Kristina Anderson’s last-minute dash to French class the morning April 16, 2007 changed her life forever.
The Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University student, then just 19-years-old, made it to class on time — only shortly before she and her classmates heard the first shots fired in what became one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
“We almost did really skip and to think how different life would have been,” Anderson said.
She was one of the lucky ones who survived Seung-Hui Cho’s rampage on the Blacksburg, VA campus, which left 32 people dead and 29 others injured — including Anderson.
Her French class was one of the worst hit with 11 students and the teacher shot to death.
It’s also where the massacre came to an end, when Cho shot himself in the temple.
He had already murdered two people at the West Ambler Johnston Hall co-ed dormitory, about two hours earlier, before he made his way across campus and began stalking the corridors of Norris Hall where Anderson’s class was taking place.
News of the earlier attack had trickled across the campus, but no one expected what was coming.
“The first sound was him firing… in the hallway,” Anderson explained. “It was very loud. It was very sharp. And, we just stopped whatever we were working on.”
Her teacher peered into the corridor and quickly told someone to call 911.
“I got on the floor and he walked in,” Anderson said. “That’s literally how quickly it happened. There was no time to think or rationalize.”
Anderson took cover beneath her desk as Cho burst through an attempted barricade at the classroom door.
She remembers hearing the “Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!” of Cho’s gunfire as he moved through the room.
And she still recalls the seeping pain of two of Cho’s bullets entering her back and a “ricochet bullet” hitting her toe. He fired at her head too, but he missed.
“What’s scary about that is that I actually looked up and moved, so I alerted him that I was alive,” she said. “So thankfully he didn’t see that because he didn’t mean to miss my head. He meant to just kill me.”
“I really tried to just stop the breathing and try to just… I don’t remember if I prayed honestly, but I now I was telling myself things like ‘Hold on. It’s almost over…. Don’t move.'”
In the nearly seven years since that horrific day, Anderson’s story of survival and her account of what happened is helping law enforcement officials improve their tactics in dealing with mass shootings.
Anderson believes that had people been trained to react in such a drastic situation — as they are with, fire, earthquake and tornado drills, for example — the death toll might have been much lower.
PREVIEW: Peter Blair, a leading expert in mass shootings, says there are a set of do’s and don’ts that can help you survive a mass shooting
Avoid, deny, defend
Texas State University criminologist Pete Blair is a leading expert in mass shootings and since 2010 has dedicated his work to helping prevent death tolls in shooting incidents from being as high as at Virginia Tech.
“Every shooting does have a different set of lessons learned,” he said.
“If you have an event where something happened earlier on… that kept that person from shooting or killing a lot of people, what happened earlier on may be critical to know because it may help you stop other events from turning into these major mass casualty situations,” Blair said.
He noted Cho didn’t start firing his handguns — a 9mm Glock pistol and a Walther P-22 pistol — as soon as he walked into Norris Hall.
Blair said there’s a lot to be learned from the behaviour of a shooter, and it’s equally “critical” to know how potential victims behave.
While hiding may be the only option, Blair said that “should be an active thing,” advising that hiding doesn’t mean staying still. It may have worked for Kristina Anderson, but Blair said shooters often fire again on people who are “playing dead” to be sure their target has been killed.
He said trying to keep moving, to get away from the situation, is the best option for survival. But if that’s impossible, there are other measures that may save lives.
When Cho entered Room 211, the instructor and another student tried unsuccessfully to barricade the door. It was also one of the few classrooms that didn’t have its door locked — normally done to prevent late students from entering.
It may have already been too late for the people in that room, but Blair suggested that’s the right idea: try to deny the killer access to the room.
When it comes down to the option of be shot or survive, you have to be prepared to defend yourself, he said.
“If you end up in a situation where that person is right there with you, you really have no choice but to do something,” Blair said. “With that being the situation, you gotta fight.”
“Avoid, Deny, Defend” is a strategy created by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University. The program is funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Department of Justice, the Governor’s Office of Texas and the FBI.
FULL EPISODE: Global’s 16X9 (February 15, 2014)
*With files from Robin Stickley and Krysia Collyer