Seven weeks before the massacre at Columbine High School, Nicole Nowlen, then 16, left her mother’s house to live with her father in Littleton, Colo. and enrolled at the high school.
“He said, ‘I’m putting you here because I know you’ll be safe,’” Nowlen recalled Sunday, while addressing the congregation at Dranesville United Methodist Church. “Little did he, or I, or anyone else for that matter, know just how wrong he was.”
Nowlen was one of 23 Columbine students wounded on April 20, 1999 by two teenage gunmen, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Twelve students and one teacher were killed in the rampage before the shooters turned their guns on themselves.
On that day, five years ago, Nowlen had skipped lunch to do her homework in the school’s second floor library. As she was studying, a girl came running into the library screaming for help. Nowlen at first assumed it was a senior prank, but then a boy staggered in with a gunshot wound to his leg.
Realizing the gravity of the situation, a teacher frantically called 911 while Nowlen and her fellow students scrambled to hide under the library’s tables. They heard loud booms from the killers’ exploding propane bombs and the staccato bursts from the assailants’ guns downstairs.
“It just does not register in your brain what was happening,” she said.
After a few minutes passed, Nowlen saw through a window that Klebold was approaching the library, clad in a black trench coat and armed with a sawed-off shotgun.
As Klebold passed, Nowlen said she heard a voice telling her to move to another table that was more obscured from the door.
“I got this great sense of urgency,” she said. “A voice told me I wasn't safe hiding where I was.”
She quietly changed position, hiding under a different table with a teenager named John Tomlin. He held her hand as the gunmen entered the library.
From under the table, all they could see were pairs of black combat boots walk through the library, methodically killing any students they found.
In all, 10 students hiding under tables in the library were killed, including Tomlin.
Nowlin was struck by nine pieces of hot metal buckshot, fired from the sawed-off shotgun from a few feet away.
“I felt no pain,” she said. “I really didn’t know what was happening to me.”
She survived because none of her organs were hit, though five pieces of the buckshot remain in her body today.
FOR A YEAR after the Columbine shootings, Nowlen found herself thrust into the public eye. She was featured in every major media outlet, and the increased attention fed into the emotional difficulties she was feeling after being shot and seeing her classmates murdered in front of her.
She suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, battled depression and had recurring dreams in which she was chased by a red truck driven by Klebold and Harris wanting to kill her.
She was plagued by the question of why Tomlin was killed, but she survived.
“Why was he taken and not me?” she said.
At an anniversary service for the victims, however, Nowlen again heard the voice she had heard during the attack in the Columbine library. It told her to listen closely while a Christian rock musician performed at the service.
Suddenly, she said, all of the baggage and guilt she was carrying was lifted off her shoulders.
The voice, she decided, was that of God trying to help her.
“If you listen to Him and follow Him, He’ll show you what to do,” she said.
NOW, almost five years since the massacre, Nowlen, 21, said her life has changed dramatically. Once a shy teenager, she has become an extroverted activist who speaks out in favor of gun control and works to prevent future violence by speaking at high schools across the country.
She also seeks to inspire others with her story of how faith helped guide her through depression and changed her life by speaking at churches and to youth groups.
“It’s very rewarding when someone comes up to you and says ‘Thank you so much, we had someone on the wrestling team die in a car accident last week and you’ve given me strength to get through this,’” she said.
Nowlen spoke during all three services at the church, which is located between Herndon and Reston, after she was asked by Tara Gunther, the church’s youth pastor. Gunther met Nowlen two years ago in Tennessee, where they both attended the same church.
Gunther said she asked Nowlen to come to show that positive things can spring from tragedy.
“I wanted people to walk away seeing that even when something so terrible happens, something wonderful can come out of it,” Gunther said.
Nowlen tries to spread the message that helping others creates a ripple effect that makes the world a little better, bit by bit.
Klebold and Harris, she said, will always be remembered for what is still considered the worst school violence in history. She would prefer to be remembered for trying to stop it from happening again.
“Do you want to be remembered for something positive or for something negative?” she asked.