Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Last week's elementary school massacre has provoked a lot of emotions for those who have survived similar shootings, including a Utah woman who was a student at Columbine High School.
She attended the Colorado school when two of her classmates stormed the campus.
“I remember that day from start to finish,” Estee Carter said. “I don’t think that ever goes away.”
On April 20, 1999, Carter was a junior at Columbine High School, running for student body president.
“I was the last class that went into the library that day, before we went to lunch. That is where everything happened,” she recalled.
She remembers her science partner running into the cafeteria hysterical.
When I go into a public place, I think, where are the exits? When I'm in a movie theater, I'm thinking, how would I get out of here?
“I walked out, ran out with her outside, and actually I do not remember still to this day why I turned around and came back in. I don't know if I heard it, if I saw stuff. But had I turned that corner, that's where Danny Rohrbough and Rachel Scott were, and that's where they passed away.”
Carter went back into the cafeteria and got underneath a table. She could hear the gunfire as the shooters made their way through the school.
“To me it was so clear. I grabbed my backpack and my keys and I went outside, out of the student entrance, and that's when I realized my brother wasn't there,” she said.
Her brother TC was hiding under a desk in a science classroom that the killers actually tried to enter.
“They sprayed it over the top. They tried the door, it was locked, and then they were distracted by the teacher, who died,” she said.
Carter reached her parents soon after the attack, but they waited anxiously for news about her brother.
“We didn’t have cellphones like we do now, and the communication wasn’t that good,” she said. “My dad sat her (mother) down and said, ‘He might not come back. You need to be ready for that,’” Carter recalled.
She said the family prayed and felt peaceful that he was OK. “But two hours later, that is really hard because at that point most of the kids that had been injured were at hospitals and were identified. So most of the kids you hadn’t heard from are kids that are not going to come out.”
Two hours later, they learned that TC was safe. Carter and her brother count their blessings that neither of them saw any of the killings or aftermath. That made a big difference in their recovery, she said. But that day still haunts her.
“I don't think you are ever completely the same,” she said. “Still when I go into a public place, I really do think, 'Where are the exits?'”
The Columbine shootings shattered a community and the nation, but Carter also remembers how people came together.
“Initially I think time stood still,” she said. “I have never experienced anything like it. Nobody went to work. Nobody went to school. People did a lot with church and with family. Those were the focuses. There were lots of prayer services, a lot of community service.”
Several weeks after the shooting, the students were transferred to another high school. The goal was to get people back with a routine and then to receive some counseling.
“It was an interesting time because it was such a horrible event, but it was interesting because we saw so many good things at that time also,” she said. “I was amazed at the outpouring. People would donate food at all the gatherings. It brought out the best in people as well, really good people that helped us in our community at the time.”
Two months after the shooting, Carter was asked to participate in a youth violence summit. Her remarks were quoted in newspapers around the country.
“I said something when I was 17, and I still really believe it,” she said. “I think we focus so much on the periphery on the what, on the gun control, violent movies and we focus on the what and not the why. I think that the foundation of our society is our family. It is what is going on in our homes, and I believed it then and really believe it now.”
The advice she offers the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary is to know that little by little, things will get easier.
“I think you take it one day at a time, and it will get better,” she said. “But that is much easier to say when you came out.”
Contributing: Shara Park and John Daley