This article is part of the Voices of School Shooting Survivors project, a series by VICE.com intended to shine a light on victims of school shootings across the country.
On April 16, 2007, a gunman killed 32 people and injured 17 at Virginia Tech in a rampage that spanned two-and-a-half hours and two on-campus buildings. Alec Calhoun was in Norris Hall, the second building to be attacked.
In April 2007, I was a junior at Virginia Tech. On a Monday morning, with about a month left in the semester, I was sitting in my 9 AM class in Norris Hall listening to the professor when through the wall behind us came a very loud banging noise, as if there were someone using a hammer, but way louder. Everyone in the class was confused. The bangs came two seconds apart: bang, bang, bang. Next, we heard somebody scream; that was the giveaway that something was wrong. My friend Jamal was the first to say, “That’s gunfire.” He and another student ran out of the room and down the stairs. The professor ducked his head out the door and closed it quickly, yelling, “Call 911.” I held out my phone in the air to show I already was, and he nodded in my direction.
I was sitting in the middle toward the back of the class, with windows on my left and the door at the front of the room on my right. I knocked desks over onto their sides, thinking I could have something to hide behind. I looked to my left and saw that people had kicked the windows open and were standing in two or three lines, one after the other jumping out, so I went over and got in line to jump. I’m scared of heights, so when I got to the window and looked down I just thought, Holy cow. This is not my cup of tea. I was later told the window was 19 feet, 2 inches high. I saw people rolling around on the ground seemingly injured and in pain, so I clambered out and hung down from the windowsill and let myself drop. As soon as my feet hit the ground, I rolled onto my back; the fall had knocked the wind out of me. I rolled on the ground in pain, trying to catch my breath again.
I could still hear the gunman shooting from above me. Once I was able, I got up and started running. I made it to the next building over, Patton Hall, still in pain and trying to catch my breath from the jump. I went to the second floor and a department administrator asked me if I was OK, and led me into her office to give me some Tylenol after I told her what had happened. She left me there, and let me lock the door to the office. I called my parents and friends to let them know I was OK. Shortly after that cell service died as the cell towers were overwhelmed by the volume of calls.
Within minutes of reaching Patton, police officers started to arrive. I saw a sniper—or what looked like a sniper—running up the steps of the building I was in, I’m sure taking position, trying to see in the windows of Norris. I felt somewhat safe by that time; officers were everywhere, but I was still shaken from what I’d experienced.
I would later learn that my professor and another student in my class were killed. There were three people still in the room when the gunman entered who were shot and survived. My friend Jamal, who had run out of the room, was shot in the hallway but managed to run downstairs and survive. Our room was the last that the shooter entered, so we had a bit more time to react than other classrooms, so most of us actually got out of the classroom. Two other students broke their legs jumping, and I had sprained ribs.
Norris Hall, where the second shooting took place (the shooter killed two people at West Ambler Johnston Hall before going to Norris Hall), was my department’s main office and classroom space, so in the months that followed my department was particularly affected. Our building was locked down for months. I stayed in Blacksburg for the summer doing undergrad research on the first floor of Norris, and in the summer I had to come back to the building while access was still being restricted. Very few people had access, so the eerie quiet was very different from the busy office I had known. I wasn’t ready for that at the time.
The school did a good job with the counseling sessions over the next weeks and months. Following our first department meeting the week after the shooting, the juniors, seniors, and faculty went to their own sessions. The way juniors’ class schedules had worked out, half of the juniors were in my class and half were not. This made for a nice split in our sessions: People from my classroom could talk about their experiences and what happened. It helped to hear from people who were there and saw or noticed things I didn’t see. When it got too heavy, the other half of the junior class from outside the classroom could speak up and talk about “I was in this hall and was able to call so and so.”
My friend Justin, who had been shot in the classroom, had been in the hospital during this first session. He’d returned by the next week and attended our next counseling session. To hear the story from his perspective was very difficult. I was the last person to jump from the windows. I felt guilty for leaving… like it should have been me and not him. But of course in reality we were all helpless. There’s nothing you can do, but I think it’s a natural thing to wonder what you could have done differently.
I’ve always had strong opinions on gun laws, and I don’t think my experience at Virginia Tech changed that. We’re the only civilized country where this happens. Gun control is part of that problem, but it’s not the whole problem.
There are lots of things we’ve learned since the shooting at Virginia Tech ten years ago. We learned that the shooter should have been entered into the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check) program, and should not have been able to legally purchase a gun. But Virginia and many other states didn’t report mental-health records that would have entered the gunman into the NICS system. Virginia fixed that glitch, but even today, not every state is reporting everything they should to the federal database because they are not required to. There is no penalty if they don’t. Even the NRA, in 2008, was in favor of fixing that system and making it mandatory for states to report.
And mass shootings keep happening. I’ve seen the pain and grief that it causes first hand. So it’s hard to accept that we can’t do better than this.
I’ve seen a lot of positive messages after what happened in Parkland, and had several people ask me, “Man, this feels different after Parkland, are we finally going to do something?” I do feel like the needle is moving. That something will… that something has to happen. But I also have ten years of history telling me, “I don’t think it’s going to happen yet. This Congress is not going to do anything. I’ll believe it when I see it.”