Living with the Virginia Tech shootings: Leaving a legacy, forging a family

Time stood still each time Kristina Anderson heard about another traumatizing school shooting.

Anderson, who was injured in her French class in Norris Hall on the morning of April 16, 2007, feels a little bit of that pain return each time another shooting terrorizes another school.

“You were immediately taken back to your own experience even though they might be in Illinois or Finland or Ohio,” Anderson said. “Still, you can immediately relate to what happened, and you’re kind of in disbelief. At first, I started to feel a little bit of fear again. I felt, again, unsafe and scared and sadness and grief. It’s almost like you relive the Virginia Tech tragedy every time it happens.”

Five years ago, in America’s most deadly school shooting, Seung-Hui Cho took 32 lives on Virginia Tech’s campus and altered many more. Anderson’s was one of them. As the recovery wore on and the shock subsided, a group of people bound by grief found solace in each other and in a collective mission — making sure others don’t have to experience their pain.

“We don’t have a name for ourselves. But when we do come together, that’s what we talk about,” said Suzanne Grimes, the mother of injured survivor Kevin Sterne. “It’s a common bond we share — to make sure nobody has to go through this again.”

The collection of people affected by the shootings very rarely meets in any official way. Some families and survivors have chosen to move on with their lives apart from the shootings. But still, many have become vocal activists on diverse topics related to the shootings — ranging from gun regulation to mental health and campus safety laws.

Grimes, who in 2008 and 2009 pushed to correct a state report that contained errors in the timeline of events on the morning of April 16, 2007, said the group appreciates anyone who is trying to make a difference.

“Everybody is very supportive of each other in what they are doing, no matter what it is,” she said. “No matter what it is that they’re doing, I applaud their efforts, because it takes a lot to go out there and do things pertaining to April 16 because you relive that day or you realize why you’re doing that. Once you realize why you’re doing it and hope it could prevent it, it’s just so rewarding.”

The families’ most prominent collective advocacy effort is the VTV Family Outreach Foundation. Ken Fulmer, the foundation’s executive director, has spent most of his career working for foundations benefitting military veterans. He called the April 16 victims’ families and survivors “profiles of courage.”

“Psychologists say the loss of a loved one is truly life’s greatest stress and trauma,” Fulmer said. “It’s something that just goes on for life. And of course the challenge is to somehow readjust and carry on.

“These 175 men and women have overcome extraordinary losses, and they’ve endured this personal suffering. And the first thing they did after the settlement was to say they wanted to create an endowment for the betterment of humanity in colleges and universities in this country.”

When the families sat down with the state to discuss a settlement in 2008 — a settlement nearly all of the families ended up accepting — S. Daniel Carter, a longtime campus safety advocate who is joining VTV as a staff member, said the families immediately asked to create a foundation that could work to prevent future school shootings.

“I’ve been honored to work with the families since very early on in their process of coming together,” Carter said. “I remember one of the first things they were all talking about when we started to get them together was that they wanted to have a lasting legacy in memory of their loved ones, and the survivors wanted to have a legacy as well. One of the things they said they wanted to be able to do was to come together as a group to form a foundation that would encourage campus safety initiatives.”

Michael Pohle — whose son Michael Pohle Jr., was killed in Norris Hall — is striving to make college campuses safer. His idea to give students a chance to be informed consumers about campus safety is a major upcoming program for the VTV Foundation.

The program, which would be known as the National Campus Safety Index, or 32NCSI, is the foundation’s way of “fostering campus safety improvement,” according to Carter, who will direct the program in his new role at VTV.

“When they told me about the 32NCSI project, it was something that got me very excited because it has the significant potential really to continue the significant policy changes we’ve seen since April 16, 2007, with colleges and universities continuing to strengthen their commitment to the safety and well-being of their campus communities,” he said.

Meanwhile, Pohle and his family are also working with U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez — of Pohle’s home state, New Jersey — to create a proposal that would strengthen and re-focus the powers of the Clery Act — a federal law that requires universities to provide students with timely notices of on-campus crimes. He said he is empowered by the support of the other families and survivors.

“Quite honestly, it would have been extremely difficult to really continue forward without the help of everyone else, without the input and ability to talk to everybody else,” Pohle said. “We couldn’t have made it without them.”

The families have often used their extensive network to communicate about topics relating to April 16. Two families that didn’t accept the state’s settlement sued the university, alleging university officials’ negligence caused their daughters’ deaths.

Between the time the suits were filed in April 2009 and last month’s trial, many family members expressed concerns about the information the university released about the shootings, and some even said they regretted signing the settlement.

They watched anxiously as the families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde saw the case tried. On March 14, a jury found the university had a responsibility to warn students of the danger and ruled in favor of the families.

“That whole trial became so important to everybody and of course we were so very, very grateful for everything that was done by the Pryde and Peterson attorneys,” Pohle said. “We were so grateful for them not buying into the charade that those who settled bought into.”

Karen Pryde, Julia’s mother, said following the verdict, she and the other plaintiffs were hoping to draw more information about the tragedy out for the public and the other families affected.

“We kind of felt like this was really for all of the families, all of the victims and the survivors,” Pryde said. “It was a small victory for them to know the truth got out there.”

Many families were interested in the two-week trial, which was heard in Christiansburg, but couldn’t travel to the area for that length of time to watch the proceedings. But Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin Goddard was wounded in Norris Hall, attended every day of the trial, taking detailed notes and sending dispatches with his recollections and interpretations to the family members over an email list.

“Andy Goddard was a godsend because of the information he provided to all of us,” Pohle said.

Nearly 20 families debriefed each other after the trial in an hour-and-a-half conference call.

Pohle said the ultimate legacy of advocacy for the families would be to end school shootings, to “make sure nobody has to endure this.”

“It’s a very lofty goal,” he said. “It may be an impossible goal, but it is right. It is right. And the unfortunate reality is that where we had talked after Virginia Tech — hoping that a thing like that wouldn’t happen again — we realized it’s simply a matter of time, because they’re just going to continue. We want to be there for people to help them as best we can.”

Anderson is one of the survivors trying to be there. While always eager to help, the 2009 graduate was initially unsure whether she wanted to immerse herself in the waves emanating from the Tech shooting.

“I’ve been doing speaking engagements since senior year at Tech, and after each one there was really great positive feedback from people,” Anderson said. “And I felt very empowered with the story, and I felt very positive about it, but that would kind of go away as life went on.”

Lingering effects of the shootings — such as a fear of dark rooms and closed doors — still made unwelcome appearances in her daily life. But Anderson went on to create the non-profit Koshka Foundation to improve school safety, empower students to be activists and build a network of survivors. And over the past year, Anderson said she has devoted herself to the cause.

“I’ve grown up a little bit more, and I’ve realized I do want to make this more of my life and my work, in a more open fashion than before,” she said.

When three students died in a February shooting at Ohio’s Chardon High School, Anderson was in the process of creating a new program for her foundation. The plan, which isn’t yet in place, would help families who have to travel suddenly as a result of a violent incident. Anderson initially considered creating a fund to help the families financially, but also thinks a traveling support group of survivors like her may be in store.

VTV also leapt into action after the Chardon shooting shocked a small town outside of Cleveland. Colin Goddard, who was injured in Norris Hall, recently visited survivors of the shooting in Ohio.

Anderson, Goddard and several other Tech survivors also spent time with surviving victims of the 2008 Northern Illinois campus shootings, building relationships with peers who had experienced similar trauma — relationships she said persist today.

The tragedy has led to many unexpected relationships for Anderson and the others whose lives changed in a whirlwind of terror five years ago. At the time, they were bound by a hallway and a class schedule. Now, they are a family of families forged by the ultimate human sadness.

Michael Pohle considers the injured survivors of the Virginia Tech shootings his children.

“As parents, we’re very concerned for them,” he said. “We know we won’t be around forever. They’ll be around much longer. And we think about every one of them.”

And Lori Haas could see it in his face when she told him big news regarding her daughter, injured survivor Emily Haas.

“I can remember telling him that Emily had gotten engaged and was getting married this summer, and how emotional he was over that news — how excited he was for Emily,” Haas said. “I know that all those parents whose kids were killed are happy that Emily and the other survivors are alive and would do anything for them.”

Haas said she has seen the family members who lost loved ones openly embrace and care for the students who were injured that day. She also pointed out the determination of the survivors — all of whom returned to Tech and earned degrees.

“They’re constantly asking me, ‘How’s Emily? How’s she doing? What does she need?’ They’re so kind and considerate and thoughtful of the survivors,” Haas said. “It’s really remarkable.”

She said bonds between those affected on April 16 formed immediately. Joe Samaha — whose daughter Reema Samaha was killed in Norris Hall — felt compelled to organize a way for the families to do right by their loved ones.

“We know intuitively that our children, professors and survivors, would handle adversity differently,” he said. “There were two choices. To succumb to our grief or take action in it. As families of those lost and survivors, we chose the latter.”

On April 19, 2007, when Samaha and his family left Blacksburg, he took with him a handful of names and phone numbers, and using them organized one of the first family meetings — 13 family members attended — on June 10, 2007. Samaha is the president of the VTV Foundation. In addition to advocating for campus safety and working to prevent future tragedies, the foundation has offered a place for family members to pour their memories.

While this family of people bound by tragedy doesn’t live under one roof, they are building a cookbook of family recipes. Each of the foundation’s monthly newsletters features a recipe dear to the heart of a victim, survivor or family affected by the shootings.

“The whole idea of family bonding and community sense of pride is a really wonderful thing and sometimes doing something as down home and folksy as sharing a good recipe that your child enjoyed is a really significant thing to do,” Fulmer said.

Still, grieving and adjusting to life after the tragedy is anything but organized.

“One thing the families are good at is allowing everyone to be on their own individual path to healing and showing support when it’s necessary,” Haas said.

Anderson resisted talking about the shootings for a while, but part of her recovery involved bonding with another student who had been in her French class that morning during a chance meeting at Gillie’s.

“On my first trip back to Blacksburg, I ran into somebody in my classroom — a survivor — who was working at Gillie’s at the time, and he basically told me that he was afraid and kind of felt taken back every time he heard pots clanging,” she said. “And I was thinking, ‘Wow, me being afraid of the dark or being afraid of closed doors isn’t so weird.’”

That chat with Clay Violand, the only person who was not shot in Jocelyn Couture-Nowak’s French class, helped show Anderson the healing power the survivors and victims’ families held for each other.

“I don’t think I even fully understood how helpful it was,” she said. “But that was an instant connection, and he helped me get through that. We’re friends now, but we had nothing else in common besides being in that room.”

The French class also brought Anderson another unexpected connection — Jerzy Nowak, the husband of her professor who died in the shooting. Nowak, who led the creation of the university’s Center for Peace Studies on the very floor where Cho took his wife’s life, asked Anderson to be president of the student group that was founded alongside Students for Non-Violence.

She said the two of them have formed a bond, and although they have never specifically discussed the shooting, she enjoys hearing about Nowak’s daughters and the family’s life.

Anderson, along with John Welch, started SNV when she returned to Tech to complete her degree. During that time, she had several classes with fellow survivors and began to see that they understood her pain.

“If someone came in late, we would just pause and look at each other and just take a step back,” Anderson said. “If there was a loud noise outside — whether it be construction or just someone cleaning up the McBryde Hall floor.”

Since graduation, Anderson has often found herself meeting up with fellow survivors or victims’ families in cities along the East Coast.

“Lately, I have remembered our meeting in Baltimore last October,” she said. “Some of us went out for dinner and drinks. And that’s when I felt the strongest connection because I look over and people are dancing, people were celebrating each other and celebrating knowing each other. They were friends. They were family. That’s when I felt the strongest. We were together in the same city and hanging out, catching up.”

In addition to celebrating weddings, graduations and advocacy success, the April 16 families and survivors recently faced the loss of a key member. Roger O’Dell, father of injured survivor Derek O’Dell and an active board member of the VTV Foundation, died following a battle with leukemia. Pohle said he felt deep sympathy for Derek, who was in German class with his son five years ago.

“We all were so very extremely sad because his father, Roger, is one of our family,” Pohle said. “We do consider ourselves truly like family. And we were so, so terribly sorry when we found out. That was a very sad moment for everybody.”

And while Haas said the April 16 families are part of a club nobody wants to be in, the family members roundly appreciate the support they have found in each other.

“I’d rather know them than not,” Anderson said.

As classes churn on this year, very few Virginia Tech students remain who were on campus in April of 2007. The shootings changed the direction of hundreds of lives, but Anderson said the family forged in tragedy here is moving forward together.

“Five years later, there are still moments where I think about the shooting and being involved in that.” Anderson said. “There’s still disbelief that someone came in and shot my classmates and then someone shot me.

“People are still grieving, but we’re not here in sadness now. We’re here in solidarity.”

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