BAILEY, Colo. A gunman took six girls hostage at the high school in this mountain town today, using them as human shields for hours before he shot and fatally wounded a girl and then killed himself as a SWAT team moved in.
The gunman, believed to be between 30 and 50 years old, was cornered with the girls in a second-floor classroom, and he released four of them, one by one.
Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener said authorities decided to enter the school to save the two remaining hostages after the man cut off negotiations and set a deadline. He said the gunman had threatened the girls throughout the four-hour ordeal and had shielded himself with the hostages.
The suspect was not immediately identified, and the sheriff was at a loss to explain a motive.
"I don't know why he wanted to do this," Wegener said, his voice breaking.
The wounded girl was taken to a Denver hospital in critical condition, but was declared dead, a hospital spokeswoman said. She did not release the girl's name.
The last hostage was unharmed and talking with authorities.
After the suspect entered the building, hundreds of students at Platte Canyon High School were evacuated in a scene that recalled the horror at Columbine, just a short drive away.
Students said the bearded suspect wore a dark blue hooded sweat shirt and a camouflage backpack. The sheriff said the man threatened to set off a bomb he claimed to have in the backpack. The man was also toting a handgun.
Authorities had what they described as "sporadic" negotiations with the suspect and urged him to contact them for more discussion. Officers eventually crept close to the building, and there were reports of an explosion inside.
Lynn Bigham, who said she was a family friend of a wounded hostage, said the girl had just turned 16.
"I've been praying she'll be OK," she said. "She's real bubbly. Every time you see her, she gives you a hug."
The sight of students fleeing the high school in long lines, and of frantic parents scrambling to find their children, evoked memories of the 1999 attack on Columbine High School, where two students killed 13 people before committing suicide.
Students described a chaotic scene inside after the intercom announced "code white" and everyone was told to stay in their classrooms.
The high school and a nearby middle school were soon evacuated. Jefferson County authorities who also handled the attack at Columbine sent a bomb squad and SWAT team to the high school.
"I'm just terrified. I'm terrified," said Sherry Husen, whose son plays on the high school football team and was told not to return to school from his part-time job. "I know so many kids in that school."
Students from the two evacuated schools were taken to another school for a head count. Ambulances were parked in the end zone of the high school's football field, and a tank-like SWAT team vehicle was parked nearby on a closed highway.
Parents pressed authorities for details but had little information on their children.
Bill Twyford said he received a text message from his 15-year-old son, Billy, a student at the high school, at about 11:30 a.m. It said: "Hey there, there's a gun hijacking in school right now. I'm fine, bad situation though."
Michael Owens, who has one son at the middle school and another in the high school, said the anxiety was worse because of the memory of Columbine.
"Things that are out of your control," he said. "It's like an earthquake."
Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was among the students slain at Columbine, said: "Any adult who holds kids hostage is reprehensible."
The schools are in a narrow, winding canyon carved by the South Platte River about 35 miles southwest of Denver. They have an enrollment of about 770 students, with 460 in the high school.
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