Surviving the Gunman's Bullets: One Student's Story

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Members of the community hold up candles as they listen to taps being played during a commemoration and candlelight vigil on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia April 16, 2012. Chris Keane/Reuters

Monday began normally enough for Colin Goddard, a 21-year-old international studies student in his fourth year at Virginia Tech. His first class was French, at 9:05 a.m., in 211 Norris Hall, but Goddard was running a little late because he'd picked up a classmate who was having car problems. After toying with the idea of cutting class that day, the two of them decided to go. There were about 17 students enrolled in the course, many of them International Studies majors fulfilling their language requirements. Many had taken a lower-level French course together the previous semester.

As they entered the room, they heard a series of loud bangs that sounded like they were coming from the hallway, or maybe from the class next door. "Please tell me that's not what I think it is," the teacher, Madame Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, said to the class. "We told her it was no big deal," Goddard told NEWSWEEK. "There has been a lot of construction going on at Norris. People were complaining about it all semester, and it sounded like it could have been a hammer." Couture was concerned enough to open the class door and peek out into the hallway. "She immediately shut the door—she had this terrified look on her face—and she said 'Call 911,'" Goddard said.

Goddard pulled out his cell phone, dialed 911 himself, and with the operator on the line, began trying to explain the situation and where he was calling from. The operator was having trouble understanding Goddard and kept repeating the wrong location back to him. At the same time, other students were trying to barricade the classroom door that for some reason wouldn't or couldn't lock. "After that, I saw bullet holes start coming through the door," Goddard said. "It looked like he was trying to shoot the lock out. When he started firing at the door, I hit the floor."

After a few seconds, Cho came into the room. Goddard, his view of the classroom door partly obstructed by a desk, got his first glimpse of the killer. "He had on boots, dark pants and a white shirt. All of the students were on the ground, and he just started walking down the rows of desks, shooting people multiple times. He didn't say anything. He didn't demand anything. He was just shooting." The 911 operator was still on the phone, and Goddard, not wanting to draw attention to himself, dropped it to the floor. A girl named Heidi picked it up, begging the police to hurry. But it was too late, and Cho turned toward them. "I think he heard the police on the phone," Goddard said. "He shot some people near me, he shot the girl across from me in the back. Then I felt a very forceful rush of air and a pinch or a sting in my leg." Goddard felt himself flinch when the bullet hit him, but he did his best to stay still, to play dead. "Nobody tried to get up and be a hero," he said. Then the shooting stopped.

Goddard resisted the urge to move or try to look around. "I thought he was still in the room." Soon the gunshots started again, back out in the hallway; other sounds in the classroom were now audible. A few students were calling out to each other, Goddard said. He heard the voice of the 911 operator, still squawking into his cell phone, and saw Christina, the girl who had been shot in the back. A male student on the floor near him was making a low, constant gurgling sound. "We were just lying on the floor" for what Goddard estimates as 10 to 15 minutes. He heard more gunshots outside. Then, sirens. And shouts.

Suddenly, the classroom door burst open again. The killer was back. "He came back in and started going around the room again, shooting people." Up one aisle and down another, Cho moved through the room, repeating the path he had taken the first time. When the killer reached Goddard, he felt two more bullets punch into his body, one in the shoulder, and one in his buttocks. "My chest and torso were kind of underneath a desk, that's why I think I got shot in my extremities," he told NEWSWEEK.

Goddard heard a few more shots. Then another. Then the shooting stopped again. Goddard was lying on his stomach, and didn't move. He thought the shooter was still in the room, waiting for someone to move. Then he saw a girl near him sit up and start looking around. There was a banging noise at the door, and shouts: it was the police, trying to push their way into the room. It sounded to Goddard as if there were something blocking the door, but the police forced their way in. Almost immediately Goddard said he heard one of them shout, "The shooter is down! The shooter is black!" The police fanned into the room, checking victims and shouting out color codes, depending on how badly they were injured. "I was a yellow level. There were a few green, a few red, and a few black. I assume black means dead," Goddard told NEWSWEEK. [Among the casualties: Goddard's teacher, Madame Couture-Nowak.] He was dragged out into the hallway with two other students, then onto a grassy knoll outside of Norris Hall. His clothes were cut off as paramedics looked for his wounds. He lay like that, freezing, for five minutes or so before someone covered him with some blankets. Soon after, Goddard was transported to Carilion New River Valley Medical Center. He'd been shot three times, in the shoulder, thigh and buttock. Surgeons would place a rod in his leg on Wednesday morning [he's now out of surgery] to support his fractured femur. "I just wonder why he decided to do what he did," Goddard told NEWSWEEK from his hospital bed.

Shortly after he got to the hospital, Colin called his mother, Anne Goddard, in Richmond. The family had moved from Atlanta two months ago so that she could take a job as president and CEO of the Christian Children's Fund. Colin couldn't remember her new cell phone number, only where she worked, so the hospital called the Children's Fund to reach her. She was at her first board meeting in Richmond on Monday morning when the shooting began. "We went on a lunch break, and someone told me there was a phone call from my son. Usually when he calls me, it's because he got a good grade, so I thought it was good news. But the receptionist didn't look happy, and as I was on the phone, the secretary handed me a printout about the shootings at Virginia Tech," Anne Goddard told NEWSWEEK. "Colin said he had been shot. He thought it was twice. He didn't say much else, just 'Come.'" She drove home immediately to pick up her husband, Andrew; the two then went to the high school of the family's daughter, Emma, to pick her up. Blacksburg is on the other side of the state from Richmond, but when Goddard took the call from her son, "the board members were all there, and one of them made his private jet available to fly us straight to Virginia Tech's airport. We were in the air by 1:30 and here [Blacksburg] by 2:15," Goddard's mother said.

Already traumatized by news of the shooting, Anne, Andrew and Emma had to endure a harrowing flight in a twin-engine executive jet being buffeted by 40-knot winds. "It was the scariest ride of my life," Anne said. Her daughter tried to calm her by getting Anne to sing along with "99 bottles of Beer." The family had little information about the shootings. Andrew had heard reports about a multiple shooting in the engineering building and they knew Colin had been wounded, but they got no updates while the plane was in the air. When they landed at Tech's airfield, they were intercepted on the tarmac by a police official. "He said, 'Don't be frightened by all of the police you're going to see,' Anne told NEWSWEEK. "That's when I realized how big [of a massacre] it must be."

They were driven straight to the hospital and taken to see Colin. Andrew, a former aid worker in Africa, had seen gunshot victims before, and tried to prepare Anne and Emma for the sight of Colin looking pale from the loss of blood. But Colin had had a reaction to a dye he'd been injected with for X-rays; he was beet red. He was also surprisingly animated, which his mother attributes to adrenaline. Colin had five open wounds, two from shots with both entrance and exit wounds [right shoulder and left thigh/leg] and one with no exit wound [right buttock]. Goddard says the family has received hundreds of e-mails and offers of support from all over the world. She's overjoyed that he's alive and expected to make a full recovery. But that doesn't mean she's happy about all his revelations—especially the fact that he was thinking about cutting French class that morning. "Even though he got shot, I'm glad he didn't because he shouldn't be cutting class," she says.