Families of Room 211 Survivors Tell Their Story

Monday's shootings at Virginia Tech left 33 dead. But many others were wounded and are recovering in hospitals. The families of two hospitalized students share what they have been able to learn about the attacks.

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And I'm Deborah Amos in for Steve Inskeep.

There have been many tragic stories of death and loss at Virginia Tech. And other families have spent hours in hospital waiting rooms, hoping for good news from doctors while they're also reflecting on why their son, daughter, brother, or sister was not among the dead.

Two Virginia Tech students, Hilary Strollo and Colin Goddard, were in the same French class. Hilary and Colin are now recovering from three gunshot wounds each.

NPR's David Greene spent time yesterday with Colin Goddard's mother and Hilary Strollo's brother.

DAVID GREENE: Patrick Strollo is a senior at Virginia Tech, and when his sister Hilary arrived as a freshman, he had to deal with a tough question: how to be a protective brother without getting in her way.

Mr. PATRICK STROLLO (Student, Virginia Tech): We had a couple of parties and she came over - and any time any guys would talk to my sister, my roommates would get real mad and they would just kick them out of the party. But I figured, you know, we usually gave her some space and just let her have, you know, her fun without having a brother, you know, and a couple other guys watching over her.

GREENE: Anne Goddard works in international development and has traveled a lot. She says her son Colin, a senior, came to Virginia Tech because the student body is so diverse.

Ms. ANNE GODDARD (Mother of Colin Goddard): My son was born in Kenya and lived in Somalia; then we went to Bangladesh, Indonesia. He did his high school in Egypt. So he's an international studies major and he loves learning about the world and the diversity of the world.

GREENE: Colin and Hilary were both taking intermediate French this semester. The class took place in Room 211 on the second floor of Norris Hall. It's your typical classroom: black chalkboard, tile floor and metal school desks. Yesterday Colin and Hilary weren't ready to talk in front of a microphone about what happened in that room, but their family members have heard the story. Anne Goddard says her son spoke of strange sounds starting about a half hour into class.

Ms. GODDARD: They heard some pop, pop, popping sounds outside. The teacher was concerned. The students said that's only construction outside; they thought it was a hammer of some kind.

GREENE: What Patrick Strollo heard from her sister turned out to be very similar. When he spoke to us, Patrick was able to pick up where Anne Goddard left off.

Mr. STROLLO: I think it became clear that it was not construction and it was gunshots.

Ms. GODDARD:It kept getting louder. It kept getting closer. The teacher went to the door of the classroom, she just opened the door, stuck her head out; and turned around, really pulled her head back in, turned around, looking absolutely terrified - I think he used the word petrified - and said, get down, someone call 911.

GREENE: But then things in Room 211 got worse.

Ms. GODDARD: They heard the shooter come to the door and shoot into the door. He saw the wood splinters coming out. He came into the room, my friend got a glimpse of him, he only looked up to his head, he didn't want to see his face.

GREENE: Patrick says his sister didn't want to look in Seung-hui Cho's eyes either.

Mr. STROLLO: All she saw was the black of his clothes and the black of his gun, at which point she dove against the wall, got into the fetal position. And we believe that upon his first entrance in the room she was shot twice, once in the left side of her stomach, and she was shot in her left buttock.

GREENE: Anne Goddard says the shooter methodically went from one desk to the next and finally reached her son in the back of the room. Colin got shot in the leg.

Ms. GODDARD: He smelt the gunpowder. He said it was like a whoosh of the air and a very sharp pain.

GREENE: Both he and Hilary were lying silent when Cho left their classroom. Then he came back. This, Patrick says, is when his sister's life was spared.

Mr. STROLLO: The second time he entered the room, he shot her in the head, just grazing her head and finger. But, you know, the shot to the head provided a little blood to drip down on her face, which we really think helped him think that she suffered a serious head wound which didn't require any further attention for his purposes of execution.

GREENE: Cho was apparently making another pass down the rows of desks, and he came again to Colin.

Ms. GODDARD: He came very close; my son could see his shoes right next to his body. And then the shooter shot my son twice, once in the shoulder, and once in hip - his buttocks area. Then my son heard one or two other shots from the front of the room, then it was all silent.

GREENE: Colin is believed to be the last person shot before Cho, for whatever reason, decided it was the moment to take his own life. The room was silent. Minutes later, police came to the door but couldn't get it open.

Ms. GODDARD: The police asked help in opening the door. One or two guys, I'm not sure which, got up, they weren't hit. They came and moved - there was a body in front of the door. The police walked in and immediately said shooter down, shooter down.

GREENE: Then, Anne Goddard says, police went around the room, black tag was the term they used for people who appeared to be dead.

Ms. GODDARD: Then they went around the room to give color codes, triage people. They black tagged several - four, five people in the room, meaning dead. Some people were tagged red, green, or yellow.

GREENE: Hilary had kept her eyes shut through the whole episode.

Mr. STROLLO: Police officials came in and they said, you know, who needs help, who needs help, who's alive. And she raised her hand, like, you know, the policeman said, get up, get up, come over here. She took three steps, started to faint and collapse, and at which point two officers carried her out.

GREENE: She was taken to Montgomery Hospital in Blacksburg. Colin was transported to a smaller hospital 20-miles south. Both remained there. Patrick Strollo has been all but living at the hospital. He says guilt is one of the emotions he's felt.

Mr. STROLLO: I knew, you know, if I wouldn't have come to school here, she wouldn't have come here, either. So, you know, immediately I felt that it was my fault.

GREENE: He says he's not sure yet whether Hilary will come back here for sophomore year.

Mr. STROLLO: A big part of her coming here this first years was that I'd be here with her. So, you know, I'll be graduating in a couple of weeks. You know, we just need to make sure that everything goes okay with her first physical rehab, you know, mental and emotional coaching that, you know, she'll be able to come back here.

GREENE: Anne Goddard says the one question she's just not asking yet is why she still has her son.

Ms. GODDARD: There's no logic or rhyme or reason to this, you know. It's just luck. He was in and unlucky situation, and he was a lucky kid in an unlucky situation. A couple centimeters here and there, his chair had been in different place in the room, if he had hid himself under the desk in a different way.

This is my son's wing; he's in room 1309.

GREENE: She took us for walk by her son's room where, she says, he was just too tired to talk to us yesterday.

Ms. GODDARD: I learned, as many of the other families have learned, that they don't take the shrapnel out now, they let it stay in you. They say your body kind of, like, makes a cocoon around it to protect it. And that's what I kind of see about this whole incident, actually. You know, this will always be with my son. But I hope he can build the cocoon around it. It's a part of his life but it's not his whole life. And that's okay.

GREENE: And then she returned to her son's bedside. Colin and Hilary expect to head home soon, Colin to Richmond, and Hilary to western Pennsylvania. Of the 22 students enrolled in their French class, 11 died in addition to their teacher.

The chair of the department plans to fill in for her when the class is supposed to convene again Monday. He said he doesn't know how many students could possibly show up.

David Greene, NPR News, Blacksburg, Virginia.

AMOS: Our coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings continue at npr.org, where you can hear survivor's tales and learn more about the investigation.

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