Columbine 20: Student who escaped through window is victor, not victim

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HOUSTON -- His image was seen all over the world. The teenage shooting victim, captured by live helicopter cameras, thrusting his nearly lifeless body out of a shot-out second story window to escape the carnage at Columbine High School in Jefferson County 20 years ago.

Some might call Patrick Ireland a victim. He prefers to call himself a victor.

FOX31 met up with Ireland late last month in Houston, where he was speaking at the National Summit on School Safety, a conference for school security officials and administrators organized by two mothers who lost children in the Sandy Hook massacre.

"I was shot twice in the head and once in the foot," he told the audience. "My head came above that library table just an inch or two. Buckshot from the sawed-off shotgun penetrated my skull, traveling through the left hemisphere of my brain, paralyzing me on the right side and impacting my ability to see clearly. No mobility on my right side."

Ireland was 17 years old on April 20, 1999. He was in the Columbine library when the gunmen walked in and started shooting, killing 10 students. Somehow, Patrick survived. Barely able to move, he had to find his way out of the school.

"So, I rolled over onto my back, and began to push myself with my one good leg, for the arduous journey to the nearest exit," Ireland said.

Turns out, the nearest exit was a shot-out second story window.

"It took nearly three hours to crawl the nearly 50 feet from where I was shot to that window," Ireland said. "I finally built up enough strength necessary to hoist myself, push myself up the window, flip over and start sweeping away excess pieces of jagged glass."

Just then, he heard voices. It was the SWAT team in an armored vehicle, pulling up just in time to help.

"I began to make my move. I was out of there. I didn't wait for them to give me the OK. Almost too soon, my lifeless body plunged onto the top of that Loomis-Fargo truck," Ireland said. He landed in the arms of two SWAT officers while millions watched live on national TV.

Ireland became known as "the boy in the window." He was the most iconic reminder of what happened at Columbine, and the personification of a mass shooting victim.

But that victim part didn't set well with him. He spent the next few months at Craig Hospital learning to walk again. And soon, he was right back at Columbine.

"I was able to graduate on time with my class of 2000 as well as achieve my goal of graduating valedictorian," Ireland said.

"Twenty years later, I'm 37 now. I've got three kiddos... 8, 4 (years) and 9 months old. And so I've had some conversations with my oldest daughter, because she's asked questions before, 'Daddy, what happened? Why do you wear that brace? Why do you walk with a limp,' And so we've had some of those conversations," Ireland told FOX31.

He's also had tougher conversations with his daughter. Like what to do if something bad happens at her school.

"We went through fire drills when we were kids and that was normal. And now, the normal is a lockdown drill," Ireland said.

These days, you'd never know what Patrick went through all those years ago, if not for his public speaking engagements, where he reminds people of something important.

"We have a choice of being a victor or a victim," Ireland said.

And he proves with every word which choice he made 20 years ago.

"The key to forgiveness is to stop focusing on what others have done to us, and focus on what has been done for us," Ireland said.

To mark the 20th remembrance of the Columbine tragedy, we're telling the stories of victims and survivors in a unique way.  We're not showing images of the school from April 20, 1999.  We're not airing 911 calls from that day, and we're not showing the names or pictures of the killers.

Saturday, April 20, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the shooting - and we have special programming on FOX31 and Channel 2.

At 5:30 pm and 9:30 pm on FOX31, and at 9:30 pm on Channel 2, join us for "Columbine 20: Heartbreak to Hope," a commercial-free half-hour special anchored by Jeremy Hubbard highlighting Columbine victims and survivors. 

At 8:00 pm on Channel 2, we're airing the broadcast premiere of "13 Families: Life After Columbine," a documentary featuring each of the families most closely affected by the Columbine tragedy.  The documentary will air commercial-free.

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