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A quarter century after the Columbine assassination, survivors and community members come together to process their grief and ‘never forget’

On Friday evening, thirteen chairs lined a dark chancel in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church in downtown Denver. A small candle was lit in each seat to represent the people shot and killed at Columbine High School 25 years ago this weekend.

Survivors, family, friends and advocates gathered at the church to honor the 12 students and one teacher on the eve of the anniversary of the Littleton tragedy.

Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was a sophomore when he was killed, said his grief has changed over the past 25 years.

“What I experienced today is very different from what I experienced during the fifth anniversary,” said Mauser, who became a gun safety advocate after the massacre. “You get some healing over time, you know, face the fact that it’s never going to go away, but it’s a different kind of pain than it was years ago.”

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

They take their places at a memorial service marking 25 years since the mass shooting at Columbine High School, from left to right former Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis, father of shooting victim Daniel Mauser, Tom Mauser, Columbine teacher Kiki Leyba and former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Giffords was shot and seriously injured in 2011.

On the morning of April 20, 1999, two seniors committed the murders and injured others before dying by suicide in the school’s library.

Kiki Leyba was in his first year as an English teacher at the school. That morning he was in then-director Frank DeAngelis’ office when he got the life-changing news.

“He offered me a contract for the next year,” Leyba said. “Then everything started happening.”

At Friday’s vigil, Leyba wore a gray Columbine baseball jersey with blue pinstripes bearing his name and the year he was hired. Other employees have the same shirt, and alumni have it with the years they graduated on the back of their shirt.

Despite the turn of events, Leyba never seriously considered leaving the school, and he still teaches at Columbine. The environment there has helped him cope with the shooting over the past 25 years.

“I think for me, walking back there every day, every year, it was really helpful for me to be within that community, to be with my peers, great people that I work with and staff,” Leyba said. “They’re great, man. To be honest, they have never dreaded working there for a day and it has always been a wonderful place to be. It feels like family and home.”

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Thirteen empty chairs with candles and roses stood in an empty chancel for people gathered to remember those who died in the Columbine High School mass shooting 25 years ago at First Baptist Church in Denver on April 19, 2024.

Columbine High School alumnus Nathan Hochhalter spoke at the vigil and said he was in earth science class when the shooting happened. He told the crowd that the celebrations feel different every year.

“Some years I have hope. And other years I regret. But this year I feel somewhere in between,” Hochhalter said. “A quarter of a century has passed since everything changed, at least for me.”

His sister Anne Marie was paralyzed by the shooting. Their mother Carla took her own life a few months later.

“I leaned hard on my family members and close friends to get me through those times,” Nathan Hochhalter said Friday.

“I just want to take this moment to let everyone know that it’s okay to ask for help, no matter what your situation is, as a survivor 25 years later, or as someone struggling with any part of their life, these things They come in waves and they can hit you when you least expect it.”

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot and seriously wounded by a gunman in 2011, walks into a memorial service for the victims of the Columbine mass shooting with Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine, at First Baptist Church in Denver, April 19, 2024.

Midway through the vigil, attendees were asked to introduce themselves to the person next to them and share where they were when the mass shooting at Columbine High School occurred. Many then raised their hands to show how they were affected by the tragedy and other gun violence.

Former U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords spoke briefly. She survived a mass shooting in her home state of Arizona in 2011, when she was hosting a constituent meeting in a supermarket parking lot and a gunman opened fire. Giffords was shot in the head.

Six people were killed and twelve others were injured. Giffords resigned from Congress to focus on her recovery. She said she has never given up hope that her own situation, and the gun violence epidemic, will get better.

“I chose to make a fresh start, move forward and not look back. I’m relearning so many things, how to walk, how to talk, and I’m fighting to make the country safer. It can be so hard,” Giffords said. “I learned that people take care of each other and work together. Progress is possible,” she added. “But change doesn’t happen overnight and we can’t do it alone.”

Giffords is an advocate against gun violence and campaigns for gun control laws through the organization that bears her name.

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Jeremy Baker, center, pauses as he reads a memory of Daniel Mauser, one of the victims in the Columbine High School mass shooting 25 years ago, during a memorial service at First Baptist Church in Denver, April 19, 2024.

Elsewhere in Friday’s program, students read each victim’s name and explained a bit about their biography. After each song the crowd said “Never Forget” and a bell rang. The vigil concluded with a moment of silence and the song “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World,” recorded by Israel Ka’anoi’i Kamakawiwo’ole.

Since Columbine, mass shootings have continued and increased nationally. These tragedies have spread to movie theaters, churches, supermarkets and other public spaces.

Adam Shore is the executive director of Colorado Ceasefire, a gun violence prevention organization founded as a result of Columbine. He was in his native Australia when Columbine happened. But 22 years later, he and his family were pulling into the parking lot when the Boulder King Soopers shooting occurred. They were unharmed.

Shore said Friday he expects his organization to push for more public safety measures against gun violence through the state Legislature, over the objections of Republicans who believe the measures take away the Second Amendment.

“The majority of people have really had enough of the situation. So I expect that after this event we will all have a great burst of energy and work hard for the rest of the term,” said Shore. “There’s a record number of bills hitting the streets (at the State Capitol).

To Mauser, it’s baffling that Colorado has had so many mass shootings. But since Columbine, he said there has been an improvement in student protections. He hopes others learn from the tragedy to improve their own protocols.

“Unfortunately, more people have come into this movement as survivors and more people have come to help and therefore more people to testify. So I don’t do as much as I used to,” Mauser said.

“If you go back 10, 15 years ago, there was pretty much two of us doing 80% of the testimony. I probably don’t do nearly as much now because other people have stepped up and are doing it.