The Big Hero of Littleton by Rick Reilly (SI Issue date: May 3, 1999)
As usual, coach Dave Sanders spent Tuesday of last week at Columbine High hanging around the kids.
One kept constant pressure on the gaping gunshot wounds in Sanders´s shoulders, using T-shirts off other kids´ backs. Another made a pillow from kids´ sweatshirts for his head. Others covered his shivering body with more shirts.
Outside the science room bullets and shrapnel were still flying, but inside, where Sanders lay, the kids were quietly keeping him talking, conscious, alive. "Who´s this?" they whispered, going through his wallet, showing him his own pictures.
"My ... wife ... Linda," he said with what little breath he had. They asked him about the pictures of his daughters Angela and Coni. They asked him about coaching the Columbine girls´ basketball team. They asked him about coaching the girls´ softball team. They asked him about all of the boys´ and girls´ teams he used to coach. A man coaches just about every team at a school over 25 years, there´s a lot to cover.
Every high school has a Coach Sanders, the giving one, the joking one, the one who sets up the camps, sacrifices his nights to keep the gym open, makes sure the girls have the weight room to themselves twice a week. RUN, GUN AND HAVE FUN is what the girls´ basketball team T-shirts said last season and it worked. The Rebels had their best record in a decade. So when he ran into the cafeteria on Tuesday morning at 11:30, his face bright red, and yelled, "Get out! Get out! They´re shooting!" the hundreds of kids in there took him seriously.
Some people believe Sanders saved the lives of more than 200 kids that day. Witnesses say he led many to the kitchen, to the auditorium, to safety. "He saved my life," says Brittany Davies, one of his jayvee basketball players, "and then he kept running, cutting across the lunchroom, telling people to get down. He left himself in the open where he could get shot."
Columbine English teacher Cheryl Lucas told the Rocky Mountain News, "He was the most responsible for saving a bunch of lives .... They would´ve been sitting ducks if not for Mr. Sanders." But that wasn´t enough for Sanders. There must have been a dozen ways out of the cafeteria to safety. Instead, he ran upstairs to warn more kids.
"I was standing in the science room, looking out the window [in the door leading to the hall]," says Greg Barnes, a varsity basketball player. "Then I saw Coach Sanders turn around, take two shots, right in front of me. Blood went flying off him and he fell."
Sanders got up and staggered into the science room. Teeth were knocked out when he fell. Blood was pouring from his shoulders and chest. A roomful of kids leaped back. Eagle Scout Aaron Hancey, a junior who videotapes boys´ basketball games, began applying pressure to the wounds.
An hour went by. The gunmen had tried to enter the room next to the science room but couldn´t. Hancey talked to police on the science room phone, telling them where he and the others were, that Coach Sanders was badly wounded. The police said a SWAT team was coming.
A second hour went by. Someone crept to a science room window facing the parking lot and held up a sign that read 1 BLEEDING TO DEATH. Still, no SWAT team. No fire ladder to the window. No chopper.
Three hours and nothing. The kids in the science room weren´t hearing explosions anymore, but they dared not run for it. They figured the killers could be anywhere. How could they know that the killers had been dead for more than an hour?
Somehow, Sanders stayed alive, despite losing body heat, blood and breath. "He was a brave man," says Hancey. "He hung in there. He was a tough guy."
Finally, after 3½ hours, a SWAT team burst in. One member said he´d wait with Sanders until a stretcher came. "Even if they´d gotten him out then," says Hancey, "I think he would´ve made it."
Outside, in the hollow-eyed afternoon, there came a rumor that Sanders was in surgery at a Denver hospital. For hours Linda and the girls frantically called area hospitals. Nothing. Finally, at about 9 p.m., Angela went live on a Denver TV station and pleaded, "Does anybody know where my father is?"
Her father was still in that science room. He died by the time paramedics reached him. He died a couple hundred yards from 300 cops and dozens of ambulances. Only the kids in that terrifying room heard his last words: "Tell my girls I love them."
Everybody said Dave Sanders lived for kids.
Should´ve known he'd die for them, too.
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