Something horrible had happened in Virginia.
That was Kelli Gray’s first thought when she found out she had missed her father’s phone call.
She was in South Africa for a medical internship and was scheduled to fly home to Prince William County in a few days. She knew he wouldn’t try to reach her unless it was urgent. She tried calling back. But by then, her relatives had agreed not to tell her anything until they saw her.
Two days later, Gray stood in the airport in Johannesburg, waiting for her flight and still feeling uneasy, when she finally saw a television. From a news broadcast, she learned that a shooting had taken place at Virginia Tech on the same day her dad had called. Her cousin attended the school. Some of her former classmates did, too.
“Oh my God,” she thought. That must be it, she figured. That must be what her family wasn’t telling her.
But it wasn’t. She would soon learn that something horrible hadn’t happened in Virginia. Two horrible things had happened.
On the same day that a Virginia Tech student shot and killed 32 people and then himself, another unexpected death occurred 235 miles away in the same state. Gray’s older brother, a 24-year-old Prince William County firefighter named Kyle R. Wilson, stepped into a burning house to make sure no one remained inside. A fire fueled by fierce winds left him trapped.
That day, he became the county’s first firefighter to die in the line of duty.
“I remember getting off the plane and seeing my grandparents and thinking, ‘What are they doing here?’ And then I looked around and I saw one brother but I didn’t see the second one,” recalled Gray, who was 21 at the time. “My first words were, ‘Where’s Kyle?’ ”
“I think your first few words were, ‘Where’s Kyle? What’s happening? Where’s Kyle?’ ” her brother Chris Wilson, who was then 27, recalled.
When national tragedies occur, we rightfully turn our collective attention and grief toward them. We light candles, fill pews and leave gifts to show the victims’ families and friends that we are hurting alongside them. But on those day of widespread mourning, there are also often quiet losses, ones that don’t make the national news, or if they do, sit deep inside newspapers and appear far into newscasts.
If you search online for “firefighter Kyle Wilson” and “The Washington Post,” you won’t easily find the story about his death. It was published inside the Metro section on page B5. I only know this because I wrote it and because one of The Post’s incredible researchers, Jennifer Jenkins, helped me find it.
After the Virginia Tech shooting, I spent many days on the Blacksburg campus, writing about how students and the faculty were coping, thriving and remembering the lost. But on the morning of the shooting, I was standing in front of what remained of the white-paneled house on Marsh Overlook Drive in Woodbridge, trying to learn what I could about the rookie firefighter who had been killed.
“He was the best of the best,” Kevin McGee, who was then the assistant fire chief, said at the time. He also described him as “an outstanding young man.”
But none of the coverage that day, or in the days that followed for his funeral, told of the Kyle Wilson known by those closest to him: the shy child who often questioned what was “logical,” the young man whose favorite food was canned tuna and green beans followed by a honey bun, the diligent worker who while attending the fire academy continued to deliver pizzas for Dominos.
I only learned those things in recent days, when I sat down with his family to talk about him and what it has been like for them to share such a personal loss with such a public tragedy.
Chris Wilson said when he didn’t see his brother’s picture right away on the news that first night, he felt relieved.
“I thought ‘Good, maybe they got it wrong, maybe it wasn’t him,’ ’’ he said.
His brother was three years younger, but they lived together in a Manassas townhouse and spent their weekends hanging out. They shared friends, haircuts and inside jokes. At one point, Wilson said, his brother asked him if he would serve as his beneficiary and handle the details if anything happened to him.
“I said, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ ” Wilson recalled. “I said, ‘If something happens to you, I’m worthless.’ ”
Their mother, Sue Wilson, said she had tried to encourage her son to become a paramedic. During one conversation, she had asked him why he wanted to be a firefighter, knowing it could get him killed.
“You know you could not be with us tomorrow?” she had told him. She recalled him saying, “I love it. It’s what I want to do. No matter what you say, Mom, I’m not changing my mind.”
“So when we lost him,” she said, “I kept reliving that conversation over and over and over again.”
To walk into the house she and her husband, Bob Wilson, have owned for more than 30 years in Dale City is to step into a scrapbook of Kyle Wilson. He is everywhere. His pictures hang on the walls, sit on tables and stick to the refrigerator. In the basement, his ax and his helmet dangle beside a hand-drawn sketch of him. In a bedroom, items he collected as a child share the space with an urn filled with his ashes.
“I had a voice mail that I saved from him and I just kept listening to it,” said Gray, who also lost a classmate in the Virginia Tech shooting.
“Do you still have it?” her dad asked. “I still have his phone number in my phone.”
“The car I drive is Kyle’s car,” Sue Wilson said of the white Pontiac that has her son’s name on the license plate.
In a few days, on April 16, when most people will think of Virginia Tech, the family will mark the 12th anniversary of Wilson’s death. It has not gotten easier, they said. Sue Wilson has already requested that day off from her job as a secretary in the emergency room. And Gray, who will be traveling with friends, has warned them that she will be “a hot mess.”
“For me, I think it’s a little bit harder because I’m a parent now, so I think about what they’ve gone through and as a mother, I can’t imagine that loss,” she said crying in her parents’ kitchen as they sat nearby. “And I also think of how much Kyle missed out on. He could have had kids. He could have been married. He doesn’t know our spouses. He doesn’t know his nieces and nephews. So for me it gets harder, I think, as I get older.”
Chris Wilson said for him, the part that gets more difficult is making sure no one forgets his brother.
“I’m honored that he gets any attention at all,” he said. He has met firefighters from other states who have told them that have received training based on his brother’s death, and in 2016, the county named an elementary school after him.
Chris Wilson said he is always willing to talk about his brother and makes himself available anytime someone wants to know more about him or his service. But he also recalled once, when he chose not to say anything about him.
He was at work and noticed a colleague looked upset in the break room. He said he asked the man what was wrong and he told him about a cousin he had lost.
“You remember the shooting at Virginia Tech?” Wilson recalled the man asking. “I said, ‘Of course, I do.’ But I thought this is a chance for me to talk about that day and not bring up my brother. I’ve never ever done that. And it was therapeutic because I never realized that someone out there felt the same thing we felt just as much.”
“When I think about Virginia Tech and I think about Kyle, it’s almost to me one big incident the whole state suffered,” he said. “The whole state of Virginia suffered that day.”