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Santana Through the Eyes of a Local Reporter

Doug Curlee was one of the first reporters on the scene at the Santana shooting 10 years ago. He recounts the day, the aftermath and issues with the national media.

You knew there was something bad happening-something very, very bad.

You just don’t hear that many sirens, unless it’s a major disaster or a major crime happening somewhere close by.

As I scrambled about, grabbing whatever clothes came immediately to hand, I knew that whatever it was, it must be happening at Santana High School- just three blocks from my home.

The phone rang as I was running toward the front door- it was the desk at KUSI-TV, saying, “Shots fired at Santana- get over there!”

As I started the car, just one word kept reverberating in my mind: “Columbine.” Over and over again.

Less than two minutes later, I was in the shopping center parking lot, where one of our live trucks was already setting up a live signal in the middle of a rapidly growing throng of terrified students and panic-stricken parents.

It was the beginning of a day, and a week, that had never been seen in our town before, and hopefully will never be seen again.

Chaos is a word that isn’t often correctly used, but it was a perfect description of that day.

Parents came up to us as we broadcast, asking if I’d seen their child or children- describing them to me, as though I’d know them among the hundreds already there.

Kids came up to us, begging us to go on television to tell their folks they were alright, and not hurt.

Several of the kids tried to tell what they’d seen on the campus, but most of them dissolved in tears and shivers before they could get through it.

We did what we could to comfort parent and child alike...taking names and trying to reunite them somehow.

That actually worked a few times-I’d tell kids to go over to the area of the pizza parlor there, and if their parents came to us, I’d send them over there. That happened several times.

For the most part, I don’t remember much of what I said during those live remote inserts- in television, we called it “going into bypass,” you simply report what you’re seeing and hearing without really realizing what you said.

So, it wasn’t until later I learned of the heroism of the Sheriff’s deputies, the Santee firefighters and paramedics, and particularly the heroism of off-duty San Diego police officer Bob Clarke, who raced onto the campus to rescue kids and save lives, despite the very real possibility they themselves could fall victim to the gunfire- and who rushed the restroom where Charles “Andy” Williams gave up when ordered to.

Remember, they had no idea how many people were in there firing rounds, they had no idea it was only one reportedly bullied, picked-on, homesick 15-year-old boy with a .22 revolver.

It all started about 9:20 a.m., it was over just a few minutes later, although no one knew that until a bomb team later swept the school and found no one and nothing else threatening.

But two were dead, and 13 others wounded.

In the hours and days that followed, a lot of things made me proud about the City of Santee, its officials, and its people.

A lot of things about our electronic brethren in the national media made me angry, and not just a little sick to my stomach.

We in the local media did the story pretty well I thought, and I’d been at this profession for a lot of years.

It seems the nationals, CBS,NBC, ABC, CNN and the various and sundry tabloid types, wanted to paint us as small-town hicks, maybe racists, certainly dumb country folk.

Larry King, still living on his mostly undeserved reputation as a brilliant interviewer, seemed determined to make this a racial crime- a hate crime, because some CNN researcher had apparently told him Santee didn’t have much of a minority community. Mayor Randy Voepel, with all of nine weeks in office, set him straight quickly.

Geraldo Rivera seemed to think more or less the same thing. Voepel landed right in the middle of him, and actually forced something of an apology from Rivera.

Voepel, you see, had gone to school very quickly.

“What I did, as soon as I had changed clothes, was get on the phone to the people in Colorado who had dealt with Columbine, and some people who had handled other recent school shootings. They told me what to do, how to handle the media, how to help the people get through this. I’ll never be able to thank them enough,” said Voepel 10 years later.

It got so bad with the national media that during an interview in front of the school a couple of days later, national television viewers were treated to the sight and sound of Santee residents, not just angry kids, but angry moms and dads too,  flipping the bird and yelling “get out and go home” to the national media.

It was not the networks’ finest hour, to be sure.

There are stories that the national types would gather at night at , where most of them were staying, and plan the next day’s stories. Including, all too often, agreeing on the picture they would paint of our town.

It made us locals madder than hell, but we know it happens- we’d all seen it happen at big stories over the years.

They knew nothing about our town and area, and didn’t want to learn.

Looking back at it at the end of that week, I was proud of us here-the people, the police and fire, the kids, your local media, and our friends in neighboring communities.

Looking back on it all 10 years later, I’m still proud of us all- and still angry at the national media who misread and misinterpreted virtually everything they heard or were told.

We came through it, folks.

Pray God we will never have to do it again.

Dolores Brown March 05, 2011 at 09:28 PM
I watched a lot of the stories you spoke of. I don't remember any of what was said but I do remember the anger I was feeling at the way they portrayed Santee. I grew up in Spring Valley, and was living in Texas at the time. And they definitely did not portray the true Santee. I have ignored national new reports since and stick only with local. Thank you for sharing a reporter's side.
Doug Curlee March 06, 2011 at 12:25 AM
dolores.. i thkink what frosted me more than anything is the attitudes of the national media..what we locals call the "big-foot" correspondents,, we were perfectly willing to help them out, but they treated us as backward children..despite the fact I had more experience than ANY of them.. they much preferred what some new yokr or atlanta-based research intern told them than the facts from someone who works and lives here..that was where larry king was getting his race-based attack ideas..not from us, who KNEW better.. he was far from the only one..it's thaty kind of attitude that makes me happy that, after 42 years of it, i'm out of it now.. thasnks for commenting.. best always, doug curlee
Rob March 06, 2011 at 03:41 AM
As a former Santana student, who graduated in 2003, this piece strikes me as offensive. I was there when the tragedy happened. I wasn't escorted in any particular direction when I heard the shots fire out. Everyone was wading through a makeshift current of terrified bodies, so I, reading my best self-preservation instincts, ran into the nearest classroom with many people around me. We were all petrified, obviously, especially since there was no lock on the door. I'm not sure why a reporter's retrospective is appropriate when there are actual students, who had actually experienced this tragedy, that are still alive, willing to share their opinions. This strikes me as you trying to put another feather into your hat as a journalist. And while I'm sure you are troubled, outraged, saddened by the events that transpired, as evidenced by your piece, I don't necessarily think your opinion is warranted above the students who, at such a young age, experienced this awful situation. With all due respect, your commentary is rife with platitude when compared to the students who actually witnessed this event, saw their friends shot, and had to hear the gunfire. I do understand that you want to pop open the lid on these feelings that you have. We were all scorched by the event. I know, personally, that my mind has not reforested any kind of hope that I wont forever be scarred by what I witnessed. But I was a teenager. You were a grown man. A victim should have written this, not you.
sluggo March 06, 2011 at 03:07 PM
Well, the title of the article IS 'Santana Through the Eyes of a Reporter', Rob, and I for one enjoyed reading it. Why shouldn't we be allowed to hear different perspectives? I don't think it's an 'either/or' situation. I'm sure if someone like yourself who was there during the shooting wants to tell their story, they would have no shortage of forums to do so. Go for it.
Doug Curlee March 06, 2011 at 09:53 PM
rob.. i undertsand what you're saying..i just don't agree with it.. one of the charges people always level against those of us in journalism is, "why are you ripping the scabs off the wounds those kids suffered?..why don't you leave them alone?".. over the years, i've long ago lost count of the people i talked to who were there that day.. students, teachers, cops..every kind of participant..you are the very first student i've ever heard from who seems to want to relive it.. you can have your perspective.. i can have mine..we'll leave it at that.. doug
Rob March 06, 2011 at 10:00 PM
I understand the title. I only think it's egregious that Patch pay him for this article. And as far as perspectives go, I would rather read something written by a teacher or student who was on campus. And while I understand there are many forums for people to share their stories, I don't think reporters should shoehorn themselves into the most accessible ones.
Rob March 06, 2011 at 10:10 PM
And Doug, I have been in journalism since I graduated high school. I may not have as many years of experience as you, nor do I have the skills that you have in that particular field, but I would never make myself the stack base of a story - especially someone else's story. As far as reliving it is concerned, I think you are way out of your jurisdiction with that comment. Not only is that offensive and ill-conceived, but it's a slight to my person. If you assume that any student would want to relive that day, your hubris is only topped by your insensitivity.
Doug Curlee March 06, 2011 at 11:16 PM
rob..reread what you just wrote..of course i don't think any of the students would want to relive it..why do you think i didn't take the column in that direction in the first place?? on the one hand, you say you "would rather read something written by a teacher of a student who was on campus"..then you turn completely around and say, "if you assume that any student would want to relive that day.." you can't have it both ways..which is what you seem to be trying to do.. doug
Rob March 07, 2011 at 01:05 AM
Nobody would want to relive that day, as we have established, but if a student wanted to talk about his experience, to vent or otherwise, they deserve a forum of this caliber - and I would rather hear from a fellow student than a reporter. Do we want to "relive" the event? No. Do we want to support one another? Yes. There's a difference between listening and enjoying. I suppose we're going to be at a stalemate on this topic until one of us knocks the chessboard over. So why don't I do it now? No need to carry on this conversation. You have your opinion and I have mine.
Dolores Brown March 07, 2011 at 01:41 AM
Rob: I, for one appreciate hearing Doug's story. The chaos of the day was not only on campus, but across the street as well. And to hear the story from a local reporter and not what the national networks were publicizing is very much appreciated. I know you disagree with Doug, and I appreciate that as well. But the story from all sides is important. I am one who would not want anyone to relive that day, so that is why I appreciate Doug's story. It was willingly told from another viewpoint, was sensitive yet informative, and it didn't involve asking anyone to relive that horrible day. Many who "enjoy" reading it DO care. Just as they would care to listen to any of the victims who felt the need to speak. Believe me when I say I'm sorry you had to live such a nightmare. Nobody should. Adult or child. There seems to be a lot of healing that still needs to take place, and with all sincerity, I hope that process begins now.
Phil Owens March 07, 2011 at 05:31 AM
Hubris? Insensitivity? I don't see it. If you live long enough you will find that nearly everyone has an "I remember what I was doing when" story - a personal perspective about a significant events - eg., the Kennedy assassination, the day Elvis died, 9/11, etc. I thought Doug's story was an appropriate feature for this local site. The name calling was unnecessary.

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