CHILLING.. Killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the cafeteria
Children lay dying in pools of blood in the library. One hung out of a window, a bullet through his brain. “My worst nightmare became a reality,” says DeAngelis, headmaster of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Next month is the 20th anniversary of the shooting that left 12 students and a teacher dead, shocking America with violence that has since become tragically commonplace.
DeAngelis, who remained headmaster for another 15 years, has written a memoir, They Call Me “Mr De”, reliving the horror of his struggle to endure, and the resilience that brought him hope.
“It was a beautiful spring day, 70 degrees, with blue skies,” he recalls. “My secretary comes running in, and says there’s a report of gunfire.”
Clad in trench coats to hide an arsenal of weapons, disaffected students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, had put two 20lb propane bombs in the cafeteria, planning to shoot survivors as they fled.
The bombs’ timers failed so the duo marched in, aiming to kill as many students as possible.
Frank DeAngelis leads last year’s memorial vigil
They walked the corridors armed with explosives, sawn-off shotguns, a 9mm semiautomatic pistol, a 9mm rifle, seven knives, and enough ammunition to kill hundreds of the 2,000 students.
DeAngelis found himself facing one gunman in a corridor: “Baseball cap turned backward and white T-shirt, black vest. I remember the gun – a long gun.”
Then 20 girls ran out of a locker room heading to gym class. “They were in the middle of the crossfire, so I ran to them,” he recalls.
“We went down a side hallway to get away from the gunman.” They fled for the gym, but: “The door was locked. Girls were screaming, the gunman was firing shots and he was getting closer.” DeAngelis pulled out 35 keys and miraculously opened the door with the first one.
“I believe it was divine intervention,” he says. “If I would have had to fumble around to find the key there’s a good chance the girls and I would have died.”
He locked the door and hid with the girls as gunfire continued. Police and Swat teams took on the attackers who killed themselves in a final act of alienation.
Police, fearing more shooting, waited three hours before storming in. Several victims bled to death waiting for help.
Escorted out by police, DeAngelis spoke to the army of distraught parents. “There’s a good chance their kids lost their lives that day,” he says. “It was one of the most devastating things I’ve ever had to do.”
One of the pupils injured in the shoot out
Aside from the 13 who died on April 20, 1999, 24 more were wounded. DeAngelis refuses to include the gunmen in the list.
Emotion still shakes his voice, but with close cropped hair, goatee and a slight paunch, he exudes a quiet humility. The former sports coach, his “jock” mentality (giving athletes special treatment) was blamed for the school turning a blind eye to bullying.
“Others blamed the music and video games the shooters devoured while a report said they had “suicidal and violent tendencies”. The school district paid legal settlements to many families.
“I let them down,” he says. “Something that I have to live with is 13 people died on my watch.The damage and the devastation was done by two of my kids.” He blames himself, asking: “What did I miss?”
Most teachers quit and DeAngelis wanted to go too, but was persuaded to stay. “I needed Columbine probably more than it needed me,” he admits.
But the torment didn’t end. The mother of a paralysed student took her own life, the student who held the dying teacher hanged himself. “Many turned to alcohol and drugs, many contemplated suicide,” says DeAngelis, who suffered PTSD, and whose marriage ended.
“People ask ‘Does it get back to normal?’ It never does.”
DeAngelis retired in 2014, becoming a counsellor to schools hit by shootings.
“It has become a near full-time job with hundreds more, including last year’s massacre of 17 students and staff in Parkland, Florida, The Columbine library where many died has gone and a memorial to the fallen was erected.
The school will be closed on the anniversary – as it is each year – for a vigil.
DeAngelis campaigns for greater compassion and understanding in schools, improved mental health screening and a nationwide gun ban. It’s an uphill battle.
“I continue to fight because one more death is one too many,” he says. “We need to come together as a society to make sure this violence ends.”
They Call Me “Mr De”, published March 31 (Dave Burgess Consulting, £23.95)