25 Years After Massacre, Principal Says Names of Columbine Victims' Every Morning (Exclusive)

"For whatever reason, God spared me that day so I need to try to help others," says retired Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis

<p>Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty</p> Frank DeAngelis

Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty

Frank DeAngelis

Principal Frank DeAngelis was in his office at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, when his secretary ran to the door, telling him about a report of gunfire.

"The first thing I’m thinking, is, ‘This has to be a senior prank,'” he tells PEOPLE.

What was unfolding turned out to be the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history to that point. On that fateful morning 25 years ago, two students shot and killed 12 fellow students and one teacher and left 21 others wounded by gunshot wounds.

The tragedy had longlasting effects on the victims and their families, and traumatized the Littleton, Colo., community and the nation.

It also revealed to DeAngelis his purpose in life after he came close to dying twice that day, says the now-retired principal who detailed what happened that day and in the aftermath in his 2019 memoir, They Call Me ‘Mr. De’: The Story of Columbine’s Heart, Resilience and Recovery.

People's May 3, 1999, cover
People's May 3, 1999, cover

“For whatever reason God spared me that day,” he says. “So I need to try to help others.”

Related: On 20th Anniversary of Columbine, Deaths Still Haunt Principal: 'They Will Always Be My Kids'  

On that unforgettable morning, “I'm running out of my office and my worst nightmare becomes a reality,” he recalls. “The gunman's coming towards me.”

Standing 75 yards away was one of the shooters, looking ominous in a black trenchcoat and wielding a gun.

MARK LEFFINGWELL/AFP/Getty Students fleeing Columbine on April 20, 1999
MARK LEFFINGWELL/AFP/Getty Students fleeing Columbine on April 20, 1999

Instinctively, DeAngelis says he sprinted toward the shooter. “My kids were in trouble,” he says. “I had about 25 girls coming out of the locker room into the hallway. I knew if I got them into the gym, I’d be able to secure them there until it was safe.”

First he had to get them inside the gym, which was locked. “We hear the shots getting closer. The girls are screaming, ‘Papa save us!’”

Then, he says, came a second miracle.

“I had about 25 keys on a key ring,” he recalls. “I reach in my suit pocket and the first key that comes out I put in the door. It opened on the first try.”

He and the girls survived the carnage taking place inside the school that day.

But 13 people did not, including his beloved colleague and mentor, Coach Dave Sanders, who died saving many lives that day, including DeAngelis’. Just as DeAngelis was running toward a shooter, the shoter, “out of the corner of his eye, he spots Dave coming down that hallway. Dave turns around to run away and unfortunately he gets shot.”

DeAngelis vowed never to forget the victims.

“Every morning before my feet hit the ground, the first thing I do is recite the names Cassie Bernall, Steven Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matt Kechter, Daniel Mauser, Danny Rohrbough, Dave Sanders, Rachel Scott, Isaiah Shoels, John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend, Kyle Velasquez,” he says. “I've done this for the past 25 years. They give me the reason to do what I'm doing.”

He almost gave up.

Immediately after the shooting, he sunk to “a very bad place,” he says. But his pastor, Father Ken Leone, helped him to see that he was spared for a reason. “He said, “Frank, you should’ve died that day,’” DeAngelis recalls. “But God’s got a plan for you.’”

He has helped others through shootings and crises ever since.

In 2019 he and other principals and other school leaders formed the Principal Recovery Network to help other school officials after a crisis. In 2022, the PRN published the Guide to Recovery, to help in the aftermath of a shooting. “So many schools use this,” he says.

He will never stop working to help others, he says. Last Friday night, he spoke to a group of Columbine students, telling them, “As long as I'm on the face of this earth, I refuse to be hopeless. I refuse to give in because I'm not going to allow evil to win.’"

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