EXCLUSIVE: Va. Tech Survivors Remember, Speak Out

Four months after massacre, surviving students struggle to move on.

ByMEENA HARTENSTEIN via via logo
January 08, 2009, 1:15 AM

Aug. 20, 2007 — -- When Sean McQuade smiles, only the right side of his face moves. When Lily Habtu eats, she can only use two teeth in her mouth to chew her food. And when left-handed Katelyn Carney signs her name, she has to scratch out her signature with her right hand because she can't quite straighten the fingers on her left.

These are the survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting, and four months after the attack, they are slowly making their way back to the livesthey had before they were injured.

"I just want this to be done," said Habtu, who is still waiting for her wounds to heal before doctors can begin to fix her injured jaw. "I just really want to get the surgeries and return my life back as close as possible to where I was before."

This week, as students return to the campus to start the new year, McQuade, Habtu, Carney and five other survivors sat down with ABC News to talk about what happened to them that day and how they have been working to recover ever since.

On the morning of April 16, Kevin Sterne headed to German class just like he did every Monday. Though it was colder than usual and a lightsnow fell on the campus as he walked to Norris Hall, he had no reason to believe that it would be anything but an ordinary day. "It was amorning just like any other morning," he said, shaking his head.

As Sterne took a seat in Room 207, next door in Room 211, Colin Goddard and Kristina Heeger prepared to begin their intermediateFrench class. Around 9:40 a.m., they all heard noises down the hall that sounded like someone hammering, but they assumed it was workbeing done on a new construction site on campus.

But the noises continued, and concern grew. "Even my teacher was, like, 'That can't be gunshots, can it?'" Sterne said.

The French teacher also became nervous. "We were reassuring the teacher that, 'No, it's just a nail gun or a hammer,'" said Goddard. "Then, we heard it again, and it was louder, and it was closer, and her face dropped. She poked her head out for a split second, pulled it back in,said 'Call 911, get on the floor' and he was in the room seconds after that."

Goddard called 911 right away, but the shooter hit him in the leg and he dropped his phone; another student was able to pick it up andstayed on with police until they arrived at the scene. Heeger, who was shot in the back, recalled that as the gunman came in and out ofthe classroom, she and Goddard whispered to each other for support.

"Colin was laying very close, and the only thing I remember is we were looking at each other, holding our hands, just squeezing, saying it's going to be OK."

In the German class, the morning followed much the same tragic path. At first, students remembered a young Asian man sticking his head in,looking confused. Thinking nothing of it, the students continued to practice their grammar with their professor, Christopher Bishop.

Then, the man opened the door again and looked in the classroom a second time. "This is pretty weird," Derek O'Dell said he remembered thinking. But, he dismissed the thought and turned his attention back to class. The man, later identified by police as Seung-Hui Cho, cameinto the class for a third time and opened fire.

"I was sitting there, trying to figure out if this is real," said Habtu, who could not believe that someone was shooting real bullets at her classmates. "I thought it was fake, and then, when people were falling on the floor, and people started ducking, it waslike, wow, this is real."

Habtu, who was sitting front and center, was shot twice, once in the face and once in the wrist. One bullet went through her jaw andlodged in her tongue, stopping just one millimeter from her brainstem. Had it gone any farther, she would most likely be dead or paralyzed.

As Habtu huddled under her desk, waiting for Cho to leave the room, students around her were attacked. Sterne was hit twice inthe leg, a bullet hit McQuade in the face and shattered his jaw, O'Dell was injured in the right arm and Carney was shot in the hand as she crouched under her desk, trying to shield her face.

The survivors lay on the ground playing dead until Cho left the room, and then Carney, O'Dell and Erin Sheehan, who made it through theattack uninjured, positioned themselves behind the door to prevent Cho from re-entering the classroom.

"I was crouched down behind the door, and we used all of our might to hold it, to close it as much as we could, and he tried a couple oftimes to get back in," Carney said. When Cho could not open the door again, he fired shots through the door before giving up and moving on.

When police arrived, still in search of the shooter, Cho had already killed himself and was lying on the floor at the front of the German class. Bishop and four students were killed.

In the French class, 12 had died by the time the shooting had ended, including the instructor, Jocelyn Couture-Nowak. Too weak and injured to walk, Goddard and Heeger were carried out of French class. The photo of them being lifted by police on the way out of the building became one of the most iconic images of the day's tragic events.

Despite the nation's curiosity about what happened in those Virginia Tech classrooms, the survivors have said their memories of thosemoments are sketchy at best. McQuade said that he has no memory of the day's events at all and that he did not know what happened for three weeks after he woke up in the hospital.

"It was complete and utter shock," said Heeger. "There was just a blur, and then it was 'Please, please, get us out of here.'"

Heeger and other survivors whom ABC News spoke to have spent much of the last four months trying to put April 16 behind them, working instead on moving forward with their lives and their recoveries. They have undergone multiple surgeries, logged countless hours in rehabilitation therapy and reached out to one another to try to heal emotionally.

McQuade, who will have five bullet fragments in his head and neck for the rest of his life, keeps a positive attitude, despite the fact thatthe right side of his face remains paralyzed and expressionless. "I came out of it relatively unscarred and I'm thankful for that," hesaid.

Just five days after the shooting, Carney left the hospital to be the maid of honor at her sister's wedding. "They literally pulled the IVout of my arm," she said with a smile. She has spent the summer doing a variety of therapies to strengthen the fingers on her left hand, while also retraining herself to write with her right.

Goddard and Heeger have healed remarkably, their injuries not easily apparent to the average person they might pass on the Virginia Techcampus. They both say they have a newfound appreciation for life and how to live it.

Sterne now can walk without the use of a crutch, but he still cannot run. "I'm just glad to be walking," he said. This fall, he returns to Virginia Tech to begin a graduate program.

Habtu also plans to attend graduate school, but she must wait another six months before she can have the surgeries needed to repair her jaw. She looks forward to moving on, but it is difficult for her to put the shooting behind her while she is still constantly aware of the pain of her injury. "I want to do all these things, but right now, my life is on hold," she said.

"Right now, every day I look in the mirror and I am reminded that I can't do something that I could do before. I can never forget even if I wanted to."

Despite their obstacles, the students are determined to recover and not let Cho's actions define their lives. McQuade, who still hascomplex surgeries ahead of him and no guarantee that he will ever regain use of the right side of his face, knows how he wantsto remember April 16 — as little as possible.

"I don't really plan to look back on it ever," he said. "I don't want this to be the most important event in my life. In fact, I don't wantit to be in the Top 100."

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