Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"The Messenger" by Matt Chittum

Roanoke Times, The (VA)-September 1, 2007

The voice leapt above the hum from the waiting room television
at Montgomery Regional Hospital.

News of the shootings at Virginia Tech was not two hours old,
and the network chatter was already relentless.

But the voice distinguished itself because the people in the
waiting room recognized it.

It was the voice of Derek O'Dell, the very man O'Dell's aunt,
uncle and girlfriend were waiting to see.

They knew only that he had been shot, was not seriously
wounded, and they still didn't know exactly how it had happened.

Yet there was his voice, quiet and calm, telling the story of
how Seung-Hui Cho had entered his classroom and sprayed bullets through

O'Dell had been unable to speak to his parents or girlfriend,
other than to send a text message.

He had been bandaged and tended to, yet no one had asked him
what had happened.

Until the call came from MSNBC.

At last, someone was asking.

He could tell the true story of what happened in Norris Hall,
he thought. Maybe his mother, in Colorado on business, would hear him
and know he was OK.

If nothing else, he could release the horror of what he had
seen and survived.

So the ordinarily quiet, attention-shunning O'Dell began to

And for the next days, weeks and months, he kept on talking.

To reporters, to friends, to his old high school.

To his psychologist, to the widow of his professor. He talked.

To the guy who sat feet from him and whose blood he saw spill
out, he talked.

It was by accident, but before wounds had ceased to bleed,
O'Dell seized on just what he needed for his wounded psyche.

He would talk.

The trauma had not set in, the search for answers had not
begun, and already he was changing.

And it wasn't all bad.

The trauma

Joanne Hawley was two-thirds of the continent away from
Blacksburg when she heard. The story came to her fully formed: the mass
shooting; 33 dead, including the perpetrator; numerous wounded; and her son,
Derek, a sophomore who had just turned 20, among them, and alive.

She had been in a conference all day in Colorado, ignorant of
the events at Virginia Tech.

She emerged to see a cousin, who spun the terrible yarn for
her. Hawley, a post-traumatic stress disorder counselor, knew right away
what her son could be facing, "the whole constellation of symptoms."

The flashbacks.

The nightmares.

The jumpiness.

The constant vigilance and sense of danger.

As a psychologist would later tell her and her husband, Roger,
what used to be normal in all their lives was gone. There would be a
new normal.

Hawley arranged for her son to meet with a psychologist just 26
hours after the shooting.

"That's the only thing I could do from 2,000 miles away," she

What she longed to do was hug her quiet boy, the skinny kid
with round shoulders and remarkable blue eyes who demanded his parents
remove insects from their home rather than swat them, even wasps.

O'Dell had been raised in a peaceful home by pacifist parents.
He decided at 10 to become a veterinarian after he saw a dog hit by a
car and was helpless to give it aid. He played soccer at Cave Spring
High School, but he excelled at a more cerebral game: chess. He seemed
wired for the game's calm intensity, predisposed to thinking moves ahead
and to analyzing every match after it was over.

He was a state champion, but shunned the attention it earned

"He didn't want extra attention that other people didn't have,"
his father said.

Unlike his war-protesting father who is prone to questioning
the establishment, Derek O'Dell always sought the comfort of the group
and felt warmth in his associations -- his high school, his university.

He rarely played with toy guns as a child. The only weapons in
the O'Dell home are Civil War relics Roger O'Dell inherited -- a sword
and rifle over the mantel.

Before April 16, he had never been in the presence of live

The face was male, Asian. Just a sliver of it visible when the
door to Room 207 cracked open 20 minutes into class and closed again
quickly. Probably some kid confused about which room was his. Minutes
later, the same face appeared at the door again.

"Why are you looking in here again?" O'Dell thought, annoyed.
"You just looked in here."

Jamie Bishop continued his lesson in German grammar until the
next interruption.

"Is that what I think it is?" someone asked. No, it must be
just more construction noise.

Later, O'Dell would think, "That was my first mistake."

The messenger

In the days after the shooting, O'Dell craved details.

He scoured news reports, Web sites, television for new nuggets
of information to help him re-create the event.

This was real-life game analysis. The chess player was trying
replay the match in his head.

Did Seung-Hui Cho come to Room 207 second or third? How much
time did he and his classmates really have to react? Did he do all he
could to help?

If he couldn't know the why, at least he wanted the what and

When he wasn't searching for details, O'Dell was talking. In
the first two weeks after the shooting, he was interviewed dozens of
times by reporters.

It seemed to help. He told his mother, "If I'm talking about
it, I'm not thinking about it."

His psychologist would later tell Hawley that this seemed to be
part of O'Dell's healing.

It was a therapeutic role he adopted for himself: the

Yet, he couldn't bring himself to say his assailant's name. He
wanted to forget the killer, yet worried that if he blotted the man
from his memory, he might also lose the memory of those who died.

The event that would forever mark the before and after in his
life, he referred to only as "that day."

The clap of a woman's flip-flops on stairs made him jump.

When he returned to class the Monday after the shooting, he
would not sit near the door, as he had in Norris 207. When he took his
seat, he quickly formulated an escape plan.

Thoughts of how he could defend himself leapt to mind
involuntarily: "This isn't only a laptop. It's a weapon." He knows it doesn't
make sense.

And then, two weeks after the shooting, one of his roommates
made a jarring discovery.

The fleece jacket O'Dell wore when he was shot bore not only
the holes where a bullet passed through his right arm, but three others.

Two between the collar and right shoulder indicate a bullet
missed his neck by inches.

And a single hole near the zipper seemed to show a bullet had
narrowly missed his midsection, perhaps even his heart.

He had come even closer to death than he realized.`

This must be some sort of criminal justice class experiment, he
thought. Later, someone would come and ask them what they saw to test
the validity of eyewitness accounts, right?

The wounded professor staggered toward the shooter, was shot
again. Just feet away, blood erupted from Sean McQuade's neck.

O'Dell scrambled under his desk. A shell casing rattled to
stillness on the floor near him.

This was real.

He crept toward the rear of the room, trying to put as much
distance as he could between himself and that gun.

Gunfire roared in his ears. It was all he could hear. Where was
the shooter? From beneath a desk, he caught only glimpses of his feet.
He followed the sound of the gun. The shooter was walking through the
room firing rhythmically. Classmates fell into the aisles as they were

And then it was quiet.

The recognition

The May trip to the beach was no escape.

The O'Dells and the family of Derek's girlfriend, Laura Jones,
arrived at their rented beach house on the Outer Banks to a cheerful
banner that read, "Surf or Sound Realty Welcomes Derek O'Dell!"

Inside the house were baskets of baked goods and gift
certificates from businesses for miles around -- well more than you could spend
in a week, his parents said.

He's like a star, his mother remarked. People recognized him --
at a roadside fruit stand in North Carolina backcountry, at Mass at
the Catholic church in Buxton, where the Cape Hatteras lighthouse is.

O'Dell's churchgoing had slipped in recent years. Now, he
wanted to go to Mass all the time. He had survived when others hadn't. Why?
What did God have in store for him?

He didn't trust he would be so blessed again.

Every night at the beach, he locked his bedroom door.

The door! What if the shooter comes back?

He leapt across the desks to reach the door. His right arm felt
numb. A bullet had passed clean through his biceps. He peeled his
jacket back, fashioned a tourniquet from his leather belt, felt for his
cellphone and dialed 911.

"Quiet! Quiet!" Trey Perkins, a classmate, told him. "He might
come back."

O'Dell's right shoe was missing. It had come off during his
crawl to the back of the room. He had to have it back. If he had to run,
he thought, he didn't want to be hindered by slipping in his socks on
the slick floor.

Perkins tossed it to him. He slipped it on, braced his back
against the wall, and jammed his foot beneath the door like a wedge to
keep the killer out.

The appreciation

"I was involved in the incident at Virginia Tech," O'Dell said
with remarkable understatement, but he assumed the audience already

He returned to his old high school, Cave Spring, in June, but
not to talk about the shooting.

Rather, it was to lead a panel discussion where he and, as
Principal Martha Cobble put it, "people who had survived their first year
of college" would reveal the secrets of college life to seniors.

Take a hammer and a screwdriver.

Make boyfriend/girlfriend visitation rules with your roommate.

Don't be embarrassed when your parents cry on move-in day.

O'Dell, who had not necessarily been anonymous at Cave Spring
but was not homecoming king either, had offered to organize the event
when Cobble mentioned it to him.

He tucked "Virginia Tech tragedy" at the bottom of the list of
topics he distributed. But the shooting lurked in the room, waiting for

At the end of each session, he gave a brief summary of his role
in the shooting. Once he mentioned his attacker by name. "Cho
Seung-Hui," he said, pausing as he realized he had the names out of order. "Or
however you say his name," he added dismissively.

He implored the students to appreciate their professors. Five
died on April 16, he said. "They're amazing people. Be grateful for
everything they do for you."

Then he pulled out his fleece jacket and passed a pencil
through the bullet holes in a strange kind of show-and-tell.

"Without God, I know I wouldn't be here," he said.

The door handle jiggled, then turned. It came unlatched. The
shooter pushed the door, forced it open a few inches.

O'Dell stood on the hinged side of the door, his left leg
stretched across to secure it. Katelyn Carney stood in front of the door,
pushing on it with both hands. They forced it closed again.

Bullets ripped through the wooden door. One came through
Carney's hand. The door shook with every gunshot, like someone pounding on
it. Every bullet came closer to O'Dell than the last.

He closed his eyes, prayed for it to end. And for the moment,
it did.

All around him, people were bleeding, dying or dead. Sean
McQuade listed over. O'Dell wanted to help, knew how to help.

But the door. He couldn't leave the door.

The absolution

It was late July, and O'Dell stood outside a building at the
University of Virginia. He was there for the public comment session of
the Virginia Tech Review Panel appointed by the governor.

It was the kind of atmosphere that put him on high alert.

He stepped into the building lobby, which bustled with people
during a break in the meeting. Who were they? He studied identification
badges, trying to sort out who was who, why they were there.

In the auditorium, he noted exits to the left and right of the
stage and took his seat in a row near the front. Hours later, he could
recount that eight people sat on his left, three to the right. One row
back, there were only two people -- that would be his escape route.

For weeks it had been as normal a summer as it could be. The
reporters didn't call much anymore. He worked at his regular job at the
Cave Spring Veterinary Clinic, hung out with his girlfriend, Laura,
cooked her pasta for their third-anniversary dinner.

But there, with the panel onstage before him, and parents and
spouses of those who died around him, his happiness left him.

As speakers took to the lectern, he looked down, his eyes
searching a blank sheet of paper on his lap. He fiddled with his pen.
Another speaker was called: "Dave McCain."

He looked up, and the tears began. He knew Lauren McCain, who
had sat just in front him in the German class, was dead. But until now,
it was just information. When her father rose from the row in front of
him, the reality of her death broke through.

Later, McCain asked to speak to O'Dell privately.

These meetings were always awkward at first, and for O'Dell,
guilt-laden. What could he say to someone whose child was dead when he
still lived?

Without fail, the parents recognized his feelings and absolved
him. "We're glad you're here," they would say. "You have a purpose."

If it's a parent of someone who died in Room 207, they often
want details -- anything to help them know if the one they lost suffered.

It started a week after the shooting, when he met with the
widow and parents of his slain professor, Jamie Bishop.

He also met with his classmate, Sean McQuade, who had no memory
of the shooting. It was O'Dell who first told him the details.

McCain asked some questions about his daughter and thanked
O'Dell, not only for speaking with him, but for what he did in Room 207.

He used a word that both makes O'Dell uncomfortable and eases
his guilt: hero.

Again he came back, again the bullets pierced the door. And
again the killer was thwarted.

Inside Room 207, they could hear the echo of gunfire fading
down the hallway. Minutes later, voices -- the police.

The police hurried them out, but O'Dell couldn't help feeling
he was abandoning those left inside. And where was the shooter?

They crept down the stairs to the front door of Norris Hall. A
police officer blasted a chain from the handles, and they were out.

O'Dell sprinted through the wind and snow, took six steps in a
single bound, hurdled a wall. The shooter could be anywhere out here.

They flagged a police car, were delivered to an ambulance,
which delivered them to the hospital. The ambulance doors closed and it
pulled away. Only then did he relax.

The first days back

"I might have to stop at some point," O'Dell warned the police

He wanted to know what the lieutenant could tell him. He
expected to see drawings of where the bullets came through the door. He
didn't anticipate a trip back into Norris Hall.

The lieutenant told him they would take it slow, so he agreed
to press on.

Like others, he had vowed not to be defined by what happened to
him. But he added a corollary: Let your response define you.

He returned to school Aug. 16 -- four months to the day after
the shooting -- feeling weak, vulnerable, unsure what school would be
like now. Would he be able to concentrate?

In his first days back, all the major network news
organizations interviewed him. So did several local affiliates.

Some people might look askance at his apparent thirst for
attention, he knew. But he didn't seek the interviews.

When a reporter asks for his help, he feels obliged to respond.

"He's gathering something from it," Hawley said.

He was changing, and it was not only the trauma that had done

He spoke up often now. He carried himself with confidence. He
felt it.

People around him had noticed it, too. The veterinarian he
worked for once worried about O'Dell's ability to communicate with pet
owners. Not anymore.

"This is not the old Derek at all," his father said.

O'Dell took his strength where he could get it.

Twice during the first day of classes, he returned to the arch
of stones memorializing the April 16 fallen. He prayed with them, told
them about his day. He told Bishop about the new German professor. He
asked them for strength.

He has largely forgiven Cho, and manages to forget him most of
the time, too.

Still, he has an urge to meet Cho's family and do for them what
the families of the dead have done for him so many times, to release
them from their guilt.

That might be a last step in O'Dell's own healing. In the
meantime, he had taken another major step.

He walked slowly by the lieutenant's side to Norris 207.

The door was brand-new. Inside, the room was pristine white,
sanitary. The lights gleamed, the walls shone.

He entered doing what came naturally. He told the story again,
every detail.

He was scarred, yes, but with the scars came a recognition of
something in himself he had not known before.

Don't be defined by the experience. Be defined by your reaction
to it.

He stood in the spot where he made his stand that day. No fear
rushed back to him, no weakness.

He felt strong, not only for the triumph of returning to that
spot, but because what he did there at that door showed him his
strength, revealed to him his courage.

"This," he thought, "is my conquering spot."

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