Blame and hard feelings will not be on the program when the Keyes family marks the first anniversary Thursday of the death of their daughter and sister, Emily, at the hands of a gunman who invaded her Colorado high school.
“Bitterness really takes the energy and the momentum away. You create what you can from an impossible situation and look forward the best you can,” Ellen Keyes, Emily’s mother, told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira in an exclusive interview in New York.
“We didn’t have a choice on Sept. 27 in what happened that day,” added her husband, John Michael Keyes. “But we do have a choice in our response.”
And their choice has been to establish the “Iluvyouguys Foundation” — the name taken from the cell phone text message she sent them while being held hostage. The foundation honors their daughter and helps others by promoting organ donation, a cause Emily believed in, and school hostage drills.
Emily, 16, was one of seven girls taken hostage by 53-year-old Duane Morrison, who invaded Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo. Armed with two handguns and carrying a backpack that he said was filled with enough explosives to blow up the school, Morrison locked the girls in a classroom, where he sexually molested and attacked them.
The gunman released the girls one by one over the next several hours. Mindful of what had happened at Columbine High School in 1999, when police decided not to charge the two students who went on to kill 12 students and a teacher and wound 24 others, the Jefferson County SWAT team decided to storm the classroom.
When they heard there was a hostage crisis at the school, Emily’s parents had text-messaged her, asking, “R U OK”? She sent back two messages: “I love you guys” and “I luv u guys.”
“I think about that every day,” said John Michael.
Others might have chosen to blame police for not trying to wait out the gunman, but the Keyes family has had nothing but praise and admiration for the officers who responded that day.
“For some it may be difficult to accept,” they say on the Web site they established for the Iluvyouguys Foundation. “The right actions at the right time by the right people may not have the right outcome. When what we hoped for didn't happen, some may want to find fault. But there is no fault to be found in the command decisions made, given the information and behavior presented. There is no fault to be found in the courage and speed of their response.”
Casey, who spoke publicly for the first time since the death of his sister, will take part in “Emily’s Run,” a nearly 40-mile run on Saturday, Sept. 29, that will retrace the route the SWAT team took from their Jefferson County headquarters to the school. Members of the team will run with him.
“Emily’s Ride,” another part of the anniversary observance, will see motorcycle riders travel from Columbine High School to Platte Canyon High School. There will also be a 5K run for first responders, who will join the Emily’s Run participants for the last part of their trek.
“The SWAT officers and I feel a mutual honor and respect for each other,” Casey told Vieira. “I’m extremely glad and honored to run with them on the 29th. It’s going to be medicinal and therapeutic.”
Difficult 12 months
The year has been difficult for the Keyes, as each holiday and anniversary has been the first they have gone through without Emily.
Casey recently celebrated his first birthday without his twin sister.
“Ever since last year, my life has been very busy, so it’s been hard for me to have time to reflect on what happened,” he told Vieira. “My birthday wasn’t any different. It was just busy.”
Emily had researched organ donation and discussed it with her parents. When she applied for her learner’s license to drive, she opted to donate her organs. As a result, one of her corneas has given a retired New York City policeman his vision back. Doctors also used her tissues in an experimental operation that has allowed a female equestrian to ride horses again, her father said.
The Keyes got to meet the former cop. “Looking into his eyes was really, really interesting — very deep,” said Ellen. It was, she added, “very difficult at first, but the fact that he’s so vibrant and alive and Emily was able to help was a warming feeling.”
“Emily’s gift was one that’s resonating, and it’s a gift that everyone can give,” added John Michael, who said their foundation is affiliated with the Donor Awareness Council.
While Emily’s parents move on from the tragedy by being active in the foundation, her brother finds solace in running.
Casey said he’s looking forward to his long run with the SWAT team on Saturday.
“That’s what I usually do when I need to work through something — I go for a run,” he said. “Doing that with people I respect a lot — basically the heroes of that day — is going to be really good.”
“Will Emily be with you that day?” Vieira asked.
“I don’t know,” Casey replied. “I think she’ll be laughing at me because it’s going to be a long, long run.”