By Jean Denton
Catholic News Service
ROANOKE, Va. (CNS) — Derek O’Dell has a lot of stories to tell as a survivor of the nightmare shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg April 16.
A fundamental one is that his faith in God was foremost in his consciousness from the first moment the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, entered the Norris Hall classroom where sophomore O’Dell was in German class.
He said his faith was with him “just about the whole time” as Cho fired on O’Dell and his classmates. When the shooter left the room, O’Dell, who had been shot in the arm, and another student barricaded the door against his possible return. Indeed, after more shots were heard outside, Cho came back to their classroom and tried to force his way in.
“When I was holding the door I was praying to God that we — all of us in the class — would survive,” O’Dell recalled a few days after the tragedy. “I felt like God really answered my prayers. I found out today (four days later) that four more people from our class survived who I thought had died. It was truly a miracle.”
O’Dell, 20, a lifelong parishioner of Our Lady of Nazareth Church in Roanoke, said that most of the students in his introductory German class had become good friends.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting when police arrived to hustle survivors out of the building, O’Dell said, “I thought maybe only about four of us made it.” It turned out that in a class of about 20 students, only five in his classroom, including his professor, died in the massacre.
Of the horrific moments in the classroom, O’Dell remembered he was aware of God’s presence “in the midst of all of it.”
“I can’t even remember all that I did,” he told The Catholic Virginian, newspaper of the Richmond Diocese. “It was like an angel or God guiding me when I was barricading the door,” he added about an act that surely saved lives.
“I’ve always been a pretty strong Catholic,” O’Dell explained, saying he regularly attends Sunday Mass at Memorial Chapel on campus. He said he always knew his faith would play an important role in his adult life “but never thought it would be in this context.”
O’Dell provided one of the first faces of the tragedy in the media as he appeared on worldwide television coverage, his injured arm in a sling, and gave his eyewitness account of events in his classroom only a few hours after it happened.
Over the next several days he would be interviewed numerous times by the national media as the phones continually rang at his family’s Roanoke home. But he was not bothered by the attention.
“Actually, the media helps,” he explained.
“I get to tell the story over and over. But the people who died, they can’t tell their story. I can try, but I can’t ever do them justice,” he said quietly.
He noted that he “definitely saw acts of heroism,” including the police who he said had to shoot chains Cho used to lock the doors “all the while protecting us while trying to get us out.” He added that he believed his professor tried to stop the shooter when he first entered their classroom, “but he just got shot too quickly, I guess.”
Shortly after his parents retrieved him from campus, O’Dell and his mother, JoAnn Hawley, talked with their pastor at Our Lady of Nazareth, Msgr. Joseph Lehman.
One thing from the conversation that stayed with him, he pointed out, was that “Father Joe said to leave the killer’s actions as a mystery of faith. I want to do that.”
Regarding the killer, “I did forgive him,” O’Dell continued, explaining, “I figured he just snapped. But later after hearing he sent all that stuff to the TV network and planned it — now it’s harder to forgive.”
Cho sent a package to NBC News that included a video he made and his hate-filled written ramblings.
“I’ll try to continue to pray and try to forgive, but it definitely will be a long journey,” said O’Dell.
Roger O’Dell, his father, said the messages of love and caring that the family received in the hours and days after his son’s ordeal came from all over the world and were uplifting to the family.
He said he thinks having a large network of support “comes with being part of a spiritually-based community.” Being a family “based on love and forgiveness, not anger and hatred” has helped them deal with the experience, he added.