A boy could hide in Columbine High School. Let others choose colleges, majors, futures. Senior Adam Foss drove fast, pulled pranks and drifted towards graduation. School was a lark, life a good time. Then the halls erupted with gunshots. The killers were outside the choir room. Panicked students needed help. Who could they turn to? "In here!" Adam shouted. He herded them into an empty office. They waited. They prayed. And in those hours, an aimless boy discovered himself.
It was the kind of day that made Adam Foss want to skip school. A warm sun shone along the Eastern slope of the Rockies, and the anticipation of summer turned every class into a struggle. By the time third period arrived, the temptation was too great. Adam and a pal, Zach Cartaya, sneaked out for a joy ride to a bagel shop. Why not? It was April 20, and graduation was around the corner. How much trouble could they get in?
They returned to Columbine High School in suburban Denver by 11 o'clock, in time for fifth period choir. Choirmaster Lee Andres Sr. planned one final rehearsal before an afternoon concert at a nearby elementary school. From the second row of the tenor section, Adam joined Zach and 103 other schoolmates in warming up.
Mr. Andres listened to his students' voices travel up and down the scale. This group was among the most talented he had seen in his 26 years at Columbine -- and Adam Foss, with his clear, lilting voice, was a standout. Mr. Andres couldn't deny Adam's gift, even though the boy's antics exasperated him.
When Adam wanted to, he could memorize music swiftly and perform flawlessly, but he often cracked jokes and disrupted practice. His nickname was "007." He played the part by wearing dress shirts and ties and driving fast -- until his license was suspended.
Adam was the ringleader in the pack of boys he traveled with, and their escapades were legendary in Littleton: They tied friends' car bumpers to trees, then convulsed in laughter when the bumpers were yanked off. Hiding behind the drive-through intercom at Taco Bell with a stolen bullhorn, they shouted price totals at confused customers who had yet to order. Once, they'd stood outside the King Sooper grocery, announcing a wet T-shirt contest for girls aged 16 to 18.
Soon, Adam knew, the fun would end. The next few weeks would bring final exams, graduation and goodbyes. Then everyone would scatter. Adam's twin, Nick, was heading south to Fort Lewis College in Durango. Zach had been accepted at the University of Northern Colorado, where he planned to major in business. The halls were abuzz with kids comparing plans -- some were going as far away as California. It seemed as if everyone was chasing a dream.
Everyone except Adam.
He hadn't bothered applying to college. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
His mom kept pestering him to find direction. What about the military? Junior college?
Inside the safe, comfortable world of high school, 18-year-old Adam was hiding from his future. The brash, James Bond image -- the derring-do -- masked self-doubt. "Life's a party," Adam always said. But inside, he wondered: Who would he be when school ended and life really began?
He would have to learn the answer eventually. But for now, he'd waltz through his last 18 days as a schoolboy in a place where life was as easy, as smooth as ... Do-re-mi-fa-so ...
As Adam's voice climbed the scale, the door to the choir room flew open and a wide-eyed boy ran inside, shouting. "Someone with a gun is shooting people!"
INSTINCTIVELY, students broke for the two doors leading to the hall. Adam was caught in the middle of a scrambling pack. But when he reached the doorway, something made him pause.
In the split-second before he stepped into the hall, Adam scanned the corridor, taking in the pandemonium: Students fled in all directions, screaming. The acrid smell of smoke filled the air. The girls' softball and basketball coach, Dave Sanders, staggered toward a row of metal lockers, bleeding from the chest.
Adam froze as he saw the muzzle of a shotgun appear from around a corner. A shot rang out. Mr. Sanders collapsed.
Adam jumped back into the choir room and slammed the door. His mind raced; his eyes searched the room. Where could they go?
If the students crouched beneath their seats, the gunman might see them if he entered the room. And Adam knew they couldn't risk an escape down the hall. Although half the students, led by Mr. Andres, had gotten away, dozens remained in the choir room. Not everyone could outrun the gunman.
There was one possibility: Mr. Andres' office. They could seal themselves inside. They could hide.
Adam ran back across the room and flung the office door open. "Get your asses in here!" he shouted.
Zach, who had also witnessed the shooting of Mr. Sanders, knew many of the students clustered around the exits hadn't glimpsed the deadly rampage unfolding outside. "Go to Adam! Go to Adam!" Zach screamed.
Most of the panic-stricken students followed the commands. But several girls in the soprano section froze. "Oh, my god," one whimpered.
Adam didn't hesitate. He lifted a girl out of her seat and carried her to Mr. Andres' office. Zach and two other boys, Jon Broden and Matt Cornwell, grabbed other numb students and shoved them inside. Adam glanced around the choir room. No one was left. He squeezed into the office and shut the door.
The tiny, unventilated room filled with gasps and sobs. Just 8 by 12 feet, the space couldn't comfortably hold 20 people. Fifty-eight were crammed inside.
Someone had snapped off the lights, and the room was illuminated only by a faint glow through a small window in the door. There was no lock. We need to blockade the door, Adam thought.
The office contained a plant, two desks, sheet music, and a tall, metal filing cabinet -- the sturdiest object. Adam forced his way through the tightly packed crowd and began wrestling the cabinet across the room. Zach, Jon and Matt helped slide the cabinet in front of the door. Joined by other students, they positioned the desks behind the cabinet. Adam ripped off his red T-shirt and climbed on a desk to tuck it around the door window.
Now no one could see in.
If they stayed quiet, maybe the killer -- or killers -- wouldn't discover them.
The steady thunder of gunshots seemed to draw closer. So did muffled screams.
"Get on the floor!" Adam commanded. He knew bullets could pierce the thin, particle-board walls.
Students piled haphazardly on top of each other. Adam sat on a desk, adding his 240 pounds to the blockade. Zach joined him and glanced at his pager: 11:30.
The room was so dark Adam couldn't see the faces of his fellow students, but he could hear murmured prayers. In that instant, Adam felt certain they would die. But he wouldn't show his fear.
"No one is going to get in here," he vowed aloud. "I won't let them get through."
JOANN FOSS planned to work late. "Make your own dinner," she'd instructed Adam when she dropped him off at school early that Tuesday morning.
Only recently had Foss, 52, become comfortable letting her boys fend for themselves. Since her divorce 12 years ago, the single mother had arranged her schedule to be home with Adam and Nick and their older brother, Kevin. She had resolved to put her life on hold until they were grown.
Now that day was nearly here. Soon Foss would go back to school, travel the world -- maybe even go out on a date. Her life would be carefree. But she couldn't stop worrying about Adam just yet.
He was such a good, sunny-natured kid. The football coach had taken one look at his stocky, 6-foot-3 frame and begged him to join the team, but sports held no appeal for Adam. The problem was, not many things did: He had no hobbies, and schoolwork was a struggle.
But oh, how he could shine around people. He charmed strangers, was solicitous of his grandmother, and loved kids so much he'd spent a summer working at a nursery school. Foss was proud of him, even though she felt his escapades had shaved years off her life. Just a few weeks ago, she'd awakened in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke. Racing downstairs, she found Adam happily grilling hot dogs on the porch.
She couldn't help but laugh. He put such energy into his wacky schemes. If only he would put more effort into the rest of his life.
She couldn't worry about him forever, though. She had faith he'd find his way eventually. And today she had other things to occupy her mind -- like the training seminar her company was producing.
Her morning passed quickly. Around noon, she overheard a co-worker talking: There had been a shooting at Columbine High. Adam and Nick's school.
On an office television, terrifying images flickered across the screen: police with their weapons drawn, a lifeless body on the sidewalk. Concerned colleagues gathered around Foss.
"What do you want to do?" they kept asking. They would drive her anywhere.
For a few moments, she was transfixed by the television images. But her fear mounted as she scanned the screen in search of her sons' faces.
Finally, she jumped into her Toyota and headed toward Columbine. As she sped down the street, her pager sounded and she glanced down.
A message flashed: "007-007-007."
IN THE TINY OFFICE, someone picked up the phone on the desk and dialed 911, but the number was blocked to prevent pranks. One by one, students called their parents. Zach phoned the bagel shop where he worked.
Zach was Adam's opposite. Slight, dark-complexioned and quiet, he could speed-read complex schoolbooks. But at home, he retreated into comic books and Homer Simpson slippers. He seemed suspended between the pressures of adolescence and the carefree world of a child. His nickname was 73. On a telephone pad, the numbers spelled out SD, for Scooby Doo.
When his boss answered the phone at the shop, Zach whispered instructions: Call the police, then tell my mom I'm OK. He couldn't talk to her; he might break down.
When it was Adam's turn to use the phone, he paged his mother and Nick and punched in his secret code. Now they'd know he was safe.
"Maybe we should leave," Zach whispered.
"It's not worth it," Adam replied.
The temperature rose quickly in the cramped room. It felt like a sauna and smelled of perspiration. Jenette Oberg, a 17-year-old senior, felt her chest tighten and her breath come in gasps. Oh, God, her asthma inhaler was back in the choir room!
Adam's eyes searched the darkened office and came to rest on the thermostat near the door. His fist smashed the plastic covering. He slid the temperature gauge as low as possible. What else could he do to cool the room?
He climbed on a desk and felt around the edges of a ceiling tile. Careful to make no noise, he moved it aside. Several boys lifted Jenette toward the ceiling, where they hoped fresh air circulated through the ducts.
After a few moments, they gently returned her to the floor. Jenette lay in the dark and thought about her decision to hide instead of run. Though it was agonizing to wait and wonder what might happen next, she had no regrets.
In that terrifying moment when half the students fled and the others hid, one factor determined Jenette's choice: Adam's eyes.
They told her she would be safe with him.
HIDE AND SEEK was a game they'd played as children. Now hiding was a means of survival. Down the hall, the killers stalked students in the library. They found a boy crouched under a table. "Peekaboo," one gunman said as he fired.
Any movement, any noise, could give them away.
"Everyone shut up!" Adam hissed.
Sheet music littered the floor and rustled when students stepped on it. Adam and others picked it up. Zach turned the alert on his pager from sound to vibration.
Isolated in the office, the choir members couldn't see the SWAT teams moving in. Men clad in black, wearing helmets and carrying shields, had entered the school and begun ushering students to safety. Anxious parents waited outside the secured perimeter, desperate to be reunited with their children.
Zach Cartaya's mother, Shelly, was among them. She had heard on the radio that the killers were targeting jocks and minorities. Had they found her olive-skinned son, her little boy who loved comic books and Scooby Doo?
She had spoken to him for a few precious moments after receiving the call from his boss. She couldn't stop herself from paging Zach, and he'd returned her call, whispering that he was in hiding. "Pray for us," he'd said. The police warned her not to page her son again -- any sound might provide the shooters with a deadly clue.
As Shelly Cartaya waited, two students approached her car. "I just saw Zach!" one said. "He was in the back of a red pickup truck."
Relief flooded her. She dialed his pager number again. Her cellular phone rang a moment later.
"Zach, where are you?" she blurted desperately.
"Mom," he whispered, "I'm still hiding."
EVERY SECOND dragged by. How many hours had passed? Two? Three? The gunshots never stopped, and the choir members listened intently to each explosion, trying to glean clues about the shooters' movements. Were they coming closer?
The hot, thick air pressed in on them. Boys stripped off their shirts. Several students passed out. There was a half-empty bottle of water in the room, and they rationed it, allowing sips only to those who fainted or had asthma attacks.
One girl squirmed in discomfort. "I have to go to the bathroom," she whispered urgently.
Adam had found a thermos of coffee that Mr. Andres sipped between classes. There was nowhere to dump it out; students lay over every inch of floor space. He gulped down the lukewarm fluid, grimacing at the taste.
"Use this," he said, handing the girl the empty container.
Then the phone rang. Everyone froze.
The police had requested Adam's and Zach's pager numbers so they could communicate without calling the office and possibly alerting the shooters. SWAT teams were on the way, they had said. But neither the students nor the police knew who they were up against: How many assassins were out there?
Was this somehow related to the crisis in Kosovo? a choir member had wondered aloud.
Everyone stared at the ringing phone. Matt Cornwell picked up the receiver cautiously.
The voice on the other end was reproachful: "Do you realize you're late for the concert?"
It was after 1 p.m. Someone from Columbine Elementary School was waiting impatiently for the choir to show up.
ADAM AND HIS TWIN, Nick, had never needed words to communicate. When they were babies, their mother stood outside the bedroom door, listening to their babble. It seemed as though they were speaking their own language.
As they grew up, their connection endured. Joann Foss knew the boys' constant squabbles masked a deep, unspoken love and understanding.
Nick had made it safely out of the school, though he'd fallen 18 feet from a ceiling shaft as he crawled around inside it. From his hospital bed, he thought about the horror he'd witnessed: the blood, the explosions, the empty eyes of a victim. He thought about Adam.
His pager sounded: "007-007-007."
Adam was trying to reassure his brother that he was safe. Nick knew the truth: Adam's trapped.
Nick pulled the IV out of his arm and slid off the bed. He was heading for Columbine High.
A police officer approached as Nick tried to flee. "I'm going back in," he told the officer.
The man led Nick to his room instead.
"You don't understand -- my twin's in there," Nick pleaded.
"I do understand," the officer said. He pulled up his shirtsleeve to show Nick a tattoo: The officer had served in Vietnam. He knew what it meant to leave buddies behind.
THE GUNSHOTS were growing louder. Adam stood pressed against the office wall. Suddenly, he felt a thump against his back. On the other side of the wall, bullets were hitting metal lockers.
Adam kept his face impassive, so the others wouldn't panic or cry out. As minutes passed and the gunfire erupted steadily, Adam came to a decision. Maybe they would all be discovered. Maybe they would all die. But they would not be forgotten. He could ensure that much.
He crept across the room, stepping carefully between bodies. He picked up a black marker and slowly climbed on a desk. Then he looked up. Behind the space where he had pulled out the ceiling tile was a cement block. He stretched his arm toward it.
"In memory of all students at CHS during the shooting," he wrote. Then, one by one, he printed the names of those crowded around him.
AT LEAWOOD Elementary School a few blocks from Columbine High, Joann Foss stood amid a cluster of anxious parents. Police promised to bring the students to this safe haven as soon as they'd given statements. Bus loads of shaken teen-agers were starting to arrive.
Adam should have been at another elementary school by now, singing his heart out. He should have been performing his skit between songs: He always brought down the house when he donned a skirt and, with a much shorter boy, danced a bad tango.
Foss watched as students tumbled off the buses and were swept into the arms of their parents.
Where was Adam?
Three hours had passed inside the hiding place. It felt like an eternity. The room was silent, but outside, gunshots echoed. What did the passage of time mean? Were they closer to being discovered? Which side would come to the door first?
Then, a voice.
Jon Broden peered through the window. A man dressed all in black stood holding a shield.
"Denver police!" he shouted. The students yanked away the desks and filing cabinet and pulled open the door.
The officer commanded them to keep quiet. Adam understood the implication: The police weren't sure how many shooters remained in the building.
Clutching the waistband of the student ahead of him, as instructed, Adam crawled through the choir room. SWAT team members, weapons drawn, flanked the students as they made slow progress to the auditorium and down its stairs.
At the elementary school, as each new bus of students pulled up, parents strained to find the faces of their children. Reunited, they sobbed with relief.
Joann Foss was among a dwindling group of parents growing ever more frantic.
Led by the SWAT team, her son was creeping through the school cafeteria. Ceiling tiles, melted from the heat of exploding bombs, littered the floor. Gunshots pockmarked the blackened, charred walls. Sprinklers, activated by smoke, filled the cafeteria with ankle-deep water. Adam saw a girl's body floating face down.
Then, finally, outside. Safety.
The last bus pulled into Leawood Elementary School.
Where was Adam?
Foss craned her neck, peering into the windows. He had to be here, her big, happy child; she had to see him again, and hug him, and tell him she loved him; he had to be on this bus.
He was hurrying toward her, his blond head towering above the crowd. She held him for a long moment, wanting never to let go.
Around them a small group of parents still waited.
THE DAYS that followed were filled not with exams and graduation, but with goodbyes.
Funerals were held for 12 students and teacher Dave Sanders. Most had died in the library, around the corner from Adam's hiding place.
The choir students finally learned the identity of their pursuers: two classmates who had planned the assault for a year, planting dozens of bombs in the school. Before ending the rampage by turning their guns on themselves, the two had taunted their victims and wounded 23 students.
There was talk about turning Columbine High into a permanent memorial, but the students wanted their school reopened.
Some couldn't talk about the ordeal; others went on national television. Zach Cartaya refused his mother's request to see a counselor, but he gravitated to Adam. The boy who always played the prank-ster, the clown, spent hours on the phone with other survivors. One night, Adam sat his mother down.
"Before, I didn't have any direction, any goals," he told her. "I even questioned why I was put on this earth. What good was I doing anybody?
"Now I have a reason for being here."
Joann Foss looked at her son in wonder: Had this confidence, this presence of mind, existed inside him all along?
"I was trying to find my way," he told her. "Now everything has changed."
Adam Foss wants to buy a house in the next 10 years. He says he's thinking about becoming a firefighter. He wants to help people.
Two nights after the shooting, the choir reunited at a private student memorial in a church near Columbine High. The lead tenor was tall and blond, dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie. As the notes of "Amazing Grace" filled the sanctuary, his voice stood out, strong and confident and clear.
It was no longer the voice of a boy.