A massacre’s survivors: Recovery and resilence at Va. Tech

Even now, he won’t go back inside.

Kevin Sterne hasn’t reentered Norris Hall since four police officers rushed his limp body out of the blood-soaked building in the chaos of April 16, 2007 — a horrifying moment captured in a photograph that became a defining image of the Virginia Tech tragedy.

But Sterne, now 27, hasn’t run from the school where he nearly died.

Weeks after the massacre and his release from the hospital, where doctors feared they’d have to amputate his leg, he came back to receive his diploma, hobbling across the stage on a crutch. He returned again months later as a graduate student, against his worried mother’s wishes, after a brutal stretch of rehabilitation back home.

And he is still here, working as an engineer in a university radar lab — a reluctant symbol of resiliency and recovery and a shattered community’s devotion to Virginia Tech.

Monday marks the fifth anniversary of the day a student gunman terrorized the bucolic campus, leaving 32 dead and more than two dozen wounded. For the first time since the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history, Virginia Tech will hold classes on the anniversary date. But there will be myriad Day of Remembrance events, as always: candlelight vigils and community picnics, art tributes and private prayer services.

Some of the survivors will convene informally, too, to remember the students and professors killed by Seung Hui Cho — and to reflect, Sterne said, “about how fortunate we are to be alive.” But he added: “That’s every day. It’s not like it goes away.”

On that freezing morning five years ago, Cho shot two people in a residence hall, returned to his dorm to change his bloody clothes, stopped at the post office to drop his manifesto in the mail, then headed for Norris Hall armed with two handguns and a backpack full of bullets. He chained the building’s doors and shot 48 people in 11 minutes before turning a gun on himself.

One bullet cut a hole in Sterne’s thigh; another tore through his femoral artery. With his blood gushing onto the floor of his elementary German class, Sterne jammed a finger into his leg, then stuffed a sweatshirt into the wound and tied an electrical cord around his thigh as a tourniquet.

He survived.

He stayed.

The familiarity of the place was comforting, even if he found himself taking detours around the building where he’d been shot. Now he is able to stand outside Norris, talking about the day he nearly died.

“I never had any real curiosity to walk back in,” said Sterne, wringing his hands while his temple twitched.

Time heals only so much.

‘The right place’ to heal

By Jay Poole’s count, there were 26 students at Norris Hall who suffered injuries that day but survived. Most were shot; a few were injured jumping out of the three-story building’s windows.

Six of them graduated from Virginia Tech shortly after the massacre, before Poole was selected to run the Office of Recovery and Support that the university established in the aftermath of April 16.

Then, after the fanfare of the first post-massacre graduation faded, something remarkable happened: The other 20 student survivors quietly came back to Virginia Tech.

“Every single one of them,” Poole said. “And every single one of them graduated.”

They limped back to Blacksburg to continue their studies and to piece their lives back together among friends. They wanted to be in a community that understood.

“It was where I had to be. It was the right place for me to heal,” said Kristina Anderson, who was shot twice in the back and whose gallbladder was removed, as was most of her left kidney.

She was a 19-year-old sophomore at the time of the shooting, and her parents didn’t want her to go back to Blacksburg for her last two years. But she never considered leaving. “It would have felt foreign to be anywhere else,” said Anderson, who runs the Koshka Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving campus safety.

Colin Goddard was shot four times — in his left knee, right shoulder and both hips — in the intermediate French class where 11 people died and six others were injured. His parents figured that he would move to their home in Richmond for a while and transfer elsewhere for his final year.

Instead, he went back to his apartment near Tech after being discharged from the hospital. When classes resumed in the fall, Goddard, too, was back on campus.

“I went back to the community that was trying to heal itself, to show people that, look, there’s somebody that’s going to be okay,” said Goddard, who works as a lobbyist for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “I felt that if I didn’t return to finish my degree at Virginia Tech, Cho would have taken something else from me.”

Sterne already had enough credits to receive bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and communications studies, and he was thinking about going to the University of Colorado for his master’s degree. But after April 16, he decided he would do his graduate work at Tech.

“I had to return,” said Sterne, who has mutton-chop sideburns that frame his face. “A lot of it was to be with my friends here. They were a part of the recovery process, getting back to a normal life.”

Returning wasn’t easy; triggers were everywhere. Going back inside a classroom was difficult. Loud noises — doors slamming, pots clanging — spooked the survivors. Students bursting into class late spooked them. Nobody liked being around Norris Hall.

“Will I be able to do this?” Sterne recalled thinking. “Will I fail out?”

“I freaked out almost every minute for the first month or so,” Goddard said.

At least the survivors had one another.

Loosely bound by tragedy, the injured survivors were brought together by Poole’s recovery and support office. There were group therapy sessions and monthly dinners at Poole’s house, where the students would talk about their social lives, their grades, their parents, their football team’s quarterback controversy — whatever.

Sometimes, they talked about April 16, too. Once, a student showed everybody his scar after a bullet fragment was removed. More often, they compared notes about the things that haunted them.

Not all of the students participated; those who suffered emotional but not physical wounds weren’t included on the school’s official list of survivors. And some of the injured survivors avoided meeting with the others.

The core group became close, though, finding comfort in shared anxieties. “I couldn’t imagine not having them to talk to,” Anderson said.

Eventually, most of the 20 left Blacksburg, taking jobs, starting families, moving on.

Just two remain: Sterne and an elementary German classmate, Derek O’Dell, who is studying veterinary medicine at Tech. But the group’s legacy endures, Poole said.

“The strength they displayed in coming back to Virginia Tech in some ways made them unwitting symbols for an entire campus that was struggling to recover from the most horrific event imaginable,” Poole said. “They displayed the most amazing resilience and resolve you can possibly imagine, as students and people.”

Unwanted attention

After his photo was seen worldwide, Sterne became the most famous of the injured students. His survival story was told over and over, even though he ignored all the invitations from reporters and television bookers. He sat in first lady Laura Bush’s box at the 2008 State of the Union address. He hated the attention. Still does.

“The survivors are not a boastful group,” he said. “Maybe it’s some of what they call survivor’s guilt. Why us? Why was somebody else killed and I was spared?”

Sterne, though, said he hasn’t felt that guilt, because he knows how close he was to not surviving. And he doesn’t ask “Why?” Not about any of it. Too dangerous. “I would drive myself crazy trying to answer a question that has no answer,” he said.

He rarely talks about that day, even with his closest colleagues.

Joseph Baker, a professor who was one of Sterne’s faculty advisers before hiring him to help maintain the university’s high-frequency radar network, said the subject has barely come up in the four years they’ve known each other.

“It’s not something to be proud of or to talk a lot about,” Sterne said, shrugging. “I just feel like any person that had something unfortunate happen to them.”

Physically, he figures he’s recovered about 80 percent. Emotionally? “That’s harder to judge,” Sterne said.

His post-traumatic stress disorder recently flared up — triggered by the approaching anniversary, he said. “Sometimes, things get out of control with my emotions and thoughts.”

Sterne’s mother, Suzanne Grimes, worries constantly. She hadn’t wanted her son to return to Blacksburg in the first place. She would love for him to leave.

“I didn’t want him to return because I was concerned about the emotional ramifications,” Grimes said. “I’m still concerned about him being in that environment. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the town or the community. But it happened there.”

One recent afternoon, prospective Virginia Tech students, who were in sixth and seventh grade when the shooting occurred, toured the campus. They walked across the Drillfield, and five groups passed the memorial to the April 16 victims. None of the students seemed to notice it.

Sterne stood before the ring of 32 stones engraved with the names of the victims killed, five of whom were in his classroom.

He’s gained some distance from that day, he said. He’s meeting more and more people who don’t know that he survived the shooting. And he’s thinking about letting go of Blacksburg.

“There’s deep and serious questions about whether I want to stay in a place I almost died,” he said.

He was hurt here, and he healed here, and maybe now it’s time to leave here.

Staff research director Madonna Lebling, researcher Jennifer Jenkins, photographer Bill O’Leary and video journalists Pratik Shah and Ben de la Cruz contributed to this report.

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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