Colorado was thrust into the consciousness of the nation for a reason no one saw coming — the day Columbine High School became synonymous with deadly school shootings in America. 

Graves, now 37, was a freshman, shot multiple times and left for dead that day. He was heading to Clement Park, next to the school, with friends Dan Rohrbough and Lance Kirklin. They saw the shooters almost immediately but didn’t know who they were. They saw the black dusters and tactical-looking clothing and duffel bags. They saw them pull out the guns but kept walking toward the shooters because what was about to happen didn’t register as a possibility — even when the shooting started.

“We took notice of them pulling out weapons, but thought it was a senior prank. We’d heard rumors about something called Senior Annihilation,” Graves said. “We thought it was going to be paintball guns — seniors running around shooting paintballs.”

So, the teenage boys with no fear and a lot of curiosity forged ahead. Graves in the middle, Rohrbough to his right, Kirklin on his left. Graves said he noticed the guns were all black, unlike any paintball gun he’d seen before, and thought the shooters had probably painted them. He saw them load the magazines and fire off some rounds, but because of their vantage point, he, Rohrbough and Kirklin couldn’t actually see that the shooters were firing at students, Rachel Scott and Richard Castaldo. They didn’t know Scott had just been killed, Castaldo critically wounded, so they took a few more steps toward the shooters.

“Lance and I had come from hunting families. We’d both been around guns — we’d grown up around them. I knew what I was staring at,” he said. “When they unloaded the first magazine, we knew it was gunfire, but convinced ourselves they must have been modified paintball guns that were using caps. Against our instincts, we pushed forward. I made one or two steps, and they opened fire on us.”

Rohrbough was hit first. A bullet that passed through him hit the ground, sending a spray of dirt into Graves’ face, but it still didn’t make any sense to him. The shooters then sprayed them with gunfire, Graves taking a shot to the neck and three to the abdomen, Kirklin shot in the foot, leg and chest, Rohrbough fatally wounded, although Graves didn’t realize it in the moment. He said he didn’t even know he’d been shot with bullets instead of paintballs at that point.

He recalls Kirklin giving him good-natured grief for saying ‘screw this” and turning to head back into the school, having had enough of this senior prank. He was almost back inside the door to the Commons area when he was shot in the spine with a 9mm slug.

Part of the bullet lodged near his T-12 vertebrae and is still there, giving him slight issues with lead poisoning to this day. A fragmented chunk of the bullet traveled down to his hip and exited his body, creating a little puff of dust when it hit the concrete in front of him. He said it now reminds him of the line “When the bullet hits the bone” from the Golden Earring song Twilight Zone. Graves fell in the doorway, unable to move his legs, halfway inside the school, the heavy door jamming into his body.

A kitchen worker came to his aid while others were trying to pull him the rest of the way inside. She told them to stop because of his injury. She looked out to see one of the shooters coming down the hill toward the school. The other one stayed behind, firing from a stairway. Above Graves, a window shattered as a bullet ripped through it. He said one of the shooters had noticed people tending to him and had come under fire for their efforts. He didn’t know it at the time, but at that point, Kirklin had taken a shotgun blast to the face. The woman trying to help him did know. She had seen the attempted execution of his friend as she looked out from the doorway.

“The look on her face was one of horror,” he said. “Pure fear, and the scene was becoming more chaotic. People were screaming. There was a lot of movement inside the Commons and the shooter was getting closer.”

According to Graves, people further inside the school had started to understand what was happening. He said teacher, Dave Sanders, figured it out right away. 

A fire alarm went off and kids started evacuating. 

The shooter moving toward the doorway stepped over Graves as he entered the Commons, stayed only for a few seconds to look around and had gone back outside, stepping in the middle of Graves’ back as he exited and walked up the hill. From there, he and the other shooter made their way into the second level of the school. Graves said he laid there, bleeding out from his wounds. He smeared blood from his neck around his body to make his plan of playing dead more convincing if the shooters came back, and listened to the sound of gunshots and pipe bombs going off.

“I realized they were above me in the library. I heard nonstop gunfire — not really rapid, but more spaced out,” he said. “I’d bought a Cherry Coke before everything started and dropped it as I fell in the doorway. I was getting so thirsty and I kept looking at that soda, trying to reach it, but I couldn’t.”

Graves was able to get his backpack off and push himself backward enough to look behind him to see what had happened to his friends. He could tell Rohrbough wasn’t moving.

“Lance looked up. I didn’t realize he’d been shot in the face. I knew he was alive,” Graves said. “He kind of opened his mouth and was spitting out lots of blood. I remember watching him and I said “Oh, Lance.””

Graves said the next thing he knew, he was being hit in the top of his head with shrapnel from a nearby wall as the gunmen fired at a 20 lb. propane bottle directly in front of him, trying to blow it up. It had been placed there earlier, by the shooters. He said with every piece of shrapnel that hit his skull, he flinched and he feared the gunmen would realize he was still alive.

“Then there was a sound like a giant fireball,” he said. “I remember hearing another explosive go off and that entire commons lit up a brilliant shade of orange. There was a wave of intense heat — intense flames.

Sprinklers started going off, and they’re still shooting trying to set off bombs.”

At that moment, Graves said he was starting to feel cold and tired. He prayed, “Please let me live and let me walk again.” He was chanting those words when he blacked out.

Long road of recovery

A brave but harrowing rescue by members of nearby Littleton Fire and Rescue Station 13 would follow. Graves and Kirklin were put into the same ambulance initially, but the two friends were separated at a triage station a few blocks away from the school. Kirklin was sent to Denver Health, and Graves to Swedish Hospital. Upon his arrival, he was rushed into surgery and would spend more than 100 days hospitalized, between Swedish and his time in Craig Rehabilitation Center. For years after that, he went from school to rehab every day. 

Paralyzed from the shooting, Graves spent the next three years in a wheelchair. After being told he’d probably never walk again, and that if he did, it would be with braces and crutches, he was motivated to prove the doctors wrong. At his graduation from Columbine, he stood up from his wheelchair and walked across the stage to receive his diploma. 

He’s undergone 48 surgeries and other procedures since the day that changed everything. Now, with a wife and young daughter, and having spent years working through the range of emotions that came with that tragic day, he’s found a light at the end of a very long tunnel. 

Making a difference

The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, was triggering, he said. The STEM shooting in Highlands Ranch made him angry. That’s when Graves, who’d previously been Colorado’s Ambassador for the Christopher Reeve Foundation, an organization dedicated to research of spinal cord injuries and improving the quality of life for people impacted by paralysis, decided he needed to do something else to help make a difference. 

John McDonald, Executive Director, Jeffco Public Schools Department of School Safety, asked Graves about coming to work for him after the two of them had several interactions while planning the 20-year memorial

of the Columbine tragedy. Graves now spends his days as a manager at the Frank DeAngelis Center for Community Safety, working at the facility created to support law enforcement and school safety training and tactics for mass casualty events.

He said he wanted to give back and believes in the Center’s mission wholeheartedly. He loves being a part of a group of people he looks up to as heroes, saying it’s fulfilling to his soul. 

“Every single person that works for the Department of School Safety will give their life to save anyone’s child,” he says. “They’re the most caring people you’ll ever meet in your life. They’re passionate in making a difference — in keeping a child from being killed or injured. I used to avoid the fact I was a Columbine survivor, but now I’ve learned to embrace it. The universe wants me right where I am.”

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