The Messenger

Derek O’Dell of Roanoke County returned to Virginia Tech on Aug. 16 — four months after the shooting. The bullet wound in his right arm is healed. Other wounds run deeper.

By Matt Chittum

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 they waited to hear, of how Seung-Hui Cho had entered his classroom and sprayed bullets through it.

O’Dell had been unable to speak to his parents or girlfriend, other than to send them 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 – but it was the news media!

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 to 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 how.

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 messenger.

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. A single hole, yes. How remarkable! If a bullet had entered the jacket there, then where did it exit?

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 hit.

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, the chess-strategist reasoned, 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 knew.

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 discussion.

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 lieutenant.

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 it.

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.

The Messenger had conquered his fears – and the news media. “This,” he thought, “is my conquering spot.”

Here is the full story that was sent to me by Derek’s father.

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