BLACKSBURG, Va. — Derek O'Dell digs out his favorite fleece jacket, studying the holes in one sleeve.
He turned 21 this month, but his haunted blue eyes seem much older. O'Dell is tall and borders on gaunt. "But I'm deceptively strong," he says, flexing a rock-hard biceps. Just beneath the bulge are two small pink scars where the bullet pierced his flesh.
No bones were broken or tendons shredded. Three hours after the campus shootings ended, O'Dell was out of the hospital and on national television. He was able to return to Virginia Tech within a week. He credits God, not luck.
A year later, O'Dell is a junior majoring in biology, hoping to become a veterinarian. He startles at loud noises and scans every room he enters for an escape route. He locks bedroom doors and smells gunpowder in his sleep. He is unsure how to define himself.
Survivor, hero, victim, witness.
• • •
When Seung-Hui Cho flung open the door to Room 207 and began spraying bullets on the morning of April 16, the first thing O'Dell saw was German instructor Jamie Bishop crumpling to the floor.
The girls in the front row were methodically mowed down, and the friend who sat next to O'Dell was shot in the face. The killer's eyes were black and empty when they locked on O'Dell, who hit the floor to duck beneath the flimsy plastic desk, then began scurrying to the back of the room.
The gunman left, and O'Dell surveyed the carnage. Of the 13 students, only four were conscious. Gunpowder clouded the air and left a bitter taste. There was blood everywhere; he was soaked in it. The classroom door was still wide open.
He sprinted across five desktops to shut the door. Katelyn Carney followed, and the two wedged their bodies against it. O'Dell called 911 on his cell phone. Discovering the bullet wounds in his numb right arm, he used his belt to tie a tourniquet. Trey Perkins tried to stanch the bleeding of a classmate's leg. Erin Sheehan went to the window to try to attract the attention of officers beginning to surround Norris Hall.
The gunman returned and pushed against the door. It opened a crack, and O'Dell saw the barrel of a gun come through. The students heaved the door shut again, and Cho began shooting through it. O'Dell could hear bullets whistling past his ear. "I couldn't look," he recalls. Carney's hand was bleeding. The gunman retreated. Screams and more gunfire came from nearby, and then Cho's final, suicidal shot as police moved in.
• • •
The first of the injured students released from the hospital that day, O'Dell was besieged by reporters. His natural reserve was quickly replaced by a sense of obligation, a need that became almost obsessive: to bear witness. "When I told my story, that became my numbing," he says.
He has spent a year analyzing his strategy, a year quietly honoring the fallen, collecting the details of their lives as if he can somehow reassemble them. More of the wounded survived in his classroom than the others, where the gunman had returned to pick off survivors. O'Dell claims no credit, finds no comfort.
"I heard those shots. I had all that time to react. Forty-five seconds," he chastises himself. "Why didn't I do something … instead of hiding under the desk and crawling away? Encounter him when he first came in, I don't know, throw a book at him."
Derek discovered two more holes in his fleece jacket, most likely from the bullets fired through the door he held it shut. One of the holes was over his chest. A Catholic, he remembers asking his priest why his life was spared that day, what this all meant. It's a mystery of faith, he was told.
• • •
His parents worry that he has "lost his sparkle," that he has learned to give everyone, including them, the answers they need to hear. He wears the purposeful mask his father, Roger O'Dell, recognizes too well: "his chess face."
The survivors get together once a month. They don't talk much among themselves about the specifics of the horror they alone know, Derek says. Conversation is more likely to flit from sports to politics to movies.
But in the secret language they share, a simple "How are you?" carries much deeper meaning, and Derek's standard answer, "I'm okay," is more complicated still.