#LiveFor32: Student On Virginia Tech Campus During The Mass Shooting Shares Her Story
Image Credits: Virginia Tech Remembrance
Nine years ago today, the nation sat in awe of one of the most horrific mass shootings to date. Kathy Nguyen, a student at Virginia Tech University, at the time, sat down with me for a short interview to recount her experiences from this tragedy.
What year/ age were you when the shooting occurred?
Kathy: I was 19, a sophomore. I was still living in the dorms that year.
What was the day of the shooting like? What do you remember?
Kathy: Frankly, I remember everything. It’s one of those days where you remember every single detail and it constantly replays in your mind. I remember it being so cold and everyone saying on Facebook that it was snowing outside. I didn’t have classes on Monday, so that was usually my laundry day. Between loads, I checked my email and saw that there was a shooting in another dorm and that someone had died. There were a bunch of rumors going around about what happened, that it was basically a domestic dispute and a suspect had been detained. I called my mom to let her know I was fine, in case she saw something on the news. I am happy I did, because after the shootings in the classrooms, no one was able to get a hold of their parents or loved ones. Not more than a few minutes later, we got another email stating there was another shooting incident and we were to stay in place. No one knew the gravity of the situation yet. We just all turned on the news and watched what was happening on our own campus the same way everyone else did. I had one of the larger rooms, so a few of my hall mates gathered and we all watched the news in my room. Someone started pounding on our door, saying they heard gunshots in our dorm, so we did our best to get away from the door in case someone started shooting through it. I think one of the most surreal things was watching the death toll go up. I am very sure the news reporters could not believe it either. I distinctly remember the reports coming in saying there were 21 casualties, and the reporters trying to clarify that 21 people were injured. Of course, we know what casualties mean. And of course, we later realized that 21 was not the final number. Meanwhile, we were still all trying to reach our friends and family; all the phone lines were tied up and all circuits were busy. I later found out that everyone had reached out to my parents to make sure I was safe. Remember, this was way before the time of Facebook messenger or any other type of social media. I mean, Facebook statuses were brand new at this point. I think the impact of social media was finally valued, as a way for us to let our friends and family know that we were safe. People were asking, “have you seen my friend? have you heard from so and so?”. Even if we did have a good phone connection, phones were still in people’s backpacks…in the rooms. There was absolute panic when you’re trying to find your friend and they’re not answering, and you don’t know if it’s because the lines are tied up, or maybe they were in the classrooms. Time just absolutely stood still, we still were not sure if it was over, if we were allowed back outside. Before we knew it, it was dinner time. No one had eaten, and i’m quite sure no one had the appetite to eat. When we got the clear to leave and that the dining halls were open, it was just an eerie silence that you wouldn’t expect from a university of over 26,000 people. I think after dinner, we finally got a count of 32. Still, I don’t quite think it had set in with anyone what had happened. I remember not sleeping that night, just watching interviews, and analysts try to pick apart what happened. My roommate and I kept the TV on for three days straight. I don’t think we wanted to deal with silence.
What happened in the days and weeks following the shooting?
Kathy: The day after the shooting was when everything really started to hit. A religious Today Show fan, I turned on NBC and was absolutely in shock that Matt Lauer was on campus; that the entire broadcast was on campus. I turned to the other channels, and sure enough everyone was on campus. I just kept thinking “why do they even need to be here? It’s just Virginia Tech, it’s just Blacksburg”. Someone had posted on Facebook a picture of our golf course on campus, and how it was completely covered with news trucks from all over the world. It wasn’t until morning that names were released and they started interviewing survivors and students who were injured. At that point it really hit me what happened. There were amazing stories of heroism and stories of absolute horror. We had a convocation on the 17th. It was just a time for us to come together and for all of the university to hear from our leaders. We learned that President Bush was coming to address us–again, causing us to realize that a big deal this had all become. The end of the convocation is what really set the tone of how we chose to recover. Instead of wearing all black, everyone wore orange and maroon, a universal sign of togetherness on this campus. We had a spontaneous cheer at the the end of Nikki Giovanni’s poem–it’s something that showed the world that we were strong enough to overcome tragedy. This cheer would break out again at our candle light vigil that evening, where almost 40,000 people were present. It showed our mourning would coming in the form of solidarity in pride. In the days and weeks after, there was such an emotional outpouring of support from other universities–UVA, our long time rivals, donated candles for our vigil. Penn State spent their blue and white weekend wearing orange and maroon at their spring game. Countless other schools had a VT decal on their helmets during their spring games. It’s funny that during mass tragedies these days, people are chastised for only offering thoughts and prayers, because all of these gestures of support is what helped me the most, knowing that we weren’t alone. My most moving memory is flying to Columbus to see my boyfriend at the time (I strangely already had planned on going that weekend anyways). I had a layover in Cincinnati and was walking to my next gate. Of course I was wearing a Virginia Tech jacket. People kept staring like I was about to burst into tears–they weren’t far off. One gentleman stopped me right in my tracks and said “Go Hokies”, gave me a hug, and went on his way. Til this day, I have no idea who this man was, but I knew he gave me the strength to go on.
What is one thing that has happened to you since the shooting that had a positive impact on your life?
Kathy: I think that day forced us to grow up a little faster than we had expected. I’m sure would have learned empathy and compassion without a tragedy, but it does help me understand the anguish that someone might suffer. When similar events took place at Northern Illinois University the following year, it was almost almost healing for us to help NIU students recover. Every year on the anniversary, I find a way to give back. I usually donate blood with the alumni association. This year I am volunteering at a junior high science fair. When you read about the victims, you see the wonderful lives that they were building–that they were all brilliant minds with even brighter futures. It’s an honor to continue their legacy.
How does the aftermath of the shooting still affect your daily life?
Kathy: I guess it’s little things about that day that cause me to react differently now. Everywhere I go, for example when I start a new job, I look for multiple exits in case the worst should happen. I think about ways I, and those around me, can get to safety should something like this happen again. I am always questioning loud bags. The phrase “Monumental proportions”, which then-university president, Dr. Steger, used to describe the day, makes my skin crawl. There is a certain shampoo that I no longer use, the one I was using at the time, because the smell always brings me back to that morning. During the week of the anniversary I have trouble sleeping. When similar tragedies happen, I am automatically sucked back into that day.
What is one thing you wish that people would stop asking you regarding the shooting?
Kathy: The most common question I got for the first year after when I mean someone new is “how are you, how is everyone there?” I guess it was a way to show that they care, but it got to the point where I had a well-formulated answer ready to go. The one thing I wish people would stop asking is if I think Virginia Tech is a bad place and if the school should close. Let me start with this: Virginia Tech is a wonderful place. Blacksburg is the best place in the world. I am happiest on a sunny fall afternoon soaking up the roar of Lane Stadium. It’s home. In the years after the shootings, we have had a string of strange deaths. But the thing is, bad things happen everywhere. People’s bodies are mysteriously found more than we like to admit. Girls are abducted all over the country. Police officers are shot just for being police officers in many states. People suddenly pay attention just because it is happening at or near Tech. We’re put under a microscope because the media cannot wait to reference the shootings.
What is one thing that you wish you could tell people regarding incidents like this?
Kathy: One day does not define you and one bad thing cannot outweigh the good. While it may be the darkest day, there will be light again. While you may grieve, you will never have to grieve alone.
Today, and every day, we remember the 32 lives lost on that tragic day. We #LiveFor32.
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Gabrielle is a Behavioral Analyst and Autism Consultant. She is almost too Catholic to function and a lover of puppies and Bluegrass music.