[Few of us have ever met a Secret Service Agent, or maybe you have and don’t know it. “Inside the Secret Service” is about life as a Secret Service agent. These are true stories of real-life experiences of Eric Enos, a Concord resident who spent years as a Secret Service agent.]
I arrived in Austin for a POTUS Clinton visit which was scheduled for a Wednesday. I landed at Robert Mueller Municipal Airport in Austin, Texas, on Monday, April 19, 1999. We would have an agent briefing at our hotel conducted by the advance team. to learn the details of the President’s itinerary, discuss any adverse intel pertaining to POTUS, and review local, state, and nation, persons of interest (lookouts). We would then break down into smaller groups for further discussion regarding our specific assignments and responsibilities for the visit.
Our route from the airport to downtown took us alongside the University of Texas campus. As I gazed out the cab window my eyes were drawn to the campus’s most prominent feature, the 30 story, 300-foot-tall, University of Texas Tower. This was my first trip to Austin, but the UT Tower somehow looked familiar to me. Then it struck me. The tower was the sight of one of the most horrific and deadly mass shootings in US history and the first mass school shooting in the country. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman shot and killed 16 and injured 31 from his sniper perch on the tower’s observation deck. I had an eerie and sad feeling in the pit of my stomach as I thought of the carnage and lives destroyed at the hands of a madman from atop that very tower so many years before. Little did I know, I would experience that same feeling, only much more intensified, in the very near future.
After completing our agent security briefing on Tuesday, many of us headed out to Austin’s famous 6th Street District to get something to eat and take in the local flavor. In route, our pagers began going off simultaneously (this was before iPhones and the ability to receive real-time media feeds) informing that the President’s trip had been canceled and to standby for further instructions. No reason was given. We speculated and wondered what could have occurred that would cause a presidential trip to be canceled less than 24 hours from the scheduled arrival.
I remember walking into one of the pubs and seeing on each of the multiple television screens, live news feeds from Columbine, Colorado. Each network was reporting on that day’s tragic mass school shooting at Columbine High School. We immediately knew why the Austin trip had been canceled.
Two days later, I was in a helicopter above Vice President Gore’s motorcade, acting as an extra set of eyes searching from above for any unusual activity along the motorcade route (i.e., large gatherings, chokepoints, persons on rooftops, etc.), as it made its way from the Denver International Airport to Columbine, Colorado. Specifically, to the Mann Theater parking lot, located across from Columbine High School, where the Vice President was to attend an outdoor memorial service for the victims.
We hovered above as the motorcade safely arrived at the theater parking lot. From this vantage point, I had a birds-eye view of the entire school and the library building (the same aerial views news stations had been displaying across all the networks the past two days) where so many students had been brutally murdered. It was surreal looking down on the building with its boarded-up second-floor windows where just two days before students had jumped from in order to flee flying bullets and the explosions of pipe bombs. The same eerie and sad feelings washed over me like they had three days prior when seeing the University of Texas Tower. But unlike that observance, the strength of these feelings for me was understandably much stronger. These wounds were fresh. The dead, 12 students and a teacher, still lay in morgues. Families were praying for injured loved ones who were clinging to life. The country was in shock and the mourning had just begun. This, like the Texas University massacre, was a horrific event the nation would never forget.
We landed behind police barricades on the edge of a field on the school grounds, across from the Mann Theater lot. The area was still an active crime science. I’ll never forget seeing the somber faces, eyes with looks of shock and disbelief, students on crutches, parents, friends, students, and faculty, hugging and crying. Every parent’s worst nightmare had become reality at Columbine. One hoped and prayed that those grieving souls could feel the prayers of the nation and of the world and that those collective prayers would somehow comfort them and somehow ease their unimaginable suffering. I sometimes reflect back on that assignment and of the powerful images and emotions I saw that day and of the compassion and love that all present had for those suffering.
A year or so after Columbine, I was back in Denver on a protection assignment and met an officer from the Denver PD SWAT team. He and his team were the first inside Columbine High School on the day of the shooting. He described the horrific conditions they encountered as they navigated through dark hallways and rooms, ankle deep in water (due to the activation of the emergency sprinkler systems as a result of pipe bomb explosions), passing by hundreds of backpacks, some of which they knew were rigged with explosives, as they look for and found students and faculty who were hiding, and as they located each of the dead and wounded students and faculty, and finally found the two perpetrators, both dead from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. All the specialized training in the world could never truly prepare one emotionally for the atrocious sights they saw in Columbine that day.
The massacre at Columbine High School, like that at the University of Texas years before, and like the senseless recent school shootings of Parkland, FL, and Santa Fe, TX are reminders of just how fragile and precious life is. They are also reminders that pure evil exists in this world and is amongst us. It is because of that evil that agencies such as the Secret Service, and all law enforcement, exist.