Editor’s Note: This article originally published in February 2013. Dates and ages have remained unchanged from the original piece.
Most of Patrick Ireland’s clients got to know him long before they set foot in the financial advisor’s Broomfield, Colo., office.
As “The Boy in the Window” at the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, Ireland was the bleeding student pulled by SWAT team officers from a second-story library window. The scene played out on live television, shocking audiences around the world, and has lived on in AP photos and B-roll footage in the years since, reprinted and replayed after similar incidents — Virginia Tech, Tucson, Newtown. The iconic image of Ireland has become a symbol of the horrors of mass shootings, of victimhood itself.
It’s telling, then, that most of Patrick Ireland’s clients don’t recognize him. It’s not only because Ireland is no longer a teenager. And it’s not just because extensive rehab has left the scars from his injuries almost undetectable. It’s also because, these days, Ireland — clad in a pinstripe suit, surrounded by family pictures in his large office with a view — looks the opposite of a victim. In fact, he seems the epitome of success.
At just 31, Ireland is the managing director of Northwestern Mutual’s Broomfield branch, an office he was selected to help build from scratch. He’s a frequent public speaker at business conferences, including MDRT’s 2010 Main Platform. And he’s a husband and proud father of a three year old.
Video: Q&A with Patrick Ireland
“At every level, Pat’s kind of found a way to rise and be looked upon as a leader,” says Scott Theodore, the managing partner with Northwestern Mutual’s Denver branch who hired Ireland as an intern. “He kind of took this life experience to say, ‘I’m not going to let evil win.’ Instead of having people feel sorry for him, he’s determined to go on and help others.”
Ireland puts it more succinctly. “At the end of the day,” he says, “we make our own destiny.”
One “surreal” day
When his day started on April 20, 1999, Ireland was a 17-year-old high school junior with a 4.0 GPA and a passion for sports. He had a fortunate class schedule that semester, one that gave him a free period right before his assigned lunch, so he often had extra time mid-day to study and finish homework in the library.
And that’s where Ireland was — with four friends, finishing statistics homework from the night before —a little after 11 a.m., when classmates Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire on students and teachers at the Littleton, Colo., high school. “It was kind of surreal,” Ireland says. “At first, we weren’t sure what was going on. There were just pops and cracks.”
A teacher ran in, yelling for the students to hide, and Ireland and his friends ducked under a table. The gunmen entered a few minutes later.
“They were yelling things like, ‘This is for all the B.S. you put us through for the last four years,’” Ireland says. They asked for everyone in white hats — commonly worn by the school’s “jocks” — to stand up. No one did.
Ireland and his friends stayed under the table as Klebold and Harris shot out the library windows and fired at police and fleeing students outside. Klebold then fired toward Ireland and his friends. One, Makai Hall, was hit in the knee.
Ireland leaned out from underneath the table to apply pressure to Hall’s wound, exposing himself in the process. Klebold, just 15 feet away with a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun, noticed. Shot twice in the head and once in the right foot, Ireland lost consciousness.
He missed much of what happened next in the library — where 10 people were killed, 12 were wounded and Klebold and Harris later committed suicide. When he eventually came to, most of the surviving students and teachers had fled.
Ireland didn’t know what was going on, only that he needed to get help. His right side paralyzed from his injuries, he used his functioning left leg to start pushing himself toward one of the broken second-story windows.
“The front door just seemed too far away, and so was the emergency exit,” Ireland says. “I didn’t know if the gunmen were still around. I didn’t know whether they’d come back. But I just knew I had to get out of there.”
It took Ireland three hours to make it across the room. He had to push his way around chairs and the dead bodies of classmates. He lost consciousness several times. More than once, he thought about just lying down and waiting for someone to find him. But, “at each of those moments, you realize all of the people you’d be leaving behind if you just let go,” he says. When he finally made it to the window, Ireland says he still remembers feeling a warm spring breeze coming toward him.
Rescuers soon spotted Ireland, and as the world watched, a SWAT team commandeered an armored truck, climbed on its roof and pulled the bleeding boy outside.
He was loaded in an ambulance bound for St. Anthony’s Central Hospital, which was at least a half hour away, in good traffic. The driver got him there in 17 minutes.
Once in surgery, doctors discovered one of Klebold’s shots had penetrated the left hemisphere of Ireland’s brain, causing his right-sided paralysis and severing his brain’s language center. Ireland also had a bullet between his skull and his scalp, and his right foot was shattered.
Extensive surgery helped Ireland pull through alive. And as his day ended on April 20, 1999, he was still a 17-year-old junior with a 4.0 GPA and a passion for sports — but one who now had a long, difficult road to recovery ahead of him.
Next: One day at a time