A Survivor's Story: 10 Years After Columbine

Anne Marie Hochhalter survived the shooting at the school and another tragedy on its heels.

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Editor's note: The following article is based on an interview with Anne Marie Hochhalter.

Anne Marie Hochhalter used to be a self-described "band dork." She spent most of her time playing clarinet in Columbine High School's marching band and wind symphony, and—because she was shy—Anne Marie didn't stray far beyond the band's practice room when making friends. Part of Anne Marie's shyness stemmed from her self-consciousness. She loathed the ugly glasses, braces, and lanky build she still sported as a high school upperclassman.

Though she felt more comfortable being in the background, the national spotlight is where Anne Marie landed 10 years ago after two classmates whom she hardly knew tried to kill her outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., while she was eating lunch with friends. Two bullets fired by Eric Harris's TEC-9 semi-automatic weapon hit Hochhalter. One pierced her chest; the other, her spinal cord. She survived, thanks to a four-hour-long surgery, and lives today as a paraplegic. But the horrific incident began Hochhalter's transformation from an introverted teen into an outgoing, self-sufficient woman who has developed the strength to move past both the shooting and the personal tragedies she suffered because of it.

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When Hochhalter first heard sounds of gunfire on April 20, 1999, she thought the pop-pop-popping was coming from a paint-ball gun. Even when she saw deep red liquid appear on the clothing of students who had been shot, she assumed the color was coming from red paint balls. The senior class would graduate in a few weeks, and she figured the sounds were part of someone's senior prank. When she saw another student collapse on the sidewalk after being shot, she realized the truth. Before she could get up to run away, Hochhalter felt a stinging in her back. As she turned to identify the cause, she realized that she couldn't feel anything from her chest down.

"I sat there banging my legs trying to make them work, but they wouldn't," Hochhalter says. "Then I thought maybe they had shot me with a tranquillizer, but I never expected I had been hit with a bullet and paralyzed permanently."

One of her friends realized she had not followed when they fled. He came back to drag her away, but while he was doing so, Hochhalter was hit a second time. This time the bullet passed through her lungs, diaphragm, and liver. Her spine injury prevented her from feeling the pain of the bullet traveling into and out of her body. But she couldn't breathe. Her friend was unable to drag her all the way to safety without putting himself in danger, so he settled on a spot near the wall of the school and out of the line of fire. It was hot that day, and Hochhalter could smell blood from her wounds curdling in the heat while she lay waiting for help.

Forty-five minutes later, Hochhalter was rescued by an EMT, rushed to a nearby hospital, and taken in for emergency surgery. The doctors began to operate so quickly that Hochhalter saw the scalpel coming down to slice open her chest before the anesthesia kicked in. Her memory of the days and weeks after surgery is much hazier than her clear image of the surgical tool that helped save her life. She does recall her doctors telling her that she nearly became the 14th victim to die—doctors and paramedics were unable to save 12 students and one teacher whom Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot. She also remembers having a tube down her throat that prevented her from speaking. To convey her jumbled thoughts, Hochhalter wrote questions and statements on pads of paper provided by her mother. Her mother saved every note.

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Hochhalter's mother had a history of mental illness. Carla Hochhalter's depression and paranoia intensified during the years preceding Columbine, and the mother Hochhalter once knew was fading away long before the attack at the school. Carla suffered from delusions that people were stalking her or trying to steal her belongings, and she hoarded things like empty peanut butter jars. During Hochhalter's time in the hospital, Carla horded all of her daughter's handwritten notes. Carla's increasingly strange behavior led her daughter to retreat from their relationship in the years before and the months after the shooting, a decision Hochhalter now regrets.