A quarter-century after Columbine killings, survivors and community members gather to process their grief and ‘never forget’

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Former Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis holds his head in his hands at the start of a memorial service to mark those killed in the mass shooting at Columbine High School 25 years ago, at First Baptist Church in Denver, April 19, 2024.

Thirteen chairs sat on a dark chancel in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in downtown Denver Friday evening. A small candle was lit in each chair representing those who were shot and killed at Columbine High School 25 years ago this weekend.

Survivors, family, friends and advocates gathered in the church to honor those 12 students and one teacher on the eve of the anniversary of the tragedy in Littleton. 

Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was a sophomore when he was killed, said his grief has changed over the last 25 years.

“What I experienced today is a lot different than what I was experiencing at the fifth anniversary,” said Mauser, who became a gun safety advocate following the massacre. “You get some healing over time, you know, face the fact that it's never going to go away, but it's a different kind of pain than it was years ago.”

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Taking their seats at a memorial service to mark 25 years since the Columbine High School mass shooting, from left, former Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis, shooting victim Daniel Mauser’s father Tom Mauser, Columbine teacher Kiki Leyba, and former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Giffords was shot and severely wounded in 2011.

On the morning of April 20, 1999, two seniors committed the killings and injured others before dying by suicide in the school’s library. 

Kiki Leyba was in his first year teaching English at the school. That morning he was in then-Principal Frank DeAngelis’ office when he got the life-changing news.

“He was offering me a continuing contract for the coming year,” Leyba said. “That's when everything began to happen.”

At Friday’s vigil, Leyba wore a gray Columbine baseball jersey with blue pinstripes that featured his name and the year he was hired. Other staff have the same jersey, and alumni have them with the years they graduated on the back of their jerseys.

Despite the turn of events, Leyba never seriously considered leaving the school, and he still teaches at Columbine. The environment there over the last 25 years has helped him cope with the shooting.

“I think for me, walking back in there every day, every year, I think that really was helpful for me to be within that community, to be with my peers, amazing people that I work with and staff,” Leyba said. “They're wonderful, man. They honestly have never dreaded a day of work there and it's always been a wonderful place to be. Feels like family and home.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Thirteen empty chairs with candles and roses sat on an empty chancel in front of people gathered to remember those who died in the mass shooting at Columbine High School 25 years ago, at First Baptist Church in Denver, April 19, 2024.

Columbine High School alumnus Nathan Hochhalter spoke at the vigil, saying he was in earth science class when the shooting occurred. He told the crowd that the observances feel different each year.

“Some years I feel hopeful. And other years I feel remorseful. But this year I feel somewhere in between,” Hochhalter said. “A quarter of a century has passed since everything changed, at least for me.” 

His sister Anne Marie was paralyzed from the shooting. Their mother Carla took her own life several months later.

“I leaned hard on my relatives and my close friends to get me through those times,” Nathan Hochhalter said Friday. 

“I just want to use this moment to let everyone know that it's okay to ask for help, whatever your situation is, either as a survivor 25 years later, or someone struggling with any part of their life, these things come in waves and they can hit you when you least expect it.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, of Arizona, who was shot and severely wounded by a gunman in 2011, walks into a memorial service for the victims of the Columbine mass shooting with Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine, at First Baptist Church in Denver, April 19, 2024.

During the middle of the vigil, attendees were asked to introduce themselves to the person next to them and share where they were when the Columbine High School mass shooting occurred. Then, many raised their hands to show how they were affected by the tragedy and other gun violence.  

Former U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords briefly spoke. She survived a mass shooting in her home state of Arizona in 2011, when she was hosting a constituent meeting in a supermarket parking lot and a gunman opened fire. Giffords was shot in the head. 

Six people were killed and 12 others were injured. Giffords resigned from Congress to focus on her recovery. She said she has never given up hope that her own situation, and the epidemic of gun violence, will get better.

“I chose to make a new start, to move ahead, to not look back. I'm relearning so many things, how to walk, how to talk, and I'm fighting to make the country safer. It can be so difficult,” Giffords said. “I learned that people care for each other and work together. Progress is possible,” she added. “But change doesn't happen overnight and we can't do it alone.” 

Giffords has been an advocate against gun violence and campaigns for gun control laws through the organization that bears her name. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Jeremy Baker, center, pauses while reading a remembrance of Daniel Mauser, one of those killed during the Columbine High School mass shooting 25 yers ago, during a memorial at First Baptist Church in Denver, April 19, 2024.

Elsewhere in Friday’s program, students read aloud each victim’s name and explained a bit about their biography. After each one, the crowd said “Never Forgotten,” and a bell tolled. The vigil concluded with a moment of silence and the song “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World’ recorded by Israel Ka’anoi’i Kamakawiwo'ole.

Mass shootings have continued and proliferated nationally since Columbine. Those tragedies have extended to movie theaters, churches, grocery stores and other public spaces.

Adam Shore is the executive director of Colorado Ceasefire, a gun violence prevention organization that was started as a result of Columbine. He was in his native Australia when Columbine happened. But, 22 years later, he and his family drove into the parking lot when the Boulder King Soopers’ shooting occurred. They were uninjured.

Shore said Friday he expects his organization to double-down on pushing for more public safety measures on gun violence through the state legislature, over objections from Republicans who believe the measures chip away at the 2nd Amendment.

“The majority of people really have had enough with the situation. So I expect after this event, we'll all get a big burst of energy and work hard for the rest of the legislative session,” Shore said. “We've got a record number of bills going across the street [at the State Capitol].

For Mauser, it’s perplexing that Colorado has had so many mass shootings. But since Columbine, he said there has been improvement in protecting students. He hopes others learn from the tragedy to improve their own protocols.

“We've had unfortunately more people come into this movement as survivors and more people come in to help out and with that, more people to testify. So I don't do as much as I used to,” Mauser said.  

“If you go back 10, 15 years ago, there were pretty much two of us who were doing 80% of the testifying. Probably now I don't do nearly as much because other people have stepped forward and are doing it.”