Campus

The Virginia Tech Massacre

After ten years, two survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting bravely recount the emotional and disturbing events of the fateful day that transformed their lives.
(Aiken Lao )
Listen to the full episode58:08

[WARNING: SUBJECT MATTER CONTAINS SCENES OF GRAPHIC VIOLENCE]

April 16, 2007 is a day that will forever live in infamy in Blacksburg, Virginia. It is the day that darkness fell over the quiet college town and shook the community, and the nation, to its core.

That cold morning, a lone gunman walked into Norris Hall, chained all three exit doors, and went from classroom to classroom, shooting students with the intent to kill. He claimed 32 lives before turning the gun on himself.

I think that if I can hold on to my end of the bargain, which is being really, really still, and really, really low, the shooter…he wouldn't be able to see me.-  Kristina  Anderson

It's been 10 years since the Virginia Tech massacre. And yet, 145 more school shootings have occurred on American soil. 17 people were also wounded that day, a decade ago -- a small fraternity of survivors that Kevin Sterne and Kristina Anderson were forced to join. Kevin was shot twice, and Kristina was shot three times. Hear how the emotional and disturbing events of the fateful day transformed their lives.

COLLEGE ASPIRATIONS

Before the massacre, before their story made the headlines, Kristina and Kevin were enjoying life on campus. Kristina was like a lot of students, enjoying life away from home. She was making friends, hitting up parties, and finding excuses to drink and hang out. She knew that she would soon have to get serious and put in work, but, for the most part, she was content living a carefree lifestyle on campus.

I was having a very, very nice life. I was having a very carefree kind of existence. I was enjoying being in this open environment... I think I was exploring my freedom.-  Kristina  Anderson

"I lived in this huge dorm - it was 11 floors of girls...so there's always this sense of... missing out, there's always someone knocking on your door to say there's some party going on," Kristina remembers about her freshman year.

Kevin Sterne was a studious engineering student in his senior year at Virginia Tech. He may have been more focused on grades and graduating, but found a real love away from his studies, sitting behind the mic, hosting a morning show at the campus radio station.

He also took time in his day to enjoy the beauty of the campus. "You get that summer grass smell, and hearing people either playing football, or kind of lounging out. They'll throw out a blanket...it's one of those things, when I'm walking across it, I just walk a little bit slower and kind of notice the sights, and the surrounding sunset," Kevin said.

These were two students just going about their lives, doing their thing, until the morning of April 16, 2007, when everything changed.

Kristina Anderson is one of 17 survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting. (AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry)

MORNING OF THE SHOOTING

On that cold Monday morning, Kevin took his usual 30-minute walk to his German class at Norris Hall. Meanwhile, Kristina arrived late to her nearby French class. Classes routinely got underway, as students settled in. But it wasn't long before they began hearing unusual sounds. "I'm sitting there, and my back is facing the hallway...And I hear these really loud cracks on the wall," Kristina recalls.  

I thought, what is that sound? And it sounds like an axe being taken to a piece of wood. It sounds like someone chopping wood outside of the room, but it's louder and louder with every single second.-  Kristina  Anderson

In Kevin's classroom, just a few doors down, they were hearing similar noises. "We started noticing something was out of the ordinary when we started hearing this loud banging. At first, we kind of kept going through the lessons, and kept doing what we were doing. It was really kind of loud and disruptive, and so after it continued on for maybe 30 seconds or so, we kind of paused and said, 'I wonder what that is,'" Kevin remembers.

Shortly after, Kristina's teacher peeked out into the hallway to check what the noise might be. She immediately came back in, and shut the door. "She looks really pale, and the colour is drained from her face, and she just says, 'Call 911,'" Kristina said.


THE SHOOTING

After chaining all three exit doors, the gunman walked upstairs to the second floor, and suddenly opened fire in multiple classrooms. "I hop on the floor and I hear shots, and I hear people screaming. And I dig my head underneath my arms, just trying to be as small as possible, and not be seen, and not be felt… A few seconds go by, and I looked up, and I see the top torso of a man," Kristina recalls.
Front doors of Norris Hall (Campus Crew)

"I think that my turn is gonna come. And I don't know what it is, but I just kind of brace myself. And I'm just ready for it, and I know it's happening. And I feel this very hot, sharp ping in my back. And it kind of explodes. The first ping feels like a pinch, but then it quickly... spreads in your body. And I got really tingly, and I got very warm. And then I felt this, I felt this burning sensation. And it felt like my entire back was ripped open to some degree," Kristina said of being shot. 

The shooter proceeds to walk through the classroom, aisle after aisle, firing his gun. Eventually, he walks out and goes to Kevin's classroom. "I have a brief flash of seeing him... all black, and with a gun. I don't know who is the first to get shot, I think from my brief flash, the professor is the first one...closing my eyes, and the chaos of that," Kevin remembers.

Amidst the chaos, Kevin realizes that he's been shot in the leg. "The only way I can think to describe it, is if somebody took a hammer and, you know, hits you in the leg, but it hits directly onto your bone. That instant pain that's down to your bone, that's what it felt like. Also, at the same time, kind of cool and numbing feeling," Kevin described.

I'm just ready for it, and I know it's happening. And I feel this very hot, sharp ping in my back. And it kind of explodes. The first ping feels like a pinch, but then it quickly... spreads in your body. And I got really tingly, and I got very warm. And then I felt this, I felt this burning sensation. And it felt like my entire back was ripped open to some degree.- Kristina Anderson

After firing off rounds in Kevin's classroom, the shooter went back to Kristina's room. This time, he searched for students that weren't dead. "I looked up when there was a bullet that went over my head and it hit the wall, like a really fast crack, and it was so abrupt that I was just shocked by it. And the debris falls and I see it landing on my arm, and it gets quiet again," Kristina remembers.

Following a terrifying shooting rampage in several classrooms, the gunman shot himself. Finally, the chaos had ended. Kristina lay helplessly on her classroom floor, anxiously waiting for help to arrive after being shot three times, including twice in her back.
The second floor of Norris Hall, where the gunman opened fire in multiple classrooms (Campus Crew)
Kevin never thought he would make it out of his classroom alive after a bullet tore through his femoral artery. Both of them courageously held on in the final moments waiting to be rescued. "Just please come in quickly, please rescue us, and get us out of here as soon as you can, because I want this whole thing to be over," Kristina prayed.

Kevin remained proactive while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. "The very basic boy scout training, from what I learned from first aid... stuck my finger in my leg, and tried to stop the bleeding as much as I could, because by that point, I realized that I was losing way too much blood. And realizing that if I didn't get help fast, like if ambulance didn't come fast, basically that I was gonna die there, just by bleeding out," Kevin remembers.

Kristina Anderson being carried out of Norris Hall following the Virginia Tech shooting on April 16, 2007. (AP/Roanoke Times, Alan Kim)

HELP ARRIVES

When police arrived, they quickly carried both Kristina and Kevin out of their respective classrooms. "He picks me up, and he's holding me. Like my neck is kind of dangling off of his arm, and he's carrying me out into the hallway. And right before we leave by the door, I see behind the door, I can see two people kind of sitting upright in the corner, and one of them is shot in the head," Kristina vividly remembers. 

We're starting to hear less shots and... It's almost like a fireworks show, without a finale. And you don't know if that was the last one or if it's  gonna  keep going. You know, it's a very anxious and kind of suspenseful and stressful time, where you don't know what's going on.- Kevin  Sterne

"They come over and check me out, and I tell them I've been shot. I can feel myself getting weak... I don't know for sure that I'm gonna be alright, but I'm at least glad that somebody is there to help me. And I feel more safe, and feel like the shooter is not gonna come back and get me," Kevin said.

THE MEMORIAL

In the days following, as the world tried to make sense of the massacre, Kevin and Kristina were only just beginning to grapple with the trauma of that morning. After the chaos and the carnage, they were among a small group of survivors left with bullets inside their bodies. Surgeons may have saved their lives, but they were now facing a long road to recovery.

Remembering the 32 - a candlelight vigil outside Virginia Tech's Burruss Hall, two years after the massacre. (Kate Wellington)

It took weeks for their bodies to slowly recuperate - the physical scars still needed time to heal. But the emotional scars were only just beginning to surface.

When Kevin stepped back onto campus, he visited the memorial that had been built for the victims of that day. "There were tons of flowers, and notes, and small letters that people had written and left. And the amount of people too, that were out… seeing that there was so much support. It was really uplifting and overwhelming," Kevin remembers.

The only thought I remember having was, I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry for what happened to you. And I couldn't walk throughout the room. I just sat there in that first little corner and I looked to where I imagined I was, and I tried to kind of replay what happened and where I was sitting, but I was like paralyzed.- Kristina Anderson

Kristina agreed to meet with the captain of the Virginia Tech Police Department. They scheduled a walk-through of Norris Hall. When they arrived at the very classroom she sat in on April 16, she was overwhelmed with emotion. "I started to cry - just fell to the ground and I started to cry, and to bawl. And the only thought I remember having was, I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry for what happened to you. And I couldn't walk throughout the room. I just sat there in that first little corner and I looked to where I imagined I was, and I tried to kind of replay what happened and where I was sitting, but I was like paralyzed," Kristina recalls.


PTSD

Kevin and Kristina did their best to pick up the pieces and move forward with their lives, but the ghosts from that day continued to haunt them. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder began seeping into their psyches. Both would become consumed by a wide-range of emotions.

No one prepares you for how to survive a school shooting, and how to talk to people about this, or how to talk to your friends...Because you just feel crazy. You feel crazy for being afraid all the time, or thinking that someone's  gonna  start shooting in the restaurant.- Kristina Anderson

Kevin began having terrifying nightmares. "Originally, the dreams were flashbacks to that day… started with a very brief snippet, a split second of an image. But then that changed to some kind of other weird dream, but usually ended feeling trapped or my heart racing," Kevin said.

Kristina also had frightening flashbacks. But on top of that, she spent every waking moment on high alert. Over time, she would become so gripped with fear, a simple shower became impossible. "If the shower door heated up or it was foggy, I would intentionally smudge it a little bit so I could see through the shower, just in case. So it's almost like showering with one eye open… If I dropped the red bathrobe on the floor, I remember just looking from the shower and having like a second glance at what that was, and part of me was probably thinking that it could've been a person or a body," Kristina said.

The April 16 Memorial, outside of Burruss Hall (Ross A. Catrow)

In an attempt to regain normalcy, both of them returned to classes. But they immediately struggled to maintain focus. Any sudden sounds, such as someone walking in late, or a book dropping was disturbing for Kristina. "The worst was someone opening a door and peering in, like, oh my god, like get the f--k outta here. And you think, 'Why, what are they doing? Who are they?' And I would kind of listen for sounds, like sounds of gunshots or something loud," Kristina remembers.

Being in classrooms felt similarly unnerving for Kevin. "My situational awareness was through the roof. Even if the door was open to our class, people walking by, I had to see who it was walking by, making sure they're not gonna come in or start shooting me or something like that," Kevin said.

Kevin Sterne sits outside of Norris Hall on Thursday March 2, 2017. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

MOVING ON

It is impossible to know how an event like April 16 might change you. There isn't a definitive rulebook on dealing with trauma. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, Kristina and Kevin have faced a wide range of emotions - anxiety, anger, fear, depression, rage, guilt.

We were sitting in a room and someone decided to walk in and either take someone's life and end it, or in our course, completely change whether or not we're  gonna  sit in front of the classroom ever again. And so it's just this feeling that we now have a duty. I have a duty to live my life to the best way possible because this happened to me.- Kristina  Anderson

Kevin has spent the past decade trying to suppress all those feelings, focusing instead on moving on with his life. He rarely tells this story. For Kristina though, this story is her purpose. In fact, she now travels the world as an advocate for school safety. Talking about that horrific day is something she needs to do.

Kristina speaks during a presentation about school safety. (Valeria Massarelli)
"Survivor's guilt is weird because it's saying that, I feel bad for having lived - I feel bad for having survived. But I think it's probably at the core of one of the bigger things that pushed me to do this work, that pushed me to talk about it, or have it be part of my life.  And so I think about what kind of person would I be if I didn't try? Like, they paid the ultimate price. And we owe it to them," Kristina said about her advocacy work.

"I'd be crazy to say that it didn't change me at all, and that it won't be something I'll forget. Like, I'm never gonna forget it. To sit around and say, I wish I could forget this, I'd drive myself crazy. There's no way. But, having a life afterwards greatly helps," Kevin said about moving forward.

"We were just sitting there. We were sitting in a room and someone decided to walk in and either take someone's life and end it, or in our course, completely change whether or not we're gonna sit in front of the classroom ever again. And so it's just this feeling that we now have a duty. I have a duty to live my life to the best way possible because this happened to me. And because I was lucky, I was spared for whatever reason, I survived."