In the wake of tragedy comes hope, resilience and triumph - WFSB 3 Connecticut

Lessons from Columbine

In the wake of tragedy comes hope, resilience and triumph

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LITTLETON, CO (WFSB) -

It was more than a decade ago when this country was mourning with Littleton, CO, after 13 people were shot and killed at Columbine High School.

Their recovery is still under way all these years later, but as Newtown begins its healing, Eyewitness News reached out to some the people in Littleton, CO,  to find out how they moved on.

Eyewitness News sat down with everyone from the parents of survivors and victims to the teachers who were inside Columbine High School during the shootings to the principal and law enforcement.

Eyewitness News reporter Robert Goulston and photojournalist Brian Elba begin our week-long series, Lessons From Columbine, talking to one mother who still struggles with so many unanswered questions.

Years after that mass shooting, the Littleton community has made enormous progress, but healing is something they're still doing.

The community built a memorial that sits near Columbine, but it's out of view.

Dr. Carolyn Mears, a parent of a Columbine survivor, was asked how she felt when she first heard of the shooting at Sandy Hook.

"It was just, 'Oh no. Not again,'" she said. "Now it's the babies. It's the babies this time."

Mears was one of the mothers outside Columbine High School on that April day in 1999.

Her son, a sophomore at the time, was trapped inside while the two killers were moving through the building, shooting everyone in sight.

Like the parents in Newtown, Mears was brought to a staging area where the "not knowing" dragged on for hours. It was late that day when she finally reunited with her son who was alive - but not the same.

"We knew many of the children killed and here was my son walking through the door and he was physically OK and yet we were all changed dramatically by that experience," she said.

Mears began our conversation by showing us where their community remembers, the Columbine Memorial.

The inner circle honors the students and teacher killed. The outer edge is for everyone else impacted by that day. She shared her experience from those first moments after the shooting until now.

"I felt as if the world I lived in had shattered. I had lost my place in the world, the world didn't make sense to me anymore. There was the real world, but this wasn't the world I was used to," she said.

To make her way through this new world and to gain a better understanding of how this event would impact her family, Mears got a Ph.D., spending years researching and writing about what these types of crimes do to people.

"In an aftermath of a shooting any event a crime like this is whether it's in a school, or a theater or a church. There is that coming together immediately and then there is quite often a period of great controversy and anger and disruption and it takes time for that to play out," Mears said.

Mears, like everyone, is now watching the questions surfacing in the wake of Sandy Hook: How do you help the families impacted so severely? What do you do with the building where the horror played out? How do you figure out when and how to pay tribute to the so many people suffering from that day?

But Goulston asked how the community was able to make decisions with so many emotions and so many opinions going on at the same time.

"I think you'll see that there is a lot of variety expressed and I think it was allowing people that when you look at some of the markers on the memorial," she said. "When you allow people to express their opinions you honor their voice. So there are compromises that are made and the goal has to be what is the best for the kids, for the community, for the parents and the teachers. For the school."

But what about the decision to keep Columbine High School open?

"It was tough," Mears said. "It's still tough, truthfully. To drive by that school on certain days and I'm right back there. At that moment on April 20, 1999, I wanted the school gone. I absolutely never wanted to see it again," she said. "I couldn't imagine driving by that school and knowing my child was in there at the same time."

But Mears said the meetings, the public forums and feedback from everyone all helped the community decide to keep the school.

Current and former students started coming forward saying they did not want to lose their school because it was part of their history, and they had so many happy memories before the tragedy.

Mears said it's most likely going to be the same at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"There are a lot of little ones who were there as kindergartners and now off in other places," Mears said. That's their school. I think the community has a certain ... It's a very complex situation. A very difficult decision to make. It's hard for any community to make one right decision about tearing down a school."

Goulston asked Mears about the Columbine memorial and why the location works so well.

"It's near, but far enough away that it doesn't impact the functioning of the school," she responded. "That is a school where people were coming up to kids in the years afterwards kneeling in front of them and saying, 'Oh you poor thing.' Where you hear all those kids and giving them flowers or saying, 'I'll pray for you.'"

Mears said the passing of time helps, but there are still challenges.

"You try to find the moments of joy," she said. "Those moments of peace, and eventually they become larger and longer. You'll see your son smile, or see your daughter giggle or see high school students holding hands walking down the street and you think the world is still a good place."

While she knows her family and community are in a good place, she hopes what she has learned will somehow help the people of Newtown.

"If I had only known 14 years ago that at some point we could make it through, we could incorporate this horrific tragedy into our experience and find joy, that, basically we could do this. If I had known that then I think I could have gotten through it a lot easier. Hope is magical."

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