From Virginia Tech to Aurora: How One Survivor Responds

It’s a disturbing thing to think that tragedies follow you.  

I left Blacksburg upon my graduation where I was a victim of the April 16th shootings. 

I was stuck in an FBI barricade in Washington D.C when a gunman entered the Holocaust museum. And now I live in Denver, Colorado  – a mere 13 miles from Columbine High School and 10 miles from the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.  Once again the community I live in has been shaken.

I know that these things do not follow me, it is a coincidence, yet violence it seems  is often all around.  Senseless tragedies spare no one-  no matter your proximity.  These perpetrators seem to seek out the ways in which they can shatter our sense of safety and peace.  They target places where we seek solace, entertainment, education, and a myriad of other things.  

Our education system has changed, and now, will our community spaces such as movie theaters be forever changed?  No one has the answers, no one knows when this will happen again and we can only hope that one day it will end.  But in the midst of all of this, it has been difficult.

The morning  of the Aurora tragedy, I knew instantly that something was wrong – I had eight text messages and two voicemails.  Since it wasn’t my birthday or a day that would elicit a high volume of contact, my heart sunk. As sad as it is, I have come to expect to be bombarded by texts and calls seeking contact when mass shootings occur.

None of the messages I received specifically described what had happened in Aurora, they said that a major shooting had occurred in the Denver metro area and they were thinking of me.  All of my friends know I don’t particularly enjoy watching movies, so I would never be at a midnight showing at a movie theater,  but the fear was the same and my geographic proximity to the event rings too close to home. 

In my just-awakened state, I woke up my roommate, who also graduated from Virginia Tech. She found she had multiple texts as well.  Before I brushed my teeth and washed my face, I struggled to turn on my laptop and find more information. I began methodically texting and calling people back to not leave them uncertain of my state.  

In those moments –  it hits you and you wonder: maybe these frenzied reactions to shootings will never go away?  I felt sick.  I felt confused.  I felt heartbroken.  Why can’t it just stop?  

As I scanned The Denver Post and, it became clear that this was a massive shooting.  This person had a great intent to kill, instill fear, and annihilate our sense of security in a place as iconic as a movie theater.

The numbers of injured and dead caught in my throat.  I was taken back to my spot on the floor in Norris Hall classroom 211.  The incredulity of what was going on around me came rushing back as I can only imagine those in the movie theater felt in some ways so similar. 

Seeing blood sprayed around you, smelling gun powder in the air, mind racing trying to find a place called “logical” again. These are things I know I share with the survivors of this shooting.  The community of survivors grows even larger with this tragedy.  

Beyond the geographic relevance of my experience to the Aurora shooting, living in this community now also offers me a great saturation of the media.  People turn to social media, the radio stations are all streaming dispatch calls and hasty interviews done with those still in shock and able to talk about the shooting.  

It hurts every time.  It does not get easier, my coping tools have just gotten better.  

It has been a long road to reach a point where I can still go to work, mostly function, and help others when news of a mass shooting resets the trajectory of my day.  It has taken every moment, every experience, and every supportive person in my life to get here. It takes time, it takes hard work, and is characterized by many setbacks.  

However, once you can find a place of peace, again you build up your resolve to never let that shooter take away who you are – and still have the potential to be.  

My life is no longer solely defined by my survivor status on April 16, 2007.