Kevin Sterne's story of resilience and recovery began with his rescue — a harrowing moment captured on camera by Roanoke Times photographer Alan Kim. The paper had sent Kim to campus after receiving reports of a shooting, he told News Photographer magazine. He set up a camera with a 500mm lens about 200 yards away from Norris Hall, where Sterne was shot, and clicked away as four police officers carried the 22-year-old student to safety. The dramatic photo was seen around the world and anchored the front page of the next day's Roanoke Times. Kim, who no longer works in journalism, declined to discuss the iconic photo with The Post — only to say that he was certain Sterne was alive when he took it. In one of the only two interviews he's given about that day, Kim told News Photographer that he didn't understand the severity of the situation at Tech until after he'd submitted his photos. "It wasn't until several hours later that the scope of the tragedy was revealed."
Kevin Sterne was hit twice — once through the femoral artery in his right leg. He tried to staunch the bleeding by tying an electrical cord around his thigh; EMTs did a better job with a proper tourniquet, he said. Sterne snapped to when Virginia State Police Sgt. Matthew Brannock and three Blacksburg Police officers lugged him out of Norris. “Having little clothes and it being 30 degrees out will wake you up,” said Sterne, whose pants had been stripped in the scramble to save his life. He began to fade just after the photo was taken, when he was placed in an ambulance. Interviewed five years later, Sterne considered himself about 80 percent recovered. Emotionally? “That’s harder to judge.” He’d just had a PTSD flare-up. In 2012, he remained at Tech, working in a radar lab. When he sees his famous photo, he sees “a struggle to survive, the urgency of the situation." But, he said: “I don’t think I have too much of a reaction. It doesn’t anger me. It’s not saddening.”
As the officers rushed Sterne to an ambulance, State Police Sgt. Matthew Brannock struggled to keep his grip on the student's arm; Sterne was 210 pounds of deadweight and the blood made his skin slick. “It seemed like it was a long trip, very tiring,” said Brannock, the towering figure on the left side of the iconic photo. (You can just make out the M4 carbine rifle slung over his back.) After the rescue, the two became friends; when Brannock was shot on duty last year, the sergeant received an e-mail from the survivor. “I jokingly asked him why he was trying to be like me, getting shot twice in the leg,” Sterne said. Brannock has since left the State Police to become director of operations at Martinsville Speedway. When he sees the photo now, he thinks about the heroic work of the first responders hidden from the cameras inside Norris. He thinks about the horrific chaos of that day. And he thinks about Sterne’s survival. “It’s a story of triumph,” he said.
Blacksburg police officer Johnnie Self, holding Sterne up by his left forearm in the photo, was the only one of the men pictured who started out inside the building with Sterne. Brannock and the other Blacksburg police officers, who declined to be identified, joined him as he came down the stairs and across the lawn. He saw the image on television shortly after. “It sort of caught me by surprise,” Self said. “I didn’t really realize anyone would be there in that amount of time to be able to take photographs like that.” He never saw Sterne again. He received a Medal of Valor along with eight other Blacksburg police officers for his actions. “It really doesn’t hold a candle to what the faculty and those students did inside that building before we got there,” he said. He has since left the police force and is a manager for an auto shop. “[The experience] changed me. It kind of gave me a different outlook on life,” he said.
David Stoeckle was at Montgomery Regional Hospital when the ambulances arrived. The Blacksburg hospital’s chief of surgery had set up a triage center at the emergency room entrance to deal with the incoming victims from Virginia Tech — 11 with multiple gunshot wounds, according to an Amherst magazine profile of the doctor. When Kevin Sterne arrived “with a bullet in his thigh that had torn out three centimeters of his femoral artery,” Stoeckle decided he’d have to fix the wound himself and ran alongside the gurney into the operating room, according to the magazine. The surgery lasted four hours. “The victims like Kevin Sterne, who I took care of, were so brave,” Stoeckle said on the eve of the fifth anniversary. “Even thinking about it now, it sort of breaks you up and you get emotional about it. I will always remember Kevin wherever he is.” The surgeon and the survivor chat whenever Sterne comes into the hospital; occasionally, they run into each other at the grocery store, too. “Blacksburg is a small community,” Sterne said.
Then-Gov. Tim Kaine saw the photo on CNN while waiting for the first flight back from Tokyo. “The picture is a very searing one,” he said. You can see two holes in Sterne’s bloody leg, where a bullet entered and exited above his knee. You can see urgency on the faces of the officers helping him to safety. “That picture shows the tragedy but also the resiliency and community spirit that was on display,” Kaine said. Two days after the shooting, he met Sterne at the hospital. They talked about being Boy Scouts and about the future; as with many of the survivors the governor met, Sterne hinted that he was likely to return to Virginia Tech. "This had been a horrible tragedy of unspeakable proportions," Kaine said. "But they just wanted to get back to normal and stay at this university they loved."
When Kevin Sterne’s mother goes off to a protest or to testify about gun control or campus violence or the Tech tragedy itself, she always brings a copy of the Roanoke Times front page with her son’s famous photo blown up big. “It gets people’s attention,” she said. She keeps a smaller copy of the photo at her desk; looking at it helps her heal. When she gazes at the photo, she thinks about the carnage of April 16, about the lives that were lost and the others that were damaged forever. She thinks about “how fortunate Kevin was that they were able to get him out alive, because he came so close to dying.” She wonders what he was thinking in the massacre’s immediate aftermath. She worries about his physical and emotional health. “And then I start crying. And then I get angry. He’s been robbed of a normal life. That weighs heavily on me.”