Updated–Before Columbine: Remembering the Thurston High Shootings

This post has been redacted and censored to comply with my employer’s Social Media Policy as of Nov. 1, 2010.  All references to my place of work and its health care system, as well as photos have been removed.  This action appears to be only recourse I have to preserve my Constitutional rights to free speech and the free expression of my views on Extreme Thinkover.


UPDATE:  I did a little more research and found on Wikipedia a list of nearly every school shooting documented worldwide since the 1966 University of Texas massacre of 17 students: History of School Shootings Worldwide.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, a terrible, horrific act of murder and mayhem by two students who shot down twelve of their classmates and one teacher in cold blood, wounding twenty-three others before they took their own lives.

Kip Kinkel.  Photo Credit: AP

Kip Kinkel. Photo Credit: AP

But before Columbine, in May of 1998, there was the shootings at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon.  The shooter, Kip Kinkel, murdered his parents the night before he went to school that morning, and in a manner of minutes killed two of his classmates and wounded 23 others.  One of those wounded wrestled him to the ground, cutting short the attack and denying him the chance to kill himself.  Kinkel was found to be incompetent to stand trial and will spend the rest of his life as an inmate at the Oregon State Hospital for the Mentally Ill.

We should never forget Columbine.  But I will always remember Thurston.  I was there at the hospital that morning.

A Wounded Thurston Student Being Assisted to an Ambulance

A Wounded Thurston Student Being Assisted to an Ambulance

What follows is my account of that horrendous day, originally presented at a regional event of my church for high school students in August 1999.  The theme was “Odysseys.”


Call of the Unbidden, Unwanted Odyssey: The Thurston Shootings

About a year and a half ago I was getting up at 4:30 in the morning to be at work at 6:00 a.m.  You see, hospital time and time in the real world are two entirely different things.  For reasons that are lost in the mists of ancient history, doctors, and especially surgeons, like to get started very early in the day.  What does that have to do with me?  I was the chaplain assigned to the Short Stay Unit, the place where people go to have all sorts of medical procedures.  Most will go home that day, hence the “short stay” terminology, although at Censored by Corporate Social Media Policy , we also admit some people who will have major surgery and then be taken to a regular hospital room afterwards.

So each morning I was talking with people, some of whom had never been in a hospital before, who were having things like colonoscopies, bronchoscopies, myringotomies, hysterectomies, or orthopedic surgeries like total knee or total hip replacements.  And then there are the lithotrypsies where they insert a probe into your gall bladder or kidney and using high frequency sound, blast gall and kidney stones into powder.  Sounds fun, huh.  And some people were going to find out they have cancer, so I had to be ready for anything.

This goes on five days a week, averaging about 90 people per day, and I’d get to talk with about half of them for the three hours I was there each morning.

My odyssey began at about 8:00 a.m. one Thursday morning. I had no plans to begin an odyssey, and had no inkling about the odyssey that I was about to undertake.  I arrived at 6:00, made coffee in the waiting room, like I did every day.  I picked up the surgery schedule and chatted with the nursing staff just like every other day.  Patients began checking in.  It wasn’t an unusually heavy day for procedures.  A couple of kids having tubes put in their ears; a few women having hysterectomies, a bunch of lithotrypsies, since Thursday’s the day they are all done on.  Just another normal day in Short Stay.

What happened next, I remember very clearly.  I had just taken a family into the recovery area to see a patient who had come back from a procedure and was walking past the charge nurse’s desk.  One of the staff nurses was talking on the phone in a very excited and agitated way.  A couple other of the nurses had already drifted over to the desk and looked concerned.

I heard the nurse say, “Are you okay?  Where are you?  Was anybody shot?”  Another nurse said, “Her daughter goes to Thurston.  There’s been some shots fired at the high school.”

That was the call.  But to be honest, I had no idea of the odyssey that would unfold.  And it’s probably just as well.  Nobody wants to be shoved through a door like that.

After the nurse hung up the phone, and fortunately her daughter was not one of the injured, she told us what little her daughter knew of the chaos of that school shooting.  Yes, I was concerned.  I knew that there are two trauma ERs in the area.  Ours in Eugene and McKenzie-Willamette Hospital’s in Springfield, just a couple of miles from Thurston.  But I knew that at the moment I was the only chaplain in the hospital, and if there was a kid or two that had to come to us, I needed to get to the emergency room.

I excused myself from the Short Stay and headed toward the ER.  The first inkling I had that maybe things were going to get a bit hectic was while I was standing waiting for the elevator.  A trauma alert was announced over the intercom.  That is normal by itself.  Whenever a person with a life-threatening injury is coming to the hospital, there is a public announcement that says: “Trauma Alert, Trauma team to the emergency department.”  With that announcement, people from all the clinical areas converge on the ER.  And chaplains are part of that team.

But on that morning, the PBX operator announced, “Trauma alert.  Trauma team and all available surgeons report to the emergency department.”  At that moment, with the instant knotting of my stomach, I knew that when I got off of that elevator, I was going to step into a world that I had never experienced.

The next hour of that day changed me forever.  I was, purely by chance, the first chaplain in the emergency room when the first ambulances arrived.  I wish I had the words to explain to you the flow of emotions and events.  It’s nothing like what they show on the TV show ER.  Or maybe I should say what they show on TV is a pale reflection of the reality.  There was no script but there were procedures.  There was this intensity, a grim determination on people’s faces as everyone tried to prepare themselves emotionally.  It was like being in the middle of a whirlwind but experiencing it in almost a slow motion.  Over the radio there was a lot of inaccurate information coming in, but each time an ambulance called saying they were on their way, a plan was put in motion to care for that student.  First we heard two, then four, then maybe six, then, no, only four.  Then maybe as many as eight.

Wounded Thurston Student being taken to an Ambulance.  Photo: BBC News

Wounded Thurston Student being taken to an Ambulance. Photo: BBC News

There were a lot of people talking, but the ER as a whole wasn’t that noisy.  Within fifteen minutes two more of the chaplains had gotten there. And in another fifteen, three more had rushed to the hospital.  And it was a good thing, because the ambulances just kept coming and coming and coming.  Eleven in all.  In a half hour, half of the 23 wounded students were right in front of me.  At about 20 minutes after eight we heard another PBX announcement, one which confirmed that because of this event, all our lives were about to change more than we could imagine:  “Disaster Alert.  All hospital units initiate disaster procedures.”  Within moments people started coming out of the woodwork to insure that every wounded student would receive the best care we were humanly capable of providing.  And of course, we knew the media would be coming in droves and we wondered how we would survive that onslaught as well.

I remember one moment more clearly than the others.  I was helping identify the wounded students.  The look in every one of those kid’s eyes was a combination of stark fear and total bewilderment.  Stepping out of one of the trauma rooms, I saw five or six of our surgeons, all in their operating room scrubs, standing in a row, like planes lined up on a runway to take off, waiting for the next student to arrive.  And the fear in their eyes matched the fear in those students’ eyes and the fear in mine.

As I have tried to process this event in my life, I realized that everyone, the students and their families, the medical staff and the pastoral care staff were all thrust onto the path of an odyssey that no one wanted to walk.  The path was created by a person and his actions who we did not know and did not understand.  The three “what ifs” became the real questions I had to answer.  Right then.  What if the worst happened?  It did. What if I’m not up to it?  I have to be.  Others lives are in danger. What if I get myself into a situation so foreign to me I can’t even function?  I have, but I have to function anyway.

But one thing was sure by the end of that first day.  Once we were on the path, there was no exit.  Each person had to walk on his or her individual path until the end is reached.  No one got to stay the same.  Everyone had to change.  Some may have finished their odysseys already.  Some will take years and for others it will take their entire life.  As for me, I do not yet see the end.


Over a decade later, I still do not see the end.  Thirty school shootings have taken place since Thurston in the United States, five in Canada, ten in Europe (Germany alone accounts for five of those shootings, totaling 35 deaths) and seven others around the world.   Hundreds of children, college students and adults have died, been wounded, families thrown into tragedies for which there are no exits.  See: Wikipedia.

Ben Walker.  One of Two Students Murdered at Thurston High School

Ben Walker. One of Two Students Murdered at Thurston High School

And guns were used in virtually every incident.  I am waiting, as I have been since May 1998, for just one executive from the gun manufacturers, or an organization like the National Rifle Association to call me on the phone and say, “Yes, Dr. Waggoner, enough is enough.  I take responsibility for the lethality for this object I produce, or I take responsibility for the lethal potential of this object I promote, and I am going to do everything in my power to stem the tsunami of violence tearing apart our nation even if I have to …

I’m waiting, but I’m not holding my breath.   The murders will continue unabated.  The weapon of choice of the murderers will be guns.  Children will be murdered in their schools or churches or wherever by murderers using guns.  The right to own a gun and the availability of those guns is the secondary issue.  The primary issue is the unfathomable and defiant willingness of the weapons industry and the NRA to accept the carnage as normal.  And to pay handsomely to lobby every single politician in the United States to ensure that normalcy continues in perpetuity.

A Rifle Similar to the One Kinkle Used to Shoot His Parents and Classmates.

A Rifle Similar to the One Kinkle Used to Shoot His Parents and Classmates.