Even now, he won’t go back inside.
Kevin Sterne hasn’t reentered Norris Hall since four police officers rushed his limp body out of the blood-soaked building in the chaos of April 16, 2007 — a horrifying moment captured in a photograph that became a defining image of the Virginia Tech tragedy.
But Sterne, now 27, hasn’t run from the school where he nearly died.
Weeks after the massacre and his release from the hospital, where doctors feared they’d have to amputate his leg, he came back to receive his diploma, hobbling across the stage on a crutch. He returned again months later as a graduate student, against his worried mother’s wishes, after a brutal stretch of rehabilitation back home.
And he is still here, working as an engineer in a university radar lab — a reluctant symbol of resiliency and recovery and a shattered community’s devotion to Virginia Tech.
Monday marks the fifth anniversary of the day a student gunman terrorized the bucolic campus, leaving 32 dead and more than two dozen wounded. For the first time since the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history, Virginia Tech will hold classes on the anniversary date. But there will be myriad Day of Remembrance events, as always: candlelight vigils and community picnics, art tributes and private prayer services.
Some of the survivors will convene informally, too, to remember the students and professors killed by Seung Hui Cho — and to reflect, Sterne said, “about how fortunate we are to be alive.” But he added: “That’s every day. It’s not like it goes away.”
On that freezing morning five years ago, Cho shot two people in a residence hall, returned to his dorm to change his bloody clothes, stopped at the post office to drop his manifesto in the mail, then headed for Norris Hall armed with two handguns and a backpack full of bullets. He chained the building’s doors and shot 48 people in 11 minutes before turning a gun on himself.
One bullet cut a hole in Sterne’s thigh; another tore through his femoral artery. With his blood gushing onto the floor of his elementary German class, Sterne jammed a finger into his leg, then stuffed a sweatshirt into the wound and tied an electrical cord around his thigh as a tourniquet.
The familiarity of the place was comforting, even if he found himself taking detours around the building where he’d been shot. Now he is able to stand outside Norris, talking about the day he nearly died.
“I never had any real curiosity to walk back in,” said Sterne, wringing his hands while his temple twitched.
Time heals only so much.
‘The right place’ to heal
By Jay Poole’s count, there were 26 students at Norris Hall who suffered injuries that day but survived. Most were shot; a few were injured jumping out of the three-story building’s windows.
Six of them graduated from Virginia Tech shortly after the massacre, before Poole was selected to run the Office of Recovery and Support that the university established in the aftermath of April 16.
Then, after the fanfare of the first post-massacre graduation faded, something remarkable happened: The other 20 student survivors quietly came back to Virginia Tech.
“Every single one of them,” Poole said. “And every single one of them graduated.”
They limped back to Blacksburg to continue their studies and to piece their lives back together among friends. They wanted to be in a community that understood.
“It was where I had to be. It was the right place for me to heal,” said Kristina Anderson, who was shot twice in the back and whose gallbladder was removed, as was most of her left kidney.
She was a 19-year-old sophomore at the time of the shooting, and her parents didn’t want her to go back to Blacksburg for her last two years. But she never considered leaving. “It would have felt foreign to be anywhere else,” said Anderson, who runs the Koshka Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving campus safety.
Colin Goddard was shot four times — in his left knee, right shoulder and both hips — in the intermediate French class where 11 people died and six others were injured. His parents figured that he would move to their home in Richmond for a while and transfer elsewhere for his final year.
Instead, he went back to his apartment near Tech after being discharged from the hospital. When classes resumed in the fall, Goddard, too, was back on campus.
“I went back to the community that was trying to heal itself, to show people that, look, there’s somebody that’s going to be okay,” said Goddard, who works as a lobbyist for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “I felt that if I didn’t return to finish my degree at Virginia Tech, Cho would have taken something else from me.”