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Preparing for the worst, 20 years after Columbine

A Colorado deputy police chief and former SWAT member was on a law enforcement team outside Denver that responded to the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School. Two decades later, he teaches others, including his own daughter, who last year survived a gunman's deadly rampage, how to respond in mass shootings. John Ferrugia of Rocky Mountain PBS reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mass shootings, sadly, have become too regular in the United States. Less common is the kind of training and preparation that can save lives in the midst of tragedy the next time such a shooting occurs. Our story tonight comes to us from John Ferrugia and our colleagues at Rocky Mountain PBS in Colorado, where, as you'll see, training and preparation have made a difference.

  • Madalena DeAndrea:

    My dad always says that the world's not a scary place, you just have to be prepared, so I grew up really having awareness of what was going on around me all the time.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Madalena DeAndrea is a graduate and a former Student Body President of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her father, A.J. DeAndrea, is a Deputy Police Chief of the Arvada, Colorado, Police Department and a former SWAT team member. He was one of the team leaders who responded to the Columbine High School mass murder 20 years ago.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    We had a plan, we were prepared, it was just the wrong plan.

  • John Ferrugia:

    In 1999, when a gunman was barricaded in a building with hostages, the standard law enforcement protocol was to set up a perimeter around the building and call the SWAT team to begin negotiations, but Columbine was different. The gunmen were only interested in killing those inside the school.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    By the time, SWAT gets there, it's way too late.

  • John Ferrugia:

    It was, for DeAndrea, a personal and professional failure.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    It took Columbine for us to change our mind, to change the way that we view the world. Columbine is the watershed moment when we start to talk about active shooters, not just school shootings, but active shootings.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Over the past 20 years, DeAndrea has worked to develop new training tactics in Colorado and across the U.S., Canada, and in Europe to deal with an active shooter.

  • Dispatcher:

    "We've got somebody with a gun."

  • Dispatcher:

    "Shots fired, they have students in the building."

  • John Ferrugia:

    Those evolving tactics were used in 2006 when a lone gunman took hostages in a high school classroom in Bailey, Colorado. A sheriff's deputy immediately entered the building and confronted the gunman, keeping him isolated, and then called the SWAT team that included DeAndrea. All but one student, Emily Keyes, got out alive.

  • Dispatcher:

    "He's down. Took the girl with him."

  • John Ferrugia:

    At Platte Canyon, everyone says that was a tactical success. You said to me 'no that was a failure.'

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    That was a failure.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Because you lost Emily Keyes.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    Because we lost Emily. There's no one that you will ever be able to convince me that was a success.

  • John Ferrugia:

    DeAndrea says in an active shooting situation, everyone needs to take responsibility for their own safety.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    What's the real target?

  • John Ferrugia:

    The individual.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    The individual! So we need to train that across the board. And so we talk about evacuate, evade, and defend.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Evacuate, evade and defend are actions based on U.S. Department of Homeland Security guidelines released in 2013. Actions borne out of mass shootings and training by both law enforcement and survivors. DeAndrea's view of the post-Columbine world has also shaped the lessons he has taught his own family.

  • Madalena DeAndrea:

    I always knew where the exits were in a building. In high school, I would make sure I would know how to get out of my classrooms if something happened or where I would hide. I grew up really having awareness of what was going on around me all the time and just making sure I kind of had a plan.

  • John Ferrugia:

    That planning would help save her life. In November of last year, Madalena, who was working in Los Angeles, went out with friends at a small country and western bar in nearby Thousand Oaks, California.

  • Madalena DeAndrea:

    I love swing dancing. I love line dancing, so it was really exciting to find the little gem in the midst of the big city. I was getting a drink of water and was kind of standing on the outside of the dance floor and I heard popping noises.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    On my phone, I get a text and as I look at it it's my daughter, what is going on here, and she says "Dad, I'm in the bar, there's gunfire."

  • Madalena DeAndrea:

    I knew it wasn't fireworks. I started to smell the powder and immediately I heard my dad's voice in my head, you got to get out of there. The only door I knew about in the building was a door he came in, and so that wasn't safe, and I knew I couldn't get out that way so the next thing was to hide. And I was in that kitchen area again trying to put the wall in between the shooter and I, and a bartender pulled down a ladder from the ceiling and so I immediately went up after her and a couple more people followed us up and then we closed the trap door over the ladder and then we were in the attic.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    That night that was the most hopeless I've ever felt in my life.

  • John Ferrugia:

    As the shooting continued in the bar below her, Madalena knew people were dying.

  • Madalena DeAndrea:

    And I was trying to text people, and I realized in that moment that I couldn't text because my fingers were shaking. And so I had to calm myself down. And from there, once I started getting my heart rate lower, I was able to make some more logical decisions. I need to try to find some way to defend us if he comes up here.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    I'm listening to the radio traffic. I'm texting her, I'm talking to them, I'm sharing the text that she's giving me to their dispatch, and of course I'm booking a flight to Los Angeles on my iPad.

  • Madalena DeAndrea:

    He got on the frequency for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, and he was telling me what was happening on the radio.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Twelve people including a responding police officer were killed before the shooter turned the gun on himself.

  • Madalena DeAndrea:

    The gunshots had stopped by that point in time, and I didn't know what was happening. At Columbine they lost the desire to kill, but they were still walking around, and so I didn't know if that guy was still down there. He got me on the phone with Ventura County's dispatch. They called my cell phone and I picked up in very quietly told them that there was about 6 people in the attic with me.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    And finally she's like, dad I can see SWAT.

  • Madalena DeAndrea:

    I think because of the exposure to what my dad's been through and then also just like his voice in my head throughout the entire part, the process — there was that sense of safety there even in the midst of very intense unsafety. And yeah I think it saved my life.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    It came full circle and my daughter's alive because she was empowered. She was empowered because we had the conversation, and she did what she needed to do to survive. The message is: You've got to talk about it.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Twenty years later, thinking about Columbine and that conversation is still difficult. Sitting in the high school recently, he explained why.

  • A.J. DeAndrea:

    That day changed everything, and I'm very uneasy in here. When I'm in here, when I'm in these 4 walls, all I'm left with is the failures. When I'm outside of this building, I can see all the good that came from it. That all the lives that have been lost in these senseless killings aren't in vain because we've learned and we've made changes and we're taking responsibility for what our part is and that's the message.

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