NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Crystal Woodman Miller huddled under the table in the Columbine High School library, a friend’s arm wrapped around her, sheltering her body with his own.
“Crystal,” he said, “I promise I will take a bullet for you.”
That’s when two boys from her school entered the room and began a killing rampage.
Miller could hear them mocking those they shot as they moved closer and closer to where she hid. She began to pray. Soon, one of the gunman’s boots was just inches from her body. She could smell him. Feel his presence. She waited for her turn to die.
“Will it be quick?” she wondered. “Or will I suffer slowly?”
Then the shooting stopped. Out of ammo, the perpetrators left to get more. They vowed to return to murder those who remained. When they were out of sight, Miller fled.
“It looked like a war had taken place in that room,” she said. “I stepped over the bodies of classmates to save myself.”
Nearly 21 years have passed since that April day when 12 students, one teacher and the two student gunmen died. The events at Columbine intensified the national conversation around mass shootings. Since then, hundreds of acts of violence have shattered the country. Las Vegas. Nashville. Milwaukee. With each attack, the nation’s attention diverts to new victims, the latest assault eclipsing the one before it.
But survivors from past tragedies remain marked by trauma and are left with few tangible tools to manage the pain. They are isolated by an experience hardly anyone else can understand.
This month, a new initiative to support those affected by mass shootings begins. In a first-of-its-kind workshop, The Onsite Foundation brings survivors from across the country together for a week-long retreat on a private campus just outside Nashville to provide a safe place to process, connect and heal.
The program, called Triumph Over Tragedy, was created to honor the life of Austin Eubanks, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine shooting and a champion for trauma-based causes and programs. Eubanks died of an overdose in 2019. His girlfriend, Laura Hutfless, now helps lead the effort as a member of the foundation board.
She is guided by the foundation’s Survivor Advisory Council, which includes victims from Columbine, Parkland, Thurston, Charleston, Las Vegas, Aurora and the Nashville Waffle House tragedies. Miller is among them.
Triumph Over Tragedy, Miller said, evokes emotional understanding in the face of the incomprehensible. “It’s knowing I’m not broken, I’m not ruined because of what I have been through, but I am still journeying through this,” she said. “I don’t have to be rushed through this process just because our culture says I should be over it.”
‘THEY HAD ALL LOST HOPE’
Recovery took a long, dark turn for Austin Eubanks, who was just 17 during the Columbine rampage.
Eubanks was shot in his hand and knee and watched his best friend die in the 1999 attack in Colorado.
Last year, Eubanks died of a heroin overdose.
It devastated many who had been inspired by his words. He had become a motivational speaker on addiction and trauma, and his death underscored an emotional chasm still felt by others who shared his experiences.
“After his passing, so many survivors reached out,” Hutfless said. “And I noticed a trend — they had all lost hope.”
In the wake of tragedy, healing doesn’t happen in months, or even years. And though mass shootings have become more common in the United States, victims still feel isolated and alone.
Eubanks shared his story very publicly, and Hutfless knew it very intimately, but even she never understood the long-term affects of that trauma, “because many people put on a brave face,” she said.
“They don’t fully understand the physical and emotional and physiological symptoms. They may be experiencing them, but they are not relating them back to that event. And I just wasn’t aware that there would still be emotional wounds from 20 years ago that would still be bleeding.
“When I learned that, I think my goal was: We have to stop the bleeding. They say, ‘Hurt people hurt other people’ and I hope this is a way to stop that cycle.”
COMING TOGETHER IN COMMUNITY TO MOVE FORWARD
After Eubanks’ death, Hutfless joined the Onsite Foundation board and helped create the Triumph Over Tragedy workshop.
This week, 40 survivors from 15 different states representing seven different mass shootings are in attendance. Not all of them are from tragedies that the public is familiar with. Some are from small towns that don’t have access to many mental health resources or that didn’t receive funding when the violence occurred.
During the six-day workshop, survivors live together on a private 250-acre campus outside of Nashville. They meet with therapists in small groups morning and afternoon to understand the impact of the life-threatening experiences they’ve had. They take part in equine therapy, and walk along the trails and streams.
Triumph Over Tragedy is funded by full scholarships and each workshop is curated to meet the needs of the survivors, as there is no “one size fits all” solution in trauma. No phones or computers are allowed, giving survivors the space to focus on their healing.
“When we experience tragedies we have a choice,” Hutfless said. “We can build a wall around ourselves, and we can isolate, and we can protect ourselves from any more pain or hurt. Or we can choose to open ourselves and walk in the journey of grief and healing — and that’s not an easy one.
“We can reach out, ask for help, be in community and move forward, turning that pain into purpose.
“I very intentionally chose that path. So I learned about myself, that I can do hard things and that there is beauty from ashes, and I’ve already been able to see so much of that from this program.”
‘THAT NIGHT DOESN’T DEFINE ME’
For Taylor Eickenhorst, healing remains a daily process.
Before the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, her happiest place was at a country music festival.
She was there that night on Oct. 1, 2017, doing what she loved most, working for a big music brand and attending her 10th festival of the summer.
She sought cover when a shooter took aim from a hotel a quarter mile away and began firing down on the crowd of 22,000 during singer Jason Aldean’s set. Fifty-nine people died that night, the largest mass shooting in modern American history.
Now, Eickenhorst lives and works in Nashville.
“I’ve worked every day to try to make sure that night doesn’t define me,” she said. “Even though it’s super scary, and it can be difficult, and some days are harder than others, I try to keep moving forward.
“But it will always be a part of me. It’s been the hardest thing of my entire life to have to go through and have to deal with. It’s extremely difficult.”
That’s why she wants to share her story. And why she believes in the purpose of the Triumph Over Tragedy workshop.
She still works in the music industry and hasn’t stopped going to country music concerts, but her experiences have made them harder to attend. She sometimes get anxious before a show.
She knows it can happen to anyone.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
For Miller, the day at Columbine began no more remarkably than any other.
She sat in the school library studying for a test during lunch when the nightmare began.
Students ran through the hallways, terror and panic in their eyes.
She tried to make sense of what was happening. It must be a joke, she thought. Or a prank.
But when a teacher ran through the library door screaming frantically for the students to take cover, Miller knew it was neither.
Then she heard the popping noises.
“When you are forced to walk through something like this, everything changes,” Miller said. “And for me it forced me to grow up very quickly.”
There’s been a great deal of healing in her life since that day. She has traveled the country and the world sharing her story. As a speaker she can bring a message of hope, she said, but that only reaches so far. She has always hoped for a more tangible way for others to find help.
With Triumph Over Tragedy, she now has a resource to point people toward.
There’s a ripple affect to trauma, she said, and if people can better understand how it affects their brains and their bodies, they can heal in a healthier way.
“One of the most special pieces about Triumph over Tragedy is that when people come, they are not alone, they are part of a community,” Miller said.
“In that community, we share our experiences, not just for our healing, but we find courage in one another’s stories. … It’s not the absence of feeling the fear or sadness or grief, it’s feeling those deeply, but also finding way to walk through that and get to other side.”