Heroes in the Midst of Horror: Holocaust Survivor, Students Saved Others


April 17, 2007 — -- An elderly professor and two students at Virginia Tech are being hailed as heroes today for helping to stop the gunman from killing more people during yesterday's rampage.

Liviu Librescu, a 75-year-old Holocaust survivor and professor of mechanical engineering, Zach Petkewicz, a senior, and Derek O'Dell, a 20-year-old sophomore all blocked the gunman from entering their classrooms at Virginia Tech's Norris Hall during yesterday's rampage.

Friends and family of Librescu weren't surprised to learn that he was a hero and helped save his students' lives during the shooting massacre by Seung-Hui Cho.

The 75-year-old professor and Holocaust survivor was in the middle of teaching one of his popular classes at Norris Hall yesterday when Cho tried to enter the room. As his students start jumping out the windows of the second-floor room, Librescu stayed behind to block the door, according to his students. He was killed by the gunman.

Librescu's son, Joe, says that knowing his father died fighting the assailant makes the loss easier to swallow. "Basically, he died in the line of his duty, in the line of his duty that he loved the most, being a professor and a researcher," he told ABC News Radio. "He gave his life."

The son is heading to the United States tonight to escort his father's remains back for burial in Israel.

"He had internal strength, he was a strong man," remembers Librescu. "He had a fire in him — he was not very tall but he was hard, he was hard."

Soon after Librescu's class heard a "thunderous sound" from a classroom next door, some of the students, including Alec Calhou, started jumping out of the classroom windows. Right before he leapt, Calhoun told The Associated Press, he turned around and saw Librescu attempting to block the door.

Librescu, who died on the same day that Israel marked Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, escaped the Holocaust.

More than 25 years ago, he emigrated from then-communist Romania to Israel, smuggling out a book about his life in that country. Israel's then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin personally intervened to get Librescu and his family an emigration permit, according to his son. He moved to the United States in 1986 and soon started working as a teacher at Virginia Tech's Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics.

In the hours after his death, Librescu's current and former students and colleagues started e-mailing each other about the tragic loss.

"He was not only a fanastic colleague, he was like a father to me," Piergiovanni Marzocca, a professor at Clarkson University who worked with Librescu, told ABCNews.com. "It didn't surprise me at all that he stayed behind. I'm sure he wouldn't have left the room until everyone else was out. He cared about so many people."

Marzocca says that he received an email from Librescu on Sunday night, ten hours before the tragic shooting. "We were planning to meet soon at a conference in Hawaii and he said that he was happy to meet so soon and get a chance to catch up."

When Marzocca worked at Virginia Tech with Librescu, the academic duo often had lunch together and the older professor sometimes shared his memories of his childhood and surviving the Holocaust. "It was not easy, he went through many difficulties," says Marzocca. "But he succeeded and he left Romania and moved to Israel. Things got better and better for him and he was much loved."

In addition to Librescu, Virginia Tech senior Zach Petkewicz is also being hailed as a hero for helping barricade the door to a classroom, stopping from entering.

"Me and two others got up, threw a couple of tables in front of it and had to physically hold it there while there were gunshots going on," he told CNN.

"He came to our door and tried the handle. He couldn't get it in because we were pushing up against it. He tried to force his way in and got the door to open up about six inches and then we just lunged at it and closed it back up. That's when he backed up and shot twice into the middle of the door, thinking we were up against it trying to get him out."

Petkewicz said the gunman reloaded and "kept firing down the hall."

Derek O'Dell was studying German in his classroom when a bullet ripped through the skull of a student sitting next to him. He hit the floor, only realizing later that he'd been shot in the arm. O'Dell jumped up and he and another student wedged their foot against the door to prevent the gunman from entering the classroom again.

"He got the door open maybe an inch or two and then we were able to shut it again," O'Dell told the Roanoke Times.

After Cho shot at the door, he left and fired shots outside the room before coming back again. After trying the door again to no avail, Cho shot at it again and left.