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.
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.
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.
On October 22, 1999, six months after the Columbine massacre, Carla Hochhalter committed suicide. She went to a pawn shop, asked to see a gun, loaded it with bullets, and killed herself inside the store. She apparently sought to free the family of her illness's burden and give them more time to focus on Anne Marie. Until Hochhalter heard of her mother's death, she had hoped that things were finally starting to turn around for her. The family had moved into a new, wheelchair-accessible home a few weeks earlier. Hochhalter had accepted her injury, returned to school, and was doing well in physical therapy. "On the day of her death, I thought she was at her own therapy," Hochhalter says. "I wanted so badly to believe that it was an accident, but when they said suicide, my mind went blank. I felt helpless, alone, confused. More so than anything, I longed to have her back."
When Hochhalter returned to school, no one knew how to approach her. Students stared at her. Teachers gave her A's even though she expended little effort. She remembers little of her senior year at Columbine or the following summer other than major milestones like prom and graduation. Hochhalter's counselor once described this as "losing time."
Unlike others who had been wounded during the massacre, Hochhalter found herself incapable of moving forward. She took classes at a local community college the year after graduation, but she couldn't muster any excitement about transferring to another college or a career. Though she didn't think it possible, things got even worse during the summer of 2001 when her father moved the family to a mountain home about an hour away from their old home in Littleton. Neither she nor her brother, Nathan, wanted to move. Nathan continued attending Columbine High School in spite of his hour-plus commute each morning and afternoon. Hochhalter, scared to relearn how to drive, had no means of escaping from the mountain's isolation.
"The time I spent living in the mountains was one of my darkest hours. I say this to give others hope that it's possible to rebound from such a dark place, but I contemplated suicide in the mountains," Hochhalter says. "I was no longer able to attend school, and I was not working. I sat around watching TV all day, and it was awful, but I realize now that I had to go down before I could go back up."
A year later, with renewed faith in God and her own capabilities, Hochhalter turned her life around. During the summer of 2002, she bought a townhouse of her own, using some of the money she and other victims received in an insurance settlement from the shooters' parents. The area to which she moved was near a Christian church that Hochhalter had begun attending with the help of a friend who shuttled her from her family's mountain home to church and back each Sunday. Hochhalter learned how to drive again, re-enrolled in college, and got a part-time job at Bath and Body Works. "Even though at one point my new townhouse did not have a working shower, I chose to live there anyway and drive back up to the mountains each day just to shower because I knew I was ready to be out on my own."
Hochhalter's friendship with Sue Townsend is another piece of what helped her feel ready to regain her independence and start a new life. The two women met when Sue volunteered to drive Hochhalter to physical therapy once a week. Sue was mourning the death of her stepdaughter, Lauren, one of the students killed at Columbine, and saw helping Hochhalter as a way to give back in Lauren's honor. Though neither woman could replace the family members they have lost, they have been able support each other as survivors of the shooting and its repercussions.
"When I first met Anne Marie, she was shy and introverted, and now she is a capable, confident, beautiful young woman who has overcome more in her young life than some face in an entire lifetime," Townsend says. "Anne Marie once asked me, 'Do you think Lauren and my Mom had something to do with this?'—the word 'this' meaning the relationship she and I share."
Hochhalter now manages the Bath and Body works where she started as a part time associate seven years ago. She wants to switch professions but is not yet sure what she wants to do with her bachelor's degree in business with an emphasis in management.
Though she has come far since the shootings 10 years ago, she is also never far from reminders of how the tragedy has affected others.
"Every so often, I'm still reminded of Columbine's lingering effects," Hochhalter says. "Once I was checking out at a grocery store and the cashier asked me, bluntly, why I was in a wheelchair, so I responded, bluntly, that I was one of the students injured at Columbine High School. Then a person emerged from behind me in line to tell me that he was sorry he had not been able to get to us sooner—he was part of the SWAT teams that were not allowed to enter the school until hours after the shooting began—and I was able to tell him 'It's OK, no one blames you, I don't blame you.' It was one of the greatest moments of my life."