On Virginia Tech Shooting Anniversary, Remembering The Day I Almost Lost My Brother

This past November, I watched the alarmed look on my brother’s face as a popping sound echoed in the distance outside our hotel room window in Peru. “Did you hear that?” he asked. My cousin, who was preparing himself for a deep slumber by watching Netflix, had his headphones in and didn’t respond. I turned to Colin, reassuring him that it was fireworks and that people must be celebrating. “It sounded like an explosion,” he said.

Although I knew the noise didn’t sound like anything similar to an explosion, watching him closely, I could sense what was running through his head. It was the first time I had ever witnessed him react to something that, to the right person, could have been mistaken for a gunshot.

...my guidance counselor walked through the door. "Bring your bags with you," she said. Like most students in a typical high school classroom would react, my peers broke out in unison with oohs and aahs as I shuffled toward the hallway, all of them assuming I was being pulled out for some sort of punishment. But I knew better.

On April 16, 2007, my brother was shot four times at Virginia Tech. That day, a gunman killed 32 and injured 17 on the campus I now call home. It was, by far, the worst day of my life.

My family had only moved to Virginia a mere three months prior to the tragedy, which took place on my first day back at school after spring break had ended. The morning had commenced as usual, with me dreading every minute of the long day to come at a school that, at the time, I loathed.

I still missed my friends from Georgia, and I rarely went out on the weekends. If I did, it was with my mom, because I didn’t have anyone else I could call from school. The weeks were typically comprised of me complaining of nausea to get out of class, and making numerous visits to the guidance counselor in a fit of tears. Virginia was not my friend.

That morning, my brother was in the middle of a French lesson when Seung-Hui Cho opened fire on several different classes in Virginia Tech's Norris Hall. The same afternoon, I was sitting in my own French class three and a half hours away in Richmond, Va. when students began returning from lunch in a state of panic. Several of my classmates asked to be excused to call family members at Tech, while the others updated each other on the horrible events that were unfolding.

Seven people… 16… 20… 32. Although I realized some sort of incident had taken place at Colin’s university, I was still out of the loop. Besides, what were the chances that something had happened to my brother in a school of 30,000 or so students? Highly unlikely.

After everyone had finished reading news articles online, texting their siblings, and speaking to their parents on the phone, the class was once again subdued with everyone being reassured that none of their family members or friends had been hurt. The banter that had initially come over the class had come to a halt as quickly as it had started, because, after all, everyone was fine. It was time to conjugate French verbs once again.

Until my guidance counselor walked through the door. “Bring your bags with you,” she said. Like most students in a typical high school classroom would react, my peers broke out in unison with oohs and aahs as I shuffled toward the hallway, all of them assuming I was being pulled out for some sort of punishment. But I knew better. Never once had I been sent to the principal’s office from the time I was in kindergarten to that year in ninth grade.

It wasn’t until I saw my parents standing there in the main office with somber looks on their faces that I knew it was real. Colin had been shot.

This was the guy who took me to an amusement park, likely concerned about my downward spiral after moving to Virginia, just so I didn’t have to sit at home alone for the umpteenth weekend in a row. My best friend who once sat on my bed, allowing me to sob for over an hour over my “first love,” reassuring me everything would be okay. The big brother who used to let me bother him and his friends when he was once in high school, letting me occasionally join in on their “big kid” time.

The rest of the day was a blur. A silent car trip to an airport. A 45-minute ride in a plane that shouldn't have taken off that day due to unsuitable weather conditions. Forty-five minutes singing 99 Bottles of Beer to calm my mother who, though a world traveler, was frightened by the turbulence rocking the tiny private jet we were in. One more silent car ride to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, all but for the buzzing of my phone as friends began to text and call, and we were finally there.

My family was escorted to a room where my brother lay hooked up to monitors, bandaged but still bleeding, pale but composed. Both my parents took a moment to hold him, gently hovering over him so as not to cause any pain. I simply held his hand, watching everything happen, still in a state of shock. It wasn’t until he looked over at me, squeezing my hand and making his best attempt to smile, that the tears started streaming down my face. There was my brother, helpless, smiling at me.

The week we were there felt like a month. The constant stream of reporters trying to interview Colin was unreal. Facing a group of his close friends, having to deliver the news that only one of them could visit him was heartbreaking.

Yet, through all that pain and chaos surrounding the time he was in the hospital, I only saw Colin lose his cool once, after watching the news for the first time and discovering one of his friends had been killed. After all that he had endured, he may have been the most calm of all of us.

Eventually, Colin made his way from a hospital bed to alternating between crutches and a wheelchair. During that time, not once did he question whether or not he would return to Tech the coming year. He wanted to return to his normal life so badly that he only remained in the hospital for six days, upon his own request. Today, I am happy to say, he walks perfectly.

I don't want people to always recognize my school for that day.

The shooting also didn’t stop my cousin or me from applying to and attending the same college in the years that followed. I will be the final family member to graduate this May. But not everyone understands my decision.

Seven years down the road, strangers still have the same reaction when I tell them what school I go to. I see looks of pity on their faces as they ask, “Oh, isn’t that where… ?” Others aren’t quite as tactful, and I’ve lost track of how many times people have said to me, “Don’t get shot.”

Virginia Tech often has a stigma associated with it, and though that stigma is not as bad now as it has been in the past, many people outside our Hokie Nation don’t recognize our university for the plethora of positive aspects associated with it.

But, in all honesty, I have never been part of a community so welcoming and close-knit. I know that is by no means the first time someone has said something like that about his or her own school, but once you come to Tech, whether as part of your education or merely to visit, you’ll understand what's special about it. When First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to our 2012 graduating class, she couldn’t have put it better, stating:

"Huh, isn’t that the school where" – I want you to interrupt them right there and say, "Yes, it is the school where we have some of the best academic programs and professors in the country." That’s what you tell them. You tell them, "Yes, it is the school where students are passionate about serving their country and supporting each other. And by the way, which also has the best food you’ll ever eat." Who can say that? You tell them, "Yes, it’s the school where we produce graduates who are leaders in their industries, and pillars of their communities, and who carry their Hokie pride with them every day for the rest of their lives." You say, "Yes, that is the school I attend. That is Virginia Tech."

Although dinner conversations with my brother and father still typically end with debates over gun legislation, and I’ll constantly think about what happened whenever I walk past Norris Hall (which is frequently), I don’t want people to always recognize my school for just that day.

I just want everyone to be able to note that while yes, we are that university, we are most notably a college with one of the top engineering schools in the nation. We are primarily that school that has the “horse on a treadmill commercials” during our football games. Predominantly, we are a community that, whether through a good game or bad, will always stand by our teams. We are especially known for some of our celebrated alumni like Tyrod Taylor and Hoda Kotb. Markedly, we were ranked as having the 11th best college bar, Top Of The Stairs (aka TOTS), by The Daily Meal. Specifically, our little town of Blacksburg was listed at number seven for the Best College Towns by the American Institute of Economic Research.

Yes, a mass shooting happened here. But if you had to remember just one thing about our school amongst a list of others, it’s that first and foremost, we are home to some of the most spectacular students you will ever meet.

Despite everything this outstanding community of Hokies has endured, we will always remain strong. Just like my brother Colin.

Image: Christina Rizk