ago a homicidal student walked into a classroom with guns blazing.
Thirty-two people were killed that day. This boy was hit three
times. Ariel Leve meets the survivors
Monday, April 16. Derek O'Dell woke up thinking
about the snow. Three days earlier he had turned 20 and, having
grown up in Virginia, this was the first time he'd ever seen snow
fall around his birthday. He lay in bed and thought it was weird.
He had breakfast on the Virginia Tech campus
and proceeded to his 9.05 Elementary German class in room 207,
on the second floor of Norris Hall. Thirteen people were in class
that day: 12 students and their professor, Jamie Bishop.
They heard popping sounds. Nobody knew what
it was. Maybe loud construction. It sounded like hammering. They
were still trying to figure it out when the door swung open and
Seung-Hui Cho entered the room with a gun in each hand. He was
wearing a maroon baseball cap. Without a word, and with no expression
on his face, he calmly began shooting.
Professor Bishop was the first one hit.
Shot in the head. Derek's mind raced. Columbine was a reference
point that gave the situation a surreal familiarity. Was this
As soon as he saw the first bullet-casing
pop out of the gun, he slid beneath his desk and crawled along
the floor to the back of the room.This would be the day one bullet
drilled into his arm and two more through his jacket: the day
Derek O'Dell decided not to die.
• • • •
The commuter plane that flies between New
York and Roanoke, Virginia, is full. It is late on a Thursday
night six months later, in mid-October, and the middle-aged man
sitting next to me makes this trip every week. He is wearing a
maroon windbreaker bearing the logo "VT" in orange.
Over the next few days I will find an entire community bathed
in orange and maroon, and learn that these colours have become
more than a statement of allegiance to Virginia Tech. But, for
now, they are a way into a conversation.
At first, he's not interested in talking,
especially not about what happened at Virginia Tech. It was the
deadliest shooting in American history by a single gunman: 32
people were killed - 27 students and five faculty members. Twenty-five
more were wounded; and a university known for its college football
team became irrevocably linked to violence and tragedy. But he
opens up. He is a Virginian, a 49-year-old father-of-two who lives
outside Blacksburg, where the campus is located. Everyone, he
asserts, has a connection, and is protective. I reassure him that
I'm not critical, just curious.
He paints a picture of a tight-knit, primarily
Christian community, where most are still grieving, navigating
the etiquette between moving on and not forgetting. He looks out
of the window for a few minutes and when he turns back he has
tears in his eyes. He tells a story about his friend who works
in law enforcement, an officer who was sent into Norris Hall after
the shootings had ended. He entered one of the classrooms on the
second floor, where many of the bodies remained. It was eerily
quiet - except for the sound of mobile phones ringing. Friends
and family, alerted by the news flashes, were trying to reach
their loved ones to make sure that they were okay.
• • • •
A red Manchester United No 7 shirt hangs
on the wall of the apartment Derek O'Dell shares with three roommates
a few miles off campus. He is a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo. He is
glad to be back at school, though August 20 - the first day of
the new term - was emotional.
Derek is a good student and his grades haven't
suffered. Every now and then, when he's reading at home by himself,
he'll get scared. He'll hear a loud noise and become distracted.
Then his mind will flash back to what happened and he'll try to
stop the thought, but, unable to, he'll endure it until he can
Playing chess helps. He is president of
the chess club and has played for 15 years - sometimes speed chess
- so he's grown used to calculating a few steps ahead. On April
16, this automatic thought process probably saved him.
"In chess you analyse pretty quickly
what your opponent might do. I was analysing Cho a lot: his moves,
where he might be, what he might do next. Also my actions - if
I were to jump out a window, how high was it? If there's a place
to land, would I grab onto a tree?"
He has a gentle manner, which for most of
his life has been seen as shyness. He is soft-spoken, but there
is an understated confidence that he says is new, acquired as
a result of April 16. Yet his placid nature, pale complexion and
lanky frame make him appear ghostlike and fragile.
Thirty of the 32 dead were killed in Norris
Hall. It took less than nine minutes, and 174 rounds were fired.
At 7.15am, Cho killed two students in West Ambler Johnston Hall,
a freshman dorm. At 9.40am he entered Norris Hall and chained
the three doors shut. Of the 13 people in Derek's class, five
died: four students and the professor. Eight students survived,
of whom six were shot. Derek was one of them.
After Cho shot the professor, he spun around.
Derek was in the second row in the second column from the door,
6ft from where the shooter entered the room. He was shot at three
times as he slid underneath the desk, and one bullet penetrated
He shows me the jacket that he was wearing.
He has kept it as a reminder of how fortunate he was. The navy-blue
zip-up fleece has three holes made by 9mm hollow-point bullets
- one in the sleeve, two near the pockets on the side.
Cho moved around to the far side of the
classroom. He was pointing the gun at people's heads, as close
as he could get, and pulling the trigger. Derek crawled along
the floor to put as much distance between them as possible. Cho
fired about 10 shots the first time, then reloaded. It took one
or two seconds before he started firing again. Once he had reloaded,
he went to the other side of the room. He was shooting randomly.
Whoever he could get close to.
"When he left the classroom,"
Derek says, sitting down on the couch, "everyone was motionless.
People were moaning on and off, but it seemed like everybody was
Derek was the first to get up. He could
hear more gunshots down the hall, and figured he had enough time
to get to the front of the classroom before the gunman could come
back. The aisles between desks were clogged with students who
had fallen. There was blood everywhere. There was also a cloud
of gunshot powder and residue. The smell was awful. The taste
When Derek and two others reached the door,
they put their feet against it to prevent Cho from coming in.
Derek tied his belt as a tourniquet around his arm. His arm was
numb, so it hadn't really registered that he'd been shot until
he realised his jacket was soaked with blood.
The door was made of thick wood. He called
911 - the emergency services - from his mobile. They were all
trying to stay quiet, hoping Cho would think they were dead, and
not return. Derek stayed at the door, deciding that was the best
chance any of them had of surviving. He looked around the room.
One of his friends had been shot in the side of the face. "I
saw him sitting at his desk. He was unconscious at that point.
I didn't have a clue what to do for him." He pauses, looking
as helpless now as he felt then.
About two minutes later, Cho returned. He
pushed on the door, trying to muscle his way in. The door opened
6in or so. The three students pressed back against it. The gunman
took a few steps back and started firing through the door.
They held it closed with their feet, wedged
between the door and the ground, leaning down to stay out of the
line of fire. They didn't know if the bullets were coming through
or not because they were afraid to look. Fragments of wood flew
through the air, but after that, nobody was hit.
Cho turned away and went down the hall.
But about two minutes later he came back and tried to get in again.
He fired another two bullets into the door, then gave up and went
to other classrooms, where he shot more people before turning
the gun on himself.
• • • •
There are two salient features of the Virginia
Tech campus that never came across on TV. The first is the scope
of the campus. It is vast, like a small village. There are over
26,000 students and it covers 2,600 acres of land. One immediately
understands how difficult it would have been to have a campus-wide
lockdown and intercept Cho after the initial shooting that morning.
When the state review panel issued its final report in August,
they agreed with police that it would not have been possible.
However, the report also concluded that delaying campus-wide notification
of the first shootings and not immediately suspending classes
were crucial decisions that had been mismanaged.
The other striking aspect is visual. Framed
by the Blue Ridge Mountains, the campus sits comfortably in the
landscape. The school operates its own quarry and many of the
buildings are made from a distinctive and elegant limestone, referred
to as Hokie stone.
Since April 16, new security measures have
been put into place: residential buildings are now locked 24 hours
a day, seven days a week, and only accessible with a key card
(Hokie passport). Doors can no longer be chained shut, 51 safety
phones were installed throughout the campus and local community
- all connected to emergency operators. But this is ancillary,
the equivalent of confiscating lighters when boarding an aircraft.
On a Saturday afternoon, I am able to drift around the campus,
in and out of the student centre, without challenge.
What happened has galvanised the student
body and the community, drawing them together. The word Hokie
comes up over and over again, like a badge of courage and pride.
Taken from a football cheer, the word itself means nothing. It
was originally "Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy!" but an "e"
was subsequently added.
In a candlelight vigil attended by President
Bush a day after the shootings, the English professor and poet
Nikki Giovanni (who had refused to teach Cho in her class) delivered
an inspirational speech with a rallying cry. "We are Virginia
Tech," she said. "We will prevail." It took on
an identification all of its own and fostered a bond: this came
to be known as the Hokie spirit.
Hungry to be a part of a community that
was so united, people were drawn in by the Hokie spirit. Whereas
post-9/11, residents fled from Manhattan, in Blacksburg, people
were defiant. Of the 25 students who were wounded, 19 went back
to classes. And enrolment went up.
• • • •
Tom Brown, the dean of students, is apologetic.
When I arrive at his office at 8am on a Friday morning, he tells
me he has just received a memo from legal counsel and won't be
able to talk. He is an affable man with kind eyes and grey hair,
who looks desperately in need of some time off.
Shortly after the shootings, memos were
e-mailed to the administration and faculty. The world press had
descended on Blacksburg, and probing questions were being asked.
At first, nobody could speak openly because of the police investigation.
Then it was the panel of inquiry. The mission of the Virginia
Tech Review Panel was to provide an objective examination of what
happened. Panel members were appointed by Tim Kaine, the governor
of Virginia, and ranged from psychiatrists to Tom Ridge, the former
US secretary of homeland security.
Now there are the possible lawsuits. A lawyer
is representing the families of 20 people killed or injured. The
focus is mainly on how the university handled those crucial two
hours between the first and second shootings.
We sit in Brown's wood-panelled office,
and over his shoulder on the shelf, a stuffed Hokiebird is grinning.
The school's mascot resembles a giant turkey in costume. Brown's
office functions as a type of triage centre, helping to make all
sorts of connections that involve student wellbeing on campus.
His department has always responded to student deaths, which average
about 10 a year. There was no procedure to deal with 27 in one
Parents still call every day, he says, often
needing reassurance, although what they're needing and worrying
about now isn't very different from before. Some parents phone
to ask if he will remind their child to return their call. His
office also acknowledged the gifts. The influx of banners and
quilts was so huge that the Library of Congress has volunteered
to help archive it. People would stop by constantly with trays
of biscuits, urging people in his office to take a break. This
community is close-knit partly because of its size (40,000 in
Blacksburg, over half from the university), and he believes it
is now even stronger. But he is pensive when asked about his own
feelings. "I still have a hard time finding my words to describe
what all this has been like. I haven't processed it yet."
This past September, Tom Brown went to Minnesota
for a wedding. He ended up changing tables at the reception. "It
was the topic of the dinner table. They were kind people and their
questions were considerate - but I was at a wedding, where I wanted
to enjoy myself and do something different, so I literally removed
myself from that. Because I didn't want to talk about it."
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I walk around
the outside of Norris Hall several times, crunching dead leaves
underfoot. Despite its central location on campus, there is a
stillness. After the shootings, it was thought Norris Hall would
be shut down or turned into a memorial. But it was decided that
the building would be kept open and used instead for offices and
laboratories. Eventually it will be renovated so that it no longer
The memorial is in a more public place.
On the Drillfield, a sprawling playing field in front of an administration
building, there are 32 pieces of Hokie stone placed in a half-circle.
On each stone, resembling a small tombstone, is engraved a victim's
name. In the middle a plaque reads: "We Will Prevail. We
Are Virginia Tech". The memorial is simple and symbolic.
It attracts a constant flow of visitors, many with maroon and
orange memorial ribbons pinned to their chests.
• • • •
A few months before April 16, Lucinda Roy,
the British novelist and poet, returned with her husband from
a trip to Sierra Leone. She used to teach there, and had gone
back to catch up with some of her students. We're in the sitting
room of her contemporary cedar home, which is filled with art
and overlooks the mountains. Born in Battersea, south London,
Roy has the title of Alumni Distinguished Professor of English
and, at the time of the shootings, was a co-director of the creative-writing
programme. She had always planned to give that up, and currently
teaches the graduate creative-writing fiction class.
When Nikki Giovanni said she didn't feel
comfortable having Cho in her writing class, Lucinda Roy knew
why. Serious problems were evident from his writing. "He
seemed to be very upset and angry," she says. "It was
worrying to me." Roy has a sensitive manner. She sent Cho
an e-mail saying she needed to speak to him. After this one-on-one
interview, she did not feel reassured. "I sent a note to
They recommended counselling. Although she
understood their position, she was frustrated. Even though he
had taken photos of students on his mobile phone from underneath
his desk without their knowledge, school policy stated that you
couldn't just pull a student out of a class, but had to find an
equivalent alternative. She tutored Cho privately and became,
arguably, the person who knew him best at school.
"I knew that he was very angry. I also
knew I was putting myself at some risk because I wanted to be
alone with him. My assistant sat in the office next to mine with
the door slightly open."
The meetings were tense because he was so
distressed. Each tutoring lasted 60-90 minutes. She used much
of that time to plead with him to go to counselling. Cho was an
extraordinarily uncommunicative person. At the time, Lucinda Roy
did not know that in 1999, while in high school, he had written
a paper in his English class indicating that he wanted to repeat
Columbine. Or that he had been diagnosed with "selective
mutism", an anxiety disorder characterised by a failure to
speak. This was later revealed in the panel report, where 30 pages
were devoted to his mental-health history. The psychiatric diagnosis
had not been noted in his medical records. But in their meetings
he opened up to her about his loneliness, and she felt it was
genuine. They wrote a poem together.
On the morning of April 16, Lucinda Roy
was at home writing. When she heard about the first shooting,
she started calling the English department, telling people she
knew not to go outside. CNN was on, broadcasting reports of people
being hurt. Initially, her response was professional. "I
was in that gear you go into as administrator - where are the
graduate assistants? what should I be telling people to do? Which
teachers do we have over at Norris?" When it was confirmed
that 20 people had died, her response became emotional. Yet it
didn't occur to her that Cho could be the gunman.
Later that afternoon The New York Times
called and asked her to write an opinion column. "This was
a good thing because it focused my energy." It ran on the
17th, when Cho's name was announced. "And I suddenly realised
I was the person who worked most closely to the shooter."
The phone didn't stop ringing for four days. She has been in countries,
Sierra Leone, for instance, where there are more guns than dogs.
But it has taken her a long time to get used to the guns in America.
"In rural areas I understand it. But it's become ludicrous.
People have arsenals."
Her friends in Britain reacted differently.
"My friends, and people I hadn't heard from in years, contacted
me with a kind of sensitivity that I found remarkable. I realised
how much I had become used to this kind of violence. They were
so horrified by it. I was pleased, because I wanted people to
be horrified that he could have gotten those guns. That this was
an intense violation. That's why it's so difficult for many of
us to talk about it. It really is like having been gang-raped."
Suddenly she seems unsettled. She tells
me she doesn't want to suggest that people in America are desensitised,
and makes sure to point out they were horrified too. "But
for the average person on the street, it's hard to sustain that
kind of horror if the next week something happens that echoes
that. It dilutes the horror."
Now she is still finding out how this has
changed her. She has always been very outspoken, but says it has
made her value honesty even more. "One thing we saw really
quickly here is that it was difficult to ask probing questions
on the campus because it could be seen as a kind of betrayal of
the Hokie spirit. In my mind, the opposite is true. Because if
we really value the Hokie spirit - and I'm such a Hokie in so
many ways because I really love this place - we have to do our
best to make it better. And the only way to do that is to be as
honest as possible and communicate with each other."
Her articulate, thoughtful perspective was
not received well by everyone. She has had death threats. It took
a while to persuade her to agree to this interview because she
has become more guarded. She and her husband have spent an extra
$1,000 on security for their house. "But then I never felt
completely safe," she laughs. "I was raised in London.
Of course I lock my doors."
• • • •
Virginia Tech has co-ordinated events for
students who survived the shootings. There was a Dave Matthews
concert - Derek O'Dell got to meet him and his band. Sometimes
the survivors meet for dinner and talk about their different views
of what happened. But mostly, Derek says, they talk about school
life now and other things.
What surprises him most about that day is
his complex thought processes. "How I was able to make split-second
decisions to save my life - calling 911, making a tourniquet,
barricading the door. Thinking back on it, it would seem more
logical just to have jumped out the window."
His anxiety varies from one day to the next.
Physically, he has healed. Mentally, he doesn't know what the
long-term damage will be. Over the summer he went to counselling.
He still goes occasionally. And he wears a cross. "I try
to be scientific and not just religious. If someone has gotten
to where there is no differentiation between right and wrong,
and can kill people and not feel anything, there's no hope left.
I don't think there's an answer to it."
The one subject that elicits a twinge of
frustration is financial compensation. The Hokie Spirit Memorial
Fund, which covers grief counselling and other expenses for victims
and their families, received donations in excess of $7m; $3.2m
of that has been used to create 32 endowment funds for lives lost
in the shootings.
Derek says the money students received was
calculated according to days spent in the hospital. "I voluntarily
gave up my hospital bed because they were having to turn people
away. I was out the same day, in about four or five hours."
He says that the university gave everyone
who was on the second floor either free tuition or $10,000, and
he chose tuition because the cost was $14,000. "It just seems
like if they were truly supportive of us, there wouldn't even
have been a question as far as tuition goes," he says. "How
hard is it to cancel the tuition fees for 17 people?"
When the university's president went to
Roanoke and met with him and his family, Derek asked him about
tuition. "He said there would be more than enough to pay
for it." Yet Derek has paid his own tuition for the current
term, while waiting for the issue to be resolved. "I'm not
angry, just disappointed."
His aim is not to benefit financially. And
perhaps what he is looking for is acknowledgment from the university
that he and his fellow survivors demonstrated the Hokie spirit
without looking for scapegoats to blame or questioning the degree
of culpability. While the money is useful, it is also, more importantly,
a symbolic nod of gratitude and appreciation.
In June, Derek O'Dell had a nightmare. He
was walking across campus, but it was a different school. He heard
shots fired and saw people running. He could taste the gunpowder.
It was the middle of the night when he woke up.
It was difficult to differentiate between
reality and dream. He hid under his bed for about 20 minutes until
he realised it wasn't real. After that, he was afraid of going
to sleep. The following night, he went to bed before his parents,
because that made him feel safe. "But it's gotten better,"
he says. "There aren't too many flashbacks." He smiles.
"I sleep with a night-light now."
• • • •
Six months on, people are still in shock,
not sure how to process what happened. For some, it helps to focus
on who is to blame. The university, for not doing enough? The
privacy laws that prevented Cho's history of mental illness from
being disclosed? The relaxed gun laws that made it possible for
him to purchase a Glock on a credit card? For those who choose
forgiveness, some believe what happened is an act of pure evil;
the work of the devil. Or an isolated rampage by a sick individual.
But the one thing they all have in common is they choose to look
at it as an unexplainable act visited on them. Keeping it at this
distance removes the need to look within.
Because if they do, that would mean facing
up to the uncertainty and powerlessness of what happened, and
this is too much to take in. It is too personal. Everyone can
relate to having been in a classroom, and every parent relates
to having sent a child off to school. To comprehend the enormity
of it is to confront the truth: violence is ubiquitous and safety
is an illusion.
There will always be questions. Could it
have been prevented? What caused Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old
born in Seoul, South Korea, to snap? A suicide note found in his
room referred to "rich kids" and "deceitful charlatans",
but offered little clue as to a motive.
A few days after the shootings, an 1,800-word
manifesto and video arrived at NBC News. The images shown were
of him brandishing guns, comparing himself to Jesus Christ, and
there was a note that said: "You had a hundred billion chances
and ways to have avoided today." A great deal of controversy
surrounded the release of the images and broadcasting of his words.
Many felt it glorified his rampage. But also, it conveyed the
unreserved character he aspired to be: expressive and fearless.
Which is not at all who he was.