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.