The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Victims of Va. Tech, Va. Beach mass shootings seek to create permanent fund for survivors, families

The Virginia Mass Violence Care Fund would cover expenses not covered by insurance or donations and use market gains to cover costs

Mourners hold hands at a makeshift memorial near the Virginia Beach municipal center two days after a mass shooting claimed 12 lives there in May 2019. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

In the public works offices of the city of Virginia Beach, Carl Britt was locking the back door on a Friday afternoon and looking forward to a three-day weekend of kayaking and paddleboarding with his wife at the Outer Banks. He sensed someone walking behind him, and heard him say, “There’s a guy walking around with a gun.”

“After he had said that,” Britt said, “I turned and looked him in the face and he shot me.” The .45-caliber bullet ricocheted off his jaw into his spinal cord and he fell to the floor, instantly paralyzed. In his first public interview, Britt described being carried down two floors by co-workers, past the police shootout with the gunman, to a pickup truck with a surfboard in the back and being carried to an ambulance before he lost consciousness.

“By the heroism of my co-workers and police officers,” Britt said, “and the skill of the EMTs and the doctors, that’s what I attribute being here to.”

Twelve people died in the May 2019 mass shooting in the Virginia Beach city offices, and Britt was left a quadriplegic. His medications cost $30,000 a year, he needed a $60,000 specially equipped van, and his home is not fully renovated for a man in a wheelchair. Britt said workers’ compensation and insurance have helped pay his costs, but “the sad fact is there’s a great deal of our fellow Americans who live paycheck to paycheck,” and “in a situation like this, through no fault of their own, they are left to bear the burden of things like $30,000 for medications. That would be horrible.”

Britt is among those supporting a push to create a permanent $10 million endowment fund in Virginia to reimburse mass-shooting survivors and families of the slain for certain expenses their insurance and other funds do not cover. The Virginia Mass Violence Care Fund would invest the money in a manner similar to the state’s “529 Fund,” which helps parents pay their children’s college expenses, and use an expected yield of $400,000 per year to help victims.

A Daughter's Untimely Requiem

The effort is being led by Joseph Samaha, whose daughter Reema was killed in a 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in which 32 were slain and 24 injured. For years, he has helped lead VTV Care, the Virginia Tech Victims’ Family Outreach Foundation, which has provided help to victims of other mass shootings, launched a national campus safety initiative and created a funding model for covering victims’ expenses that are not reimbursed by insurance or other funds.

The proposed state fund, which Samaha and others said would be the first of its kind in the nation, would help those harmed by the rampages at Virginia Tech and in Virginia Beach and any future mass shootings.

“The endowment is needed,” Samaha said, “because, typically, three years after a mass violence event, there are not funds available for families of victims, survivors and those traumatized. The donor funds have been disbursed, and the grants also dry up.” He noted that first responders to the terrorist attack in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, still are seeking financial help, as are survivors and families of the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School, Colo.

Nearly 15 years after the shootings at Virginia Tech, “people are still seeing therapists, still going to doctors,” Samaha said. He said the reimbursements made to Tech victims, mostly from the state criminal injuries compensation fund, showed that “healing is not linear. Seven or eight years later, people still need care. In year nine, it spiked. We have been reimbursed $645,000 over the last 14 years,” for costs not covered by insurance.

Starting in 2020, the Tech victims’ group started its own endowment, with money from the state’s 2009 settlement with victims, and Samaha said the yield on investment has been nearly 9 percent. The fund has identified 177 family members and survivors eligible to receive reimbursement for costs tied to treatment for the April 2007 shooting. Victims are defined as families of the deceased, injured or traumatized survivors and those who were present during the event.

The new funding is being proposed as a budget amendment by Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach) and Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who both said there was bipartisan support for creating the fund. “What do we do for victims long-term?” Convirs-Fowler asked. She said the Tech victims’ fund was a good model and that the larger endowment “is a good step in the right direction; we’re taking responsibility.” Petersen said that in many cases, “there’s no other way to recover” financially and that the new fund would be a lasting resource.

The fund would be administered by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services and be available to victims starting three years after a mass violence event.

Samaha and other victims’ relatives and attack survivors traveled to Richmond last week to brief the Virginia Beach legislative delegation, and then the commission investigating the Virginia Beach shooting, on the proposed fund. Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R) attended and expressed his support for the fund.

“I think there is some frustration that I’ve talked to survivors who have this awful feeling that they’ve been left on the side of the road,” Miyares said, according to WAVY-TV, and his office also issued a statement of support for the fund. The investigative commission on Thursday issued a letter saying it unanimously supported the Mass Violence Care Fund. A spokeswoman for Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said he was “supportive of aiding the families impacted by tragic loss and will review the budget amendment that comes to his desk. But in principle, he is supportive.”

Virginia Beach city employee Missy Langer was shot in the back of the head and killed on May 31, 2019. “This was my sister,” said Debbie Borato of Florida. “That vision is with me every day. For 2½ years now, I can’t focus, I wake up nauseated. This is something that will go on for the rest of our lives.”

Answers remain elusive in Virginia Beach shooting rampage

But the funds available from Virginia for Borato to see mental health therapists for her post-traumatic stress disorder quickly dried up. “I couldn’t afford to pay $180 a week for a therapist. ... We need help financially, and the therapy.”

“There are few resources for mass casualty crime victims who have to face a myriad of unique issues for the rest of their lives,” said Anita Busch, the president of VictimsFirst, which financially assists victims of mass violence. “The need for a mass violence care fund, as proposed in Virginia, is long overdue and would become a model for the rest of the nation.”

Jason Nixon has been advocating for the victims of the Virginia Beach rampage since his wife, Kate, called him from Building 2 on the Virginia Beach campus and told him she’d been shot. Nixon rushed to the scene, but Kate died, leaving behind her husband and three young daughters. He traveled to Richmond last week to explain the need for the fund.

‘He wants this so bad’: A widower’s quest for answers in Virginia Beach takes its toll

He said financial assistance was “fine when it first happens. But then it all fades away and you feel like you’re left behind. Counseling’s like $200 to $300 a week. I wouldn’t need counseling if a Virginia Beach employee hadn’t murdered my wife. I’m going to need it for the rest of my life. My kids are going to need it. ... This funding is going to be helpful. Mass shootings are prevalent, and they seem to be growing.”

Last year, at least 30 mass shootings occurred nationwide with at least four people slain in each attack, not including the shooter. In hundreds of other shootings, according to several gun violence databases, multiple people were shot, but fewer than four died. Details of how the Virginia fund would define a mass shooting still are being worked out, Samaha said.

Britt is one of four people who survived being shot in Virginia Beach Building 2. He has a detailed recollection of preparing to leave work for the weekend, standing in a doorway, being shot and then finding himself on the floor. “I couldn’t move,” Britt said. “One of my first thoughts was, ‘What a place to die. Sticking halfway out of the back door of my workplace.’ ”

He said he thought about his wife, and whether she would be financially secure if he were gone, and decided that she would be. “I guess you could say I came to terms with dying on the floor,” Britt said.

But his co-workers rushed to help, one cradling Britt’s head in his lap. Police officers appeared, weapons drawn, and Britt gave them a full description of the shooter. The officers told Britt’s co-workers to hide, but they refused to leave their wounded colleague, Britt said. Four or five co-workers carried him down a third-floor hallway to the stairs, passing the second-floor entrance where police were firing at the gunman. “It was just shockingly loud,” Britt recalled.

Britt spent several weeks in Virginia Beach General Hospital, and then several months at the Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta. Doctors told him they thought he would be bedridden and on a ventilator for the rest of his life, but the self-described former gym rat and fitness nut, now 61, moves around in a wheelchair and breathes on his own, and continues to attend physical therapy. Britt has received extensive assistance from workers’ compensation, but that wouldn’t be available to people who are injured outside of work. “It is my hope,” Britt said, that the proposed fund for Virginia victims “would help families who are in a situation where they’re suddenly scrambling to find funds or medical insurance, people that are left financially bereft.”

Britt added, “We’ve become inured to the outrages, really.”

He said that while he was in rehabilitation in Atlanta, someone told him the news media might be waiting when he returned to Virginia. “The sad truth is,” Britt said at the time, “before I leave here, there’s going to be two or three more of these that occur, and we’re going to be old news.” Sure enough, 23 people were fatally gunned down at a Walmart in El Paso on Aug. 3, 2019, and 10 people, including the gunman, were fatally shot in a bar in Dayton, Ohio, the next day.