VT Tragedy: A Survivor Tells His Story
By Matt Rogers
Author, When Answers Aren't Enough
CBN.com Hands cold and clammy, I knock, step back, and wait nervously for what seems an eternity for the door to open. From inside the apartment, I can hear footsteps moving closer, down a hallway and toward me. I have no idea what to expect from the next hour, or why Derek O’Dell agreed to meet with me.
Two weeks ago I got up the courage at last to email him: “Not sure how to ask this appropriately, if there even is a way,” I wrote, “but would you be open to talking with me about your experience on April 16?”
Derek had class on the second floor of Norris Hall the morning of the Virginia Tech shootings and was one of nearly two dozen injured in the attacks that left thirty-three dead, including the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. I realized that I had been viewing the sadness of this spring somewhat from the outside. I needed the perspective of one who was there, who witnessed the slaughter of classmates and friends and mentors, and who himself had only narrowly escaped death. But why would anyone wish to relive that kind of horror, much less discuss it with a total stranger?
“If you don’t want to,” I wrote, “no problem at all. If I were in your shoes, I would probably throw a rock at anyone who asked me about that day. The only reason I decided to ask at all is that I’ve seen you do numerous television interviews and figured you might be willing. If you’d be up for chatting, let me know.”
A week passed before Derek responded, every day of which I gradually grew more certain I had offended him, having intruded on a most personal and painful time that was none of my business. He must be sick of such violation, I thought, ready to move on with life as best he can. I wasn’t the media, but I was one more person asking, “What was it like?” Maybe he was simply tired of us all. Who wouldn’t be?
A response finally came: “Matt, thanks for your email. I wouldn’t mind meeting. How does next Friday, in the afternoon, sound?
He’s thanking me? I should be thanking him for not throwing that rock.
The knob jiggles slightly and the door swings in. There in the doorway stands a man I’ve seen many times in pictures and on TV. Tall, thin, with a gracious smile, Derek reaches to shake my hand and says, “Matt? I’m Derek. It’s good to meet you. Come on in. Did you have any trouble finding the place?”
“No, your directions were fine,” I say, stepping inside.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Derek asks, soft-spoken. I am struck at once by his humble demeanor. Who is this man who treats me like a welcomed guest in his home, who wants to serve me though he knows I’ve come to pry into that awful day?
“Water would be great,” I answer. I detect in Derek no hint of suspicion as to my motives in coming here. He pulls a glass from a kitchen cabinet, fills it with ice, and hands it to me along with a bottle of water.
“We can talk in here,” he says, directing me into the living room. “My roommates aren’t home right now.”
Sitting on a couch facing Derek, I begin at the only point that seems to make sense: “I’m dying to ask: Why do you agree to these conversations? Why all the interviews you’ve done? I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone.”
Smiling, Derek says, “That’s funny — I just did an interview for a newspaper, and the reporter there asked me the same thing. I figure if I can help people do their job, I’m happy to.”
Is this guy for real? I wonder, disbelieving.
“And,” he adds, “it helps me to talk about it.”
“Well, if I ask something I shouldn’t, just stop me and tell me to move on.”
“You can ask anything you want.”
For a second, I just look at him, silent, my eyebrows raised. Does he realize how pointed the questions are in my head? Of course, he must. How many times has he been through this routine? “All right, then,” I say, taking a deep breath, preparing to dive in. “Can you tell me about that morning?”
“It was unusually cold, and there was a dusting of snow on the ground. My birthday had been just three days before — April 13. I remember thinking that I’d never seen snow after my birthday. I went to Burger King at about 8:40 and then headed to German class in Norris Hall.”
“Do you remember what the lecture was on that morning?”
“Yeah. Strangely enough, we were talking about how to quote someone in the media.”
“When did you first know something was wrong?” I ask. “Did the shootings start in your room?”
“No. We first saw Cho before the shootings started. He poked his head in our room a couple of times and just looked around. I guess he was scoping out the rooms, planning his attack. The first time he stuck his head in, I just thought he was a student who had got turned around and was trying to find his class. But it seemed strange that he came back a few minutes later and looked in again. That was at about 9:15 or 9:20. The shootings started at 9:41.”
A part of me wants to stay and hear what’s coming next. Another part wants to run while I still can, before the images described are in my mind for life. But I need to face the world as it is. And it doesn’t get more real than this — or more tragic. “What was it like?” I ask.
“The first shots were across the hall, in the hydrology class. It sounded like a nail gun or a hammer hitting concrete blocks. We all looked up, and the professor stopped teaching for a moment, but we just thought it was construction going on next door. They had been working on the building next to Norris all semester. We dismissed it as that.
“Our door swung open next, and Cho walked in. He raised a Glock 9mm handgun and discharged three rounds into our professor, then swung around and fired another eight or ten shots at the class. He reloaded within one or two seconds and fired another ten or so shots while walking around the class.”
I feel my forehead wrinkling and face contorting into an anguished form. Derek, on the other hand, appears relaxed, composed. “What was he like as he was doing this?” I ask, almost in a whisper.
“Cho was calm, methodical, not panicked at all.”
I can’t help thinking Derek could be describing himself, his slow and careful recounting of the carnage. I’ve heard that people often cannot recall specifics of traumatic events they’ve experienced; their brains, in a brilliant defense strategy, block the graphic details. For Derek, however, every step Cho took, every shot fired, remains sharp and clear.
“I saw bullets ricocheting off desks and off the wall as he slowly went around the room killing people. He walked down the aisles, putting the gun to people’s heads and shooting them at point-blank range to make sure they were dead.”
“What were you thinking and feeling?”
“When he came in the room and first started shooting, I thought maybe it was a joke. Until I saw the casings pop out. Then I knew it was real. At first, everyone just froze, trying to understand what was happening. It took a little bit for us to realize this was a shooting, because you just never expect something like that to happen to you. Then those of us who still could began ducking behind desks and trying to move toward the back of the room.
“After Cho emptied the second magazine, the room was motionless and silent, except for a few moans. I guess Cho figured everyone was either dead or mortally wounded, because he left the room at that point and went down the hall to the French class and started shooting there.”
“When were you shot?”
“I guess it was as I was going for the floor,” he says. “I had my arm up on my desk at first, like this.” Derek demonstrates for me the motion he made that morning as he moved to shield himself from the bullets. “I didn’t know at first that I’d been shot. My arm just felt numb. It was after Cho left the room that I noticed the blood running from a hole in the arm of my jacket.”
“What happened when Cho left the room?”
“Out of about fifteen people in the class, only five of us were conscious. Four of us could stand up. I remember looking around and seeing the face of a classmate who wasn’t shot — only two people had not been hit. There was pure disbelief on his face as he was trying to comprehend what had happened. And I was thinking, what should we do?”
“What did you do?” I ask.
“I don’t think I was in control anymore. It was something else, someone higher up,” Derek says, pointing, as if to heaven, to the off-white ceiling of his apartment. “Cho had left the door open, and I sprinted over the tops of the desks to the front of the room and shut the door. I had to go over the desks because there was so much debris in the aisles — book bags, people. I shut the door, and a friend who had been shot in the hand helped me hold it closed. We heard more shots down the hall, maybe fifteen or twenty. Then he came back to our room and tried to get in again. He got the door open three or four inches, but we shut it again. Cho stepped back and started firing at it. The doors in Norris are solid wood, about two inches thick, but the bullets started coming through. Four or five bullets, maybe.”
“No one was hit?”
“No, my friend and I were on the floor on either side of the door, holding it shut with our feet. As he was firing at the door, I just started praying to God that we might be saved. Cho left again, and we heard more shots down the hall. Then he came back and tried to get in a third time. Fired two more shots into the door. It was around this time that I heard the shotgun blasts from police officers trying to get in the building on the floor below. Cho had chained the doors. Then I just remember that the shots stopped. Police were on our hall nine minutes after the shootings started. I don’t know when Cho killed himself, but it was sometime before the officers got to our floor.”
“So you were shot once in the arm?”
“Yeah, the right arm, but there are three bullet holes in the coat I was wearing.”
“Hang on, I’ll show you.”
Derek leaves the room for a moment, then returns holding a thin, black fleece jacket. Putting it on, he shows me the hole from the bullet that pierced his bicep. “It entered here and came out here,” he says, pointing to the entry and exit points. “But there is another hole here on the right shoulder. I guess the jacket was raised slightly, because the bullet didn’t hit me.”
In my mind, I imagine that day, the bullets whizzing all around, barely missing Derek — except for the one.
“There is one other bullet hole in the jacket,” Derek says, putting his finger through a small hole in the front of the jacket, next to the zipper. “I didn’t even notice it until I got home from the hospital. It’s directly over my heart.”
Moreover, I notice, it’s directly over the silver cross that hangs from Derek’s neck. This would seem as good a time as any to ask the question that is foremost in my mind, the reason I contacted Derek in the first place: “What do you think about God after all of this? Does he still seem good to you? What has this done to your faith?”
Without a second’s hesitation, Derek answers, “It’s strengthened my faith, definitely. The bullet hole over my heart had to have come when I was holding the door with my foot, when Cho was trying to get back in our room. It’s the only time I had my jacket unzipped so that a bullet could have come through at that angle without hitting me. And that’s the moment when I was praying for God’s help.”
“But there haven’t been any ups and downs to your faith?” I ask, leaning forward from the edge of my couch, fishing for any signs that Derek is glossing over the truth. “You haven’t had any questions as to why God would allow this or any trouble experiencing him as good?”
“I’ve experienced the full range of emotions, for sure: shock, disbelief, grief, survivor’s guilt — wondering why I lived when others didn’t — but no, it hasn’t hurt my faith at all. It’s been only positive. People ask, ‘Where was God when this happened?’ I say he was in that building, because the death toll could have been a lot higher. Cho fired a hundred or more rounds. In our class, five people died, but a lot more could have. And some people who were hurt badly are healing well.”
“But,” I jump in, “what about those whose prayers were not answered? A more cynical person” — like myself — “might hear your story and think, ‘Maybe Derek only experiences God as good because he made it out of Norris with only a wound to the arm.’ ”
“Although everyone was not saved,” Derek responds, “there were a great number of people who, in my mind, would have died without God. My example at the door is just one instance of answer to prayer.
“Take my friend Sean as another example. When I left Norris, I had little hope that Sean would survive. He had been shot in the head. When I made it to the hospital, I began to pray, not for me, but for my classmates this time, and all the others. Specifically, I prayed for Sean. I really didn’t think that he was alive, but I still prayed. When the list of deceased students and faculty began to be published, I scrolled up and down, heartbroken as I recognized my classmates’ names. Once the toll reached thirty-two homicides and was finalized, I kept searching for Sean’s name on the list. It wasn’t there. I began looking online to find out more about his status, because at this point, I honestly thought there was a name missing from the list. I searched for all different phonetic spellings of his last name and finally found that he really was alive.
“In my mind, there is no scientific explanation for that. I literally saw a person get shot in the head, bleed out, and survive. There is no question to me that a good God was there guiding to safety those who survived. And there are other stories of students getting shot four and five times and surviving. Seeing them today, often with little physical scarring — if that isn’t God, then I could never come up with any sort of logical explanation for any of it.”
I then realize that this is what I’ve been doing. I’ve been demanding explanations and answers of Derek. But the question I’m asking has no logical explanation. Can a person experience God as good in the midst of horror and sadness? Derek is saying yes, emphatically. I cannot argue with an experience.
Though I looked for it, I cannot find a hint of bitterness in Derek, only gratitude. “I take every day as a blessing now,” he says. “You definitely don’t take life for granted after something like this.”
I lean back on the couch and notice that the anxious tension I had walking in here is gone. Derek’s calm composure has set me at ease. I ask, “In what ways did you experience God as good in the early days after the shootings? What helped?”
“Walking around the Drill Field the day after, seeing the way people were reaching out. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. People were coming together, hugging, caring for one another, disregarding their differences. There was a sense of not only a stronger community, but a family building and growing. A family that didn’t stop with Virginia Tech or Blacksburg — it extended across this nation and even, to an extent, the world. I saw God’s family doing what they do best, offering comfort to strangers, embracing
the sadness with us, but at the same time hoping and praying for recovery and healing.”
Hearing Derek’s perspective, I am encouraged by his hopeful response to terror — a word overused these days, but what else would you call what he saw? I find myself thanking God for this hour with Derek. He has experienced the truly awful without having been made awful by it. And he has shown me the possibility of enduring great darkness without losing sight of God’s goodness.
Before wrapping up our time, I take a final stab at unearthing any bitterness in Derek: “Do you ever get tired of the marketing of this tragedy, all the T-shirts and signs around campus, plastered with slogans such as We Will Prevail and Never Forget?”
“Nah. I know it bothers some people, but it encourages me to see how this has brought everyone together. The campus and the town are one now. I like seeing that. I want to remember my classmates and my professor who didn’t make it. They were everyday heroes to me. I don’t want to forget them. I’m trying to live by that motto: Never Forget.”
Excerpted from When Answers Aren't Enough: Experiencing God as Good When Life Isn't, © 2008 by Matt Rogers. Published by Zondervan. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
About the Author:
Matt Rogers graduated from Campbell University in 1999 with a degree in Broadcast Management and worked from 1999 - 2003 as an on-air announcer and program director for Positive Alternative Radio, Inc., in Blacksburg, Virginia. He left radio in 2003 for full-time ministry on the campus of Virginia Tech, and in 2006, he was ordained one of the pastors of New Life Christian Fellowship. Eight hundred students call the church home.
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