A mysterious gunman took six girls hostage at the high school in this mountain town Wednesday, using them as human shields for hours before shooting and fatally wounding one and then killing himself as SWAT team members moved in, authorities said.
The gunman was cornered with the girls in a second-floor classroom at Platte Canyon High School and he released four of them, one by one.
Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener said authorities decided to enter the school after the man cut off negotiations and set an unspecified deadline. He had already warned authorities he had a backpack full of explosives.
"It was then decided that a tactical solution needed to be done in an effort to save the two hostages," the sheriff said. He said authorities used explosives as they entered the classroom, only to have the suspect fire at officers, shoot one of the girls and then himself.
The wounded girl, who was believed to be 16, was taken to a Denver hospital, where she was declared dead, St. Anthony's Hospital spokeswoman Bev Lilly said. She did not release the girl's name.
There was no known link between the suspect and his victim. The sheriff said authorities know little about him -- one official declared him a virtual John Doe -- and he was at a loss to explain a motive.
"I don't know why he wanted to do this," Wegener said, his voice breaking.
The sheriff, a 36-year resident of Bailey who had a son in the high school, said he knew the girl's family and was "scared to death" as he handled the unfolding hostage situation. Asked if he second-guessed decision to confront the gunman, he said no.
"I have to go and eventually I have to face a family about the fact that their daughter is dead," he said in a low voice, obviously upset. "So, what would you do?"
The last hostage was unharmed and spoke with authorities. School was canceled for the rest of the week at the high school and the adjoining middle school, which was locked down for hours during the crisis.
"We are a community in mourning," schools superintendent Jim Walpole said. "Our thoughts, our prayers are with our students, staff and their families. Especially the family of the student we lost."
The sheriff said the gunman threatened the girls virtually throughout the four-hour ordeal, at one point fired a shot within the classroom and shielded himself with his hostages whenever he neared windows.
Students described the suspect as a bearded man toting a camouflage backpack and the sheriff said the man was carrying a handgun.
Tom Grigg said his 16-year-old son, Cassidy, was in a classroom when the man walked in, fired a gun and began telling some students to leave and others -- all girls -- to stay.
"He stood them up at the blackboard," Grigg said. "He hand-picked the ones he wanted to get out."
The gunman told Cassidy to leave, but he said he wanted to stay with the girls, Grigg said.
"The guy flipped him around and put the gun in his face and said, 'It would be in your best interest to leave,"' Grigg said.
The lines of students fleeing the high school and middle school, the bomb squads and the frantic parents scrambling to find their loved ones reminded many of the scene at Columbine High School in 1999, where two students killed 13 people before taking their own lives. The suburban Denver high school is less than an hour's drive from Bailey.
As with Columbine, bomb squads were at the scene here to investigate at least one suspicious device.
Michael Owens, who has one son at the middle school and another in the high school, said the anxiety was worse because the memory of Columbine was still fresh.
"Things that are out of your control, you just what you can do," he said. "It's like an earthquake."
This time, the situation unfolded not in suburban Littleton but in a narrow, winding canyon carved by the South Platte River about 35 miles southwest of Denver. Ambulances were parked in the end zone of the football field and a tank-like SWAT team vehicle was parked nearby on a closed-down highway swamped with gun-toting sheriff's officers and police.
Students described a chaotic scene inside after the intercom announced "code white." Ani-Rae Lovell said everyone was told to stay in their classrooms.
"It took about 25 minutes before someone opened the door, we didn't know who it was," she said. "It was a Park County sheriff."
Bill Twyford said he received a text message from his 15-year-old son Billy, a student at the high school, at about 11:30 a.m. It said: "Hey there, there's a gun hijacking in school right now. I'm fine, bad situation though."
The two schools have an enrollment of about 770 students, with 460 in the high school. Students from both were taken by bus to another school for a head count, and there were cheers from parents as their loved ones arrived.
Rob Branigan, who picked up his daughter Devin, said the third-grader held up well.
"She's a veteran. She was in New York on 9/11," he said. The little girl said her teacher wasn't sure what was happening but told her students to stay close to the walls.
Other parents pressed authorities for details.
"I am just really upset," said Sherry Husen, whose son plays on the high school football team and was told not to return to school from his part-time job. She said her husband called to tell her there was a shooting at the school
"I'm just terrified. I'm terrified," she said. "I know so many kids in that school."
The family moved to Bailey, a town of about 5,500 people, about 14 years ago. It has become largely a bedroom community for commuters who work in Denver.
"We moved up here for the mountain solitude, and I just never thought this would happen in this school, but it happens everywhere," Husen said. "I don't know what else to say."
John and Michelle Bellomy, who have two sons in the high school, said they were at home when they learned hostages had been taken.
"To sit home, you feel like you have to do something," John Bellomy said. "And by being as close as you can get, there's a sense of community, a shoulder you can cry on. This is a small community ... "
"You never expect something like this to happen here," his wife added.
Other schools in the area were put in lockdown, with students not be allowed to leave until administrators determined it was safe. Kimberly Langston of Swedish Medical Center in suburban Denver said the hospital's emergency department was put on alert.
In Pine Junction, north of Bailey, Heather McDanel was watching the news for details. She has a sister in the high school and two daughters in a nearby elementary school.
"I can't believe it's happening, especially here," she said.