Evan Todd, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre near Littleton, Colorado, offered his perspective on the event and its aftermath when he spoke at Erskine College Thursday. Invited to the campus in conjunction with the Erskine Seminar reading for freshmen, Dave Cullen’s Columbine, Todd addressed students and faculty at convocation and met later with freshmen.
“That day changed my life,” he said.
Todd, the first of the students shot in the school’s library, explained that on April 20, 1999, the library “was the only place I could hide out from my football coach,” who had told him to run laps during his free class period.
Just a sophomore at the time, he actually exchanged words with the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Altogether, 12 students and one teacher were killed at the Colorado school that day, and 23 people were injured.
“It’s an evil that I can’t even begin to describe,” Todd said.
His first clue that something was wrong was the noise of explosions outside the building. Then there were popping sounds, and students could be heard screaming as they ran down the hall.
“They started with a bomb,” Todd said. “I went over to the window to look out and I could see the smoke. We heard pipe bombs going off in the hallway.”
A teacher told the students in the library to get under the tables, but Todd hid behind a pillar. When Harris and Klebold entered and began shooting, he was the first to be injured in the library, where 12 more were wounded and nine killed.
“The screams were indescribable,” he said.
Harris and Klebold announced, “We’re here for the jocks,” and told all the athletes to stand up. No one did.
“What I remember is the pure evil,” Todd said. “They walked up to a kid who was frozen in his chair, he was so scared. They killed him execution-style.”
Wounded in the face, head and neck, Todd eased away from the pillar and tried to conceal himself, but eventually “saw the boots come around the corner.”
One of the shooters asked him, “Why shouldn’t we kill you?”
Todd answered at first, “I don’t want any trouble.”
“Trouble? You don’t know what trouble is,” came the reply.
“Wait, I didn’t mean it that way,” Todd said.
Then Todd thought of something to say. “I’ve been good to you and to everyone in this school and you know it,” he told the shooters.
The expression of the shooter who had challenged him changed, and he said to his companion, “You kill him if you want.”
“They looked at each other, and they let me live,” Todd recalled.
“I believe there was a divine intervention,” he said. “I was certainly praying—oh please, God, let me live, I’ll be good—and I know others were praying.”
Seven or eight minutes had elapsed since the ordeal began in the library, and after Todd’s exchange with the gunmen, no one else was shot, except Harris and Klebold themselves, who left the library and later committed suicide.
Discussions about guns, religion and politics right after the shootings were troubling to Todd and others who had so recently experienced the trauma of Columbine.
“We had just lost 12 students and one teacher,” he said. “None of the arguments made sense.”
He said he believes the shooters were psychopaths, and that psychopaths are made, not born. Todd referred to a quotation from an unknown author:
Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words;
Be careful of your words, for your words become your deeds;
Be careful of your deeds, for your deeds become your habits;
Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character;
Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.
“I saw Eric’s and Dylan’s focus on evil and death,” Todd said, and he interpreted it as part of a trajectory leading to the mass murder the two students commited.
When one of the girls who had been shot was moaning and calling out, “Oh God, oh God,” one of the shooters said, “Why are you calling for God? I’m God.”
During his meeting with the Erskine Seminar group in Bowie Chapel, Todd said he was glad that Columbine author Dave Cullen “decided to tell the story of the murderers.”
A critical component of understanding the Columbine massacre is “what got them to the point where they could do such a horrible thing.” He said Cullen “never settled for easy answers,” never simply blamed it on bullying, for example, because he was “looking for the truth.”
Despite the horror of his own experience and that of others, “There were so many good things done in the wake of that tragedy,” Todd said.
Significant improvements in school safety and law enforcement procedure resulted from the analysis of mistakes made at Columbine.
For Todd, it was personal. “My faith became stronger,” he said. “I was brought up in a Christian family and had accepted Christ as my savior. But the events of Columbine made me refocus my life.”
One obvious lesson of Columbine is that “evil exists in the world and can’t be ignored,” but Todd also noted the critical importance of “what you do with the moment in time you’re given,” no matter what you are called on to confront.
As for his own experience of seemingly being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Todd takes the view that “God used me because I was in the library.”
If he’d been out running laps as the coach told him to do, his life might be “completely different now,” he admitted.
Asked about his own parents’ reactions, Todd said his mother became extremely protective after the shootings. When his father heard about the shootings, he rushed home and ran into the house without parking his vehicle properly or turning off the engine. Todd said he was blessed to have parents who loved him so much.
In the years since the Columbine shooting, Evan Todd has spoken around the world about faith, anti-violence, bullying and other topics.