Columbine 20: SWAT officer talks about chaos, confusion and heartbreaking decisions

ARVADA -- Arvada Police Deputy Chief A.J. DeAndrea was among the first SWAT officers inside Columbine High School 20 years ago this week.  He helped get 189 kids safely out of the school.  And he recently shared what it was like dealing with the chaos, confusion and heartbreaking decisions police officers faced on April 20, 1999.

"There are times when it feels like forever ago, and then there are moments right now when it feels even closer than yesterday," DeAndrea told FOX31.

Midday on a bright blue Tuesday in April 1999, his pager buzzed.  It was a SWAT call.  The dispatcher told him there was a "situation" at Columbine High School in Littleton.

"In my mind, I thought we were going to a barricade.  I didn't know we were going to a school shooting or an active shooting. That wasn't even a term back then," DeAndrea said.

He would soon be among the first officers inside Columbine, as the tragedy continued to unfold.  Two student gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher before turning the guns on themselves.

DeAndrea and his fellow SWAT team members broke a first-floor window in the teacher`s lounge.

"And we make entry into the building, it was absolutely deafening. Fire alarm was going off, and the school bell was going off. Water was mid-shin.  There was a large explosion that we learned about later, that had set off the fire extinguishers," DeAndrea said.

Right away, in a room off the cafeteria, the SWAT team found a door with a group of terrified kids hiding behind it.

"We finally get it opened, and there`s 18 kids.  And we escorted them out of the building," DeAndrea said.

From there, the team spread into the cafeteria searching for survivors and suspects. They were told there were up to six shooters inside the building.  And bombs.

"We see the remnants of an explosive device that went off in a duffle bag," DeAndrea said.

Next, they cleared the area around and inside the auditorium and headed to the second floor of the school, going room to room, looking for students.

"At this point is when we got the radio traffic from our snipers outside that there`s a sign in the window of one bleeding to death, upper level, southern exposed window.  And I knew from my vantage point I had to be close, but I didn't know how close.

It was teacher, Dave Sanders.

This is when DeAndrea and his team had to make a tough choice.  At the same time, they're getting reports of 60 kids - alive - hiding in a closet inside the music room.

"I knew that I had 60 kids that were alive. I believed in my heart there were six gunmen inside that school. There were explosives in that building, we saw the remnants of them, we stepped over them. The one bleeding to death, as crazy as it may sound right now...  I didn't know, was it real, was it a ruse, was I getting led into an ambush?  I didn't know," DeAndrea said.

"I had to make a decision. And so I made the decision to get the 60 out. And that took time to get those 60 kids out," he added.

Another team did finally reach Sanders, but it was too late.

DeAndrea's team breached more classrooms and led more kids safely out of the building.  And then they get heartbreaking news from the SWAT leader, over the police radio.

"And Sgt. Williams called for support over the radio. That`s how we asked for help - 'Support, support, support.'  And (he) gave his location. And his voice cracked. And that was the first time that whole day where I was actually a little scared. To hear his voice kind of crack, you're like 'What the heck,' you know?" DeAndrea said.

The SWAT leader was in the library, where the true devastation of the tragedy came into full focus.  It's where ten Columbine students died.

They also found the gunman dead from self-inflicted wounds inside the library.  Soon, the first sweep of the building was complete and before long, all survivors were safely out of the building.  It was one of the most difficult days of DeAndrea's career.  And it could have been so much worse, because Columbine was less a successful school shooting than it was a failed school bombing.

"The plan at Columbine was to blow up the school.  And I can say thank God for one little tiny component, because the devices were built correctly, they just had one component that was of the wrong make. And that`s why those things failed," DeAndrea said.

Tonight at nine: As if one school shooting wasn't enough, Deputy Chief DeAndrea has actually responded to three school shootings in his career.  He shares the lessons he and others learned at Columbine that have saved lives over the last 20 years.

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