Surviving a school shooting: Arapahoe survivors at CSU tell their story

Austin Fleskes

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic details in regards to school shootings, specifically concerning the December 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School. 

It was 12:33 p.m. when Jordan Hess, then a freshman at Arapahoe High School, returned from lunch to take a quiz for class. Before finishing the quiz, Hess had to go to the bathroom, so he got up to leave.

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Chris Retzlaff, a senior at CSU, recalls his experience during the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting. At the time it started, he was a senior in gym class. “We were even more cut off from what was happening in our own school,” he says, “We didn’t have our phones in the weight room obviously, so we were learning about the situation from the news sources on the radio.” (Maya Shoup | Collegian)

Then, he heard the first gunshot. 

“It was unlike anything I had ever really heard up to that point,” said Hess, now a freshman agricultural business major at Colorado State University. “The first flash of a thought that went through my head was, ‘Oh, god that was a shooting.'”

Following the recent shooting in Parkland, Fla., students such as first year computer science major Hunter Holton reflected on the events at their own high school. At Arapahoe High School in December 2013, 17-year old Claire Davis was killed after 18-year-old Karl Pierson rushed into the school carrying a shotgun with the intent to do unimaginable harm. Holton said for him, the day of the shooting felt like any other day. 

“It was a pretty quick change of pace that day,” Holton wrote in an email to the Collegian.

Chris Retzlaff, a senior computer engineering major, was in the weight room during the incident. While they did not hear the gunshots, Retzlaff and his classmates were informed when students in the gymnasium ran in. 

“It was a waiting game of not knowing what was going on,” Retzlaff said. 

As he was in the weight room, Retzlaff did not have his phone, thus no outside contact, only able to learn news by those students who held onto their phones.

“We felt especially disconnected,” Retzlaff said.

Benjamin Chisholm, a chemical and biological engineering major, was on the speech and debate team with Pierson, the shooter, before the event took place. Chisholm said Pierson started showing some dangerous behavior while on the team.

Chisholm was on the opposite end of the building when the shooting occurred. His class waited in their room for over an hour until the SWAT team came into the room. 

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“I really didn’t know what was going on,” Chilsom said. “My emotions were just kind of blunted, but when we got to the church and were safe, I burst into tears.”

Hess explained that, for him, the event hit him in waves as he sat quietly in the classroom.

“The first wave was just adrenaline,” Hess said. “The second wave was just, ‘Holy shit, I’m in a school shooting. I’m trapped in a room with a bunch of targets with nowhere to go, with no defense. With nothing.” 

After Hess’ class was released, he witnessed people from local companies handing out free food and water, as well as blankets and other items. 

“We just got out of a school shooting and there are people just rushing to help others they have no idea about,” Hess said. “You see something like that, not only is it only the coolest thing ever, it makes you want to go out and live.”

Chisholm said he saw the affected community come together after the shooting.

You experience the worst of humanity, but then immediately see the best of humanity.”– Benjamin Chisholm, Arapahoe survivor

“You experience the worst of humanity, but then immediately see the best of humanity,” Chisholm said. 

Holton explained how he still feels following the shooting and how the event intensified his anxiety and created different mental health issues. 

“To this day I am still affected by this, especially when I’m having a bad day or another shooting or something similar happens,” Holton said. “I became depressed after the shooting, because I tried to bottle up the emotions that were caused by the shooting.”

This is the green lighter with a golden shamrock in the corner that Jordan Hess, freshman agricultural business major, had in his back pocket during the Arapahoe School Shooting. (Photo | Austin Fleskes)
This is the lighter that Jordan Hess, freshman agricultural business major, had in his back pocket during the Arapahoe School Shooting. (Austin Fleskes | Collegian)

To this day, Hess carries around a green Zippo lighter, with a golden shamrock on it, which was in his back pocket during the incident. 

Holton wrote this event taught him a few different things: that everyone deals with issues in ways that may not be apparent and everyone should be treated with respect. 

“I have learned that you really need to cherish everything in life, because you don’t know when it is going to be taken away from you,” Holton wrote.

Retzlaff said the event made him value life more, as well as how people were affected by the event, stating that it goes beyond physical damage into mental damage. 

“There is lots of pain and hurt that goes on throughout the school community,” Retzlaff said, adding each case of damage depends on the person. “It’s definitely individual. Everyone is affected in a different way. It’s important to talk to people about it, so people understand if it’s something that is still effecting them really deeply.”

Madison Shultz, a senior civil engineering major, said that this event changed her perspective on the world, causing her to be more adventurous and live life like every day counted.

“Try to be aware of the people around you. They could be going through things you don’t know about,” Shultz said, adding that every person grieves in different ways, and healing will come in different ways for each person. 

Chisholm said while he has an optimistic view on life, not everyone does, and because of this, he hopes others can treat each other well. 

“People need to be good to each other. It’s important to be kind to each other,” Chisholm said. “That’s what this event reveals more than anything else.” 

Collegian reporter Austin Fleskes can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @Austinfleskes07.