Thursday, February 25, 2010

LITTLETON, Colo. | The math teacher who has become a national hero after breaking up a potentially deadly school shooting near the site of the Columbine High School massacre said Wednesday that he was simply doing his job to protect his students from danger during his now-famous scuffle with the gunman.

Schools in Littleton have gone through extensive emergency drills after the Columbine tragedy, and David Benke said he always thought about what he would do if a school shooting broke out.

“If something happens and there’s something that I can do about it, I want to try and do something about it,” Mr. Benke said at a press conference with other staff members of Deer Creek Middle School, at times choking up with emotion. “I said, ‘I hope that I’m capable of doing something about it.’”

School officials praised the quick actions by Mr. Benke and his colleagues as further proof that preparations put in place after Columbine have paid off. But authorities are still investigating to better understand what happened.

Jefferson County sheriff’s investigators say 32-year-old Bruco Strong Eagle Eastwood signed in at a reception desk before the Tuesday shootings and indicated he was a former student. The sheriff’s department says he was never asked to leave the building.

School officials say Mr. Eastwood first entered the building at about noon, some three hours before the shootings.

Mr. Eastwood said nothing during a brief hearing Wednesday at which a judge set bail at $1 million cash. The unemployed ranch hand,appearing via video hookup from the jail, wore an orange inmate jumpsuit with his dark, shoulder-length hair hanging loose. He faces two counts of attempted first-degree murder.

Mr. Eastwood has an arrest record in Colorado dating to 1996 for menacing, assault, domestic violence and driving under the influence, and he is believed to have a history of mental issues. The sheriff’s department said Mr. Eastwood is a former student of the school who has been attending community college off and on in pursuit of a General Education Development diploma.

Authorities said he opened fire in the parking lot with the bolt-action rifle at the end of the school day as terrified teenagers ran for their lives. He had allegedly just wounded two students and seemed ready to unleash more violence when Mr. Benke sprang into action.

Mr. Benke confronted the gunman, tackled him and pinned him to the ground with the help of another teacher, stopping what could have been a much more violent encounter in a city all too familiar with tragic school shootings. The shooting occurred less than three miles from where the Columbine High School massacre happened nearly 11 years ago.

“Unfortunately he got another round off before I could grab him,” Mr. Benke said. “He figured out that he wasn’t going to be able to get another round chambered before I got to him so he dropped the gun and then we were kind of struggling around trying to get him subdued.”

The two students survived Tuesday’s shooting and one remained hospitalized. The student in the hospital is one of Mr. Benke’s students, and the principal said he is “progressing well.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Benke became a hero. A Facebook page called “Dr. David Benke Is A Hero!!!!” quickly grew to more than 17,000 members, and his actions were discussed on the floor of the state Senate.

“Sometimes that’s just what we need. We need someone to be a hero for us,” said state Sen. Mike Kopp of Littleton, who lives in Mr. Benke’s neighborhood.

The teacher, a father of 7-year-old twins and a 13-year-old girl, fought back tears after Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink thanked him Tuesday.

“Believe me when I say, I think he stopped what could have been a more tragic event than it was this afternoon,” Sheriff Mink said.

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