Students

The Arc of Her Survival

April 09, 2017

Matthew Ryan Williams for The Chronicle
A decade ago, Kristina Anderson was shot while in her French class at Virginia Tech, during a morning when a troubled student killed 32 people and wounded 17. Now 29 years old, she has found a way to reshape the meaning of that day, for others as well as for herself.

On a bright day in March, Kristina Anderson walks through the lobby of Disney’s Yacht Club Resort. She passes well-lotioned vacationers in flip-flops ambling to the pool. Outside, families are splashing around, climbing the fake shipwreck, and spooning sundaes at the Beaches & Cream Soda Shop. Even the white egret posing on the grass seems relaxed.

The vast, cheerful complex feels like the kind of place where nothing bad could ever happen. Yet violence, as Ms. Anderson knows all too well, can erupt anywhere. A movie theater. An office. A classroom.

Ms. Anderson, a sincere 29-year-old with crystal-blue eyes, takes the hallway to the resort’s convention center. Two hundred law-enforcement officials, mental-health experts, and campus-safety officers have come for the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals’ spring conference. She takes a seat toward the back of a room and listens as the keynote speaker, Sheriff Jerry L. Demings of Orange County, describes the police response to the fatal shooting of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub last year.

Soon, Ms. Anderson notices her heart pounding. She puts two fingers to her neck and checks her pulse. Fast. She breathes deeply, trying to slow the sudden creep of anxiety. She’s nervous about tomorrow’s presentation, but she feels something else, too. It’s the weight of an approaching anniversary.

On April 16, 2007, a troubled student armed with semi-automatic pistols killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech. Ms. Anderson was one of them.

These days she describes her experience, in city after city, giving presentations about school and workplace safety. She did 86 last year. It’s a job, a way of reshaping the meaning of that terrible day again and again. Survival, she’s still learning, isn’t a one-time thing, a seam stitched and then forgotten.

Perpetrators of mass violence gash their names into history, fixing their crimes to a date, while the wounded often pass unrecognized into an aftermath with no sure end, no instructions. It gets lonely. So when Ms. Anderson isn’t on a stage, she connects survivors to resources — and to one another.

At 12:30, Ms. Anderson heads to her hotel room for a conference call she arranged. She introduces a campus-safety expert in Virginia to two officials at Umpqua Community College, in Oregon, where a student shot and killed nine people two years ago. Her room key doesn’t work, so she sits on the hallway floor, cellphone to her ear.

Later, Ms. Anderson takes a seat by the man-made beach and squints at the sun. Soon she will turn 30, and she’s been thinking hard about what comes next. Because her work is bound so tightly to her experiences as a survivor, she can’t quite imagine doing anything else. At the same time, she says, "I don’t always want to be known as the girl who got shot."

To escape death is one thing. To mold a life afterward is another.

That morning, the ringing phone yanked Ms. Anderson from sleep. Around 8:30, her friend Colin Goddard called to offer her a ride to their French class. With only a half-hour to spare, she got dressed quickly.

Through her window she saw a gray sky and a few lazy snowflakes. Although she almost always wore flip-flops, she put on her blue Puma sneakers instead. In the car, she and Mr. Goddard discussed skipping class to get bagels and coffee. They almost did.

When Ms. Anderson stepped through the door of Norris Hall, the markers of her identity were almost blissfully banal: Sophomore. Sorority member. International-studies major. Likes grapes, vodka, and Coldplay songs. Works part time at Red Lobster.

When she and Mr. Goddard walked into Room 211, their instructor gave them a wry look for being late. Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, fondly called Madame, liked to move students around the room for one-on-one conversations. Since the desk-shuffling had already been done, the two friends took their usual seats in the back left corner.

Survival, Ms. Anderson is learning, isn't a one-time thing, a seam stitched and then forgotten.
A grammar exercise was underway when Ms. Anderson heard noises in the hallway, like an ax chopping wood. She could feel the force through the wall. She saw Ms. Couture-Nowak step into the hallway and saw fear on her face. "Call 911," she said. "And get to the back of the room."

Ms. Anderson got under her desk and hugged the seat to her stomach. She heard the squeal of desks as students tried to block the door. Then shot after shot after shot. She turned and saw the shooter, arms outstretched, face blank, walking on the other side of the room. She turned away.

She could feel him. "Like an evil heat wave," coming closer and closer. A bullet pierced her back. Play dead, she told herself. She saw her white shirt moving, tried to suck in her breath. He left. Why isn’t it over, she kept thinking. He came back. Another bullet, lower this time. Both wounds burned. A bullet struck the wall above her head.

Finally the noise stopped. The shooter had killed himself. Pain overtook her, and she pushed herself away from the desk and stretched out on her back. She and Mr. Goddard held hands on the carpet. The SWAT team arrived.

At 10:22, a photographer snapped a picture of police officers carrying Ms. Anderson — blue jeans, white shirt — and Mr. Goddard out of Norris Hall. The image would be published all over the world, preserved forever by Google. Mr. Goddard, who was shot multiple times, survived, too. Ms. Couture-Nowak and 11 of their classmates were killed, and all but one were injured.

Ms. Anderson was rushed to surgery. A third bullet had struck her right big toe, which the thick sole of her sneaker probably saved. Doctors removed her gall bladder, most of a kidney, and parts of her intestines. She was 19.

Matthew Ryan Williams for The Chronicle

Some of the wounds healed quickly, and others did not. Back home with her parents, in Vienna, Va., Ms. Anderson spent months in the first-floor guest room. Sometimes she would stare at the big double doors and think they were going to swing open.

A nurse came each day to change her bandages. Coughing hurt. So did laughing. And talking too loud. She often clutched a big purple pillow to her relentlessly sore middle. One night an intestinal blockage caused her to vomit green bile all over the bed.

Unable to do much, emptied of expectations, Ms. Anderson took whatever she could from each day. Sometimes, in the passenger seat headed to a doctor’s appointment, the sun pouring through the windshield was everything. To feel its warmth on her face was enough.

After months of physical therapy, Ms. Anderson could walk without too much trouble. Freed from the big, blue orthopedic shoe she despised, she wore high heels again on July 4, her birthday. She would forget what the shoes looked like, but not how she felt in them. Hesitant.

Following the shooting, people sent cards, flowers, teddy bears. Ms. Anderson, who was born in Ukraine, received 30 hand-drawn pictures from the middle school she had attended in Moscow. Others sent checks, including a family friend who wrote one for five grand. When her parents suggested that she use the money — about $25,000 — to start a nonprofit group, she agreed. She chose a Russian term for kitten, "koshka," which her mother often called her. Its 2007 mission statement said the Koshka Foundation would promote safer campuses, but how, she did not know.

That fall, Ms. Anderson returned to Virginia Tech. She didn’t blame the university for the shootings. She wanted to be in a familiar place, where everyone knew what had happened, and to see the police officers who had come to visit her in the hospital. Mostly, she missed her friends.

All summer, Ms. Anderson had thought of her campus persona as something she could slip back into, like a jacket left behind. It wasn’t. On her first night back in Blacksburg, she went to a party at a friend’s apartment. As she looked around at people getting loaded, the scene felt risky, uncontrollable. She left.

She stopped going out as much. She wanted quiet. "I was still going through a funeral in my head."
Ms. Anderson stopped going out as much. She didn’t want to be in basements, packed into small spaces with too many people. She wanted quiet. "I was still going through a funeral in my head," she recalls. She felt tense in classrooms. Sometimes at night she would watch unfamiliar people nervously through her window, wondering who they were, what they were up to. The guy in the big black coat, he’s … just walking to his car.

Digestive problems persisted. Sometimes the painful blockages would rob her of a whole day, which made her angry. She studied harder than she had before. She hung out with other students who had survived the shooting, but she didn’t really talk with them about what scared her.

One night in December, Ms. Anderson crumpled to the floor of her apartment and sobbed for a long time. She Googled "post-traumatic stress disorder" and recognized the symptoms. She hadn’t seen a therapist after the shootings. Eventually she found one who helped her feel safe enough to talk about what happened.

In 2009, a year after a gunman killed five people at Northern Illinois University, Virginia Tech flew Ms. Anderson and a handful of other survivors to the campus to attend an anniversary event. She gladly met with administrators and student leaders, but she really wanted to talk with those who had witnessed the shootings.

So Ms. Anderson contacted some of them through Facebook and introduced herself. One night a few of the NIU students hosted the visitors at an apartment. There was more beer drinking than deep discussion. Still, she says, "It made me feel more normal."

As the months rolled on, students and faculty members at Virginia Tech met often to plan how to move forward. During one meeting, someone nominated her to lead a new group called Students for Non-Violence.

Ms. Anderson wasn’t sure she wanted the job. She looked across the small room at Jerzy Nowak, the former head of the horticulture department. He had been married to Madame, her late French instructor. "Of course," she said. "I’ll do it."

Mr. Nowak would come to admire her careful way of listening, her knack for getting things done. The group brought in a speaker for the two-year anniversary of the shootings, raised money for a charity.

For her graduation, in 2009, Ms. Anderson’s grandparents came from Ukraine. Her stepfather gave a toast. She received five homemade coupons good for $200 — one was for the spa, one was for investing. Each was tucked inside a Dr. Seuss book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Only she had no idea where to go next.

At first, Ms. Anderson was afraid of public speaking. In one of her first appearances, a private gathering her stepfather organized in 2009, she abandoned her written remarks halfway through. She cried. Did people really want to hear about such a horrible thing?

They did. At the end, she felt good about her talk, confident. Still, she hated the presentation’s title, which someone else had chosen: "Triumph Over Tragedy." She didn’t feel triumphant.

After graduating, Ms. Anderson interned at a law firm, the next step toward a prestigious career. But did she really want that? Growing up, she could talk herself into most any choice, even if her heart wasn’t in it. After the shootings, though, a skeptical voice would grow louder whenever she tried. No, this isn’t what you want. Are you sure? Because life is very fragile.

At 21, Ms. Anderson faced another choice: How much to tell all the people she would ever meet about April 16, 2007. The question followed her to Cannes, France, where she spent nine months teaching English at a middle school, savoring wine and cheese in the sun-drenched coastal town. Her new friends, who came from all over the world, didn’t know Blacksburg from Columbine. At the beach one day, her roommate asked about the long scar on her stomach. "I was shot," Ms. Anderson said. One night after a dinner party, she told the whole story to a young woman she had just met. She wouldn’t tell everyone, but she didn’t want to hide.

Back in the United States, Ms. Anderson drifted. When her parents and three younger siblings moved to Seattle, she followed them there, only to move back east months later. When her aunt offered her a job at a marketing agency, in Maryland, she accepted. Though she had taken the LSAT, law school held little appeal. The Koshka Foundation was still dormant, a web page with doves on it.

Then came 2012. That spring, to mark the fifth anniversary of the shootings, Ms. Anderson organized a 5K race in Washington, D.C., which led her to think about helping survivors. Around that time, she met William Modzeleski, who would become a mentor.

Mr. Modzeleski, known as Bill, was a former associate assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. He told Ms. Anderson about a 2002 report he had helped write called "Safe School Initiative," an examination of 37 incidents of deliberate school violence. The findings suggested that because many incidents had been well-planned by people who displayed troubling behavior, often conveying their intentions to others in advance, future attacks might be preventable. In short, it underscored the importance of threat assessment. To Ms. Anderson, this was a revelation. "It was hope," she says.

Gradually, she carved a new role for herself. "I can be a bridge," she thought, between what experts knew and the public didn’t, a storyteller who could describe what happened at Virginia Tech and what could happen anywhere else. She wanted to frame safety in terms of personal responsibility: looking out for oneself and the community, speaking up when something seemed wrong.

That year, Ms. Anderson spoke at a law-enforcement conference in Texas, where her talk drew raves from an audience of people trained to respond to emergencies like the one she had survived. But she knew she had spoken too fast, with too little focus. She bought a book on public speaking and created mnemonic devices to remember specific parts of her speech.

Over time she reworked her talk, coming up with takeaways, adding depth to descriptions of her own recovery. She learned to describe horrific details that once made her tremble to think about. And she shared more reflections. "The story had more arc," she says.

Along the way, Ms. Anderson quit her marketing job and co-founded LiveSafe, a company that makes a mobile safety app used by businesses and colleges. Later, as invitations poured in, she decided to make speaking a full-time job. The Koshka Foundation, a one-woman operation, came to life.

Eventually her presentation took shape. She showed slides of the victims and said their names aloud. On college campuses, she got students laughing, purposely cursing a bit. She described how, as paramedics tended to her after the shootings, she fretted about the color of her underwear. She shared safety tips.

And she ended on a reflective note, urging listeners to appreciate moments spent stuck in traffic: "You decide what to do with that time, and not everyone has that opportunity."

As Ms. Anderson found a calling, though, she continued to wrestle with anxiety. She worried about something awful happening to her family. The day of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in 2012, she called her therapist for an immediate appointment.

Then, on December 2, 2015, Ms. Anderson heard more awful news: A married couple in San Bernardino, Cal., had just shot and killed 14 people at a holiday party. Alone in her basement apartment, in D.C., she sobbed as deeply as she had that night in Blacksburg eight years earlier. Distraught, she stepped into the cold night, smoked a cigarette, walked around the block.

The next morning, the words that would push her forward were right there. They had welled up overnight. She went to the whiteboard stuck to the fridge and wrote them down, a message to herself: "You wake up and you decide the world is good."

As Ms. Anderson found a calling, she also found a community. She joined what survivors of violence and family members of victims describe as "the club nobody ever wants to belong to," in which bonds can become especially tight. Fellow members, though, aren’t always easy to find.

So Ms. Anderson looked all over. Sixteen months after a teenager shot and killed three students and injured two others at Chardon High School, in Ohio, in 2012, she contacted the school-district office and introduced herself. She was planning a cross-country drive and offered to meet with survivors while passing through. A luncheon was arranged. At a Mexican restaurant, she met Nick Walczak, who had been shot and partially paralyzed. You’re not alone, she told him.

Since then, Ms. Anderson has contacted about 30 other people who were wounded in attacks, as well as first responders, to better understand their experiences. "Stalking," she says jokingly. She corresponded with several survivors of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, in Colorado, asking them how the incident had affected them over time. Sometimes she took notes, recording her own thoughts afterward.

In 2011, Ms. Anderson emailed John-Michael Keyes. "I’m writing to express my condolences and also introduce myself," the message said. "I’d like to hear about your daughter … lessons you have learned."

Later, Mr. Keyes told her all about his 16-year-old daughter, Emily, who had been taken hostage and killed by a gunman at a Colorado high school in 2006. Before she was murdered, she texted her parents: "I luv u guys. K?" Mr. Keyes later founded the "I Luv U Guys" Foundation, which develops school-safety programs.

Over the years, Mr. Keyes has tried hard to resist what he calls "the choice of blame," clinging so tightly to anger that it burns away all joy. In Ms. Anderson, he saw someone else who had resisted it. He and his wife, Ellen, who have hosted Ms. Anderson at their home, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, have called her "one of the gifts in the aftermath" of their daughter’s death.

The words that would push her forward had welled up overnight: "You wake up and you decide the world is good."
Mr. Keyes heard Ms. Anderson speak at dozens of conferences. He saw men wearing police vests cry at her presentations, during which she expressed her deep respect for police officers and first responders. And he listened as she turned her story into what he describes as a call to action: "Humans learn from emotionally charged events, and through her story, her presence, she creates the emotionally charged event."

Audiences brought their own stories of trauma, pain, and loss. "They want to see you’ve lived a full life," she says. After some talks, 10 or 15 people lined up. They told her about losing a child, a loved one wounded in combat. Others just hugged her. Sometimes people snapped her photo and asked her to pose for selfies. Once she signed an autograph.

Within the club nobody ever wants to join, Ms. Anderson became known as an uncommonly empathetic woman. After meeting survivors of violence, she noted the date of each incident in her calendar. That way, when the anniversary came around, she could send them supportive messages. Sometimes, her expressiveness elicited surprising responses from strangers. At a college in Manhattan, a man who had set up the audiovisual equipment for her presentation handed her a tightly crumpled piece of paper without saying a word. In a scrawled note, he thanked her for sharing her story: "I can relate because my father passed in 9/11 … and I pulled around 30 bodies out of the fallen towers."

Often people asked her about guns, whether she thought an armed student could have minimized the carnage at Virginia Tech. She tried to convey the blinding speed at which such incidents occur, how shock overwhelms you. Sometimes she resorted to humor. "We’re young, we’re drunk, we’re hormonal. Why would you ever want to arm us?" When they pushed, she asked, "How many times have you ever killed somebody?"

At every stop, Ms. Anderson never spoke the name of the student who had shot her. Many times she read a state panel’s extensive report, which describes "clear warnings" about the shooter’s mental instability and how no one at the university had all the information or "connected all the dots."

As horrific as his actions were, she says, "in a certain way, we all failed him."

Sometimes, people asked her about him. No, she told them, she hasn’t forgiven him. No, she doesn’t dream about him. People asked if she believed she was "meant" to survive. No, she said, she doesn’t.

Those who’ve seen tragedies up close often grapple with questions about fate. Dan Yoder, director of information technology at Umpqua Community College, was among the first to arrive at the scene of the fatal shootings there in 2015. When he heard Ms. Anderson speak at a recent conference, he was struck by one of her messages: Witnesses to violence, too, often suffer greatly. The two struck up a friendship.

One night Mr. Yoder texted her a question: "How fatalistic are you? The events of our lives are preordained or do we influence the outcome through our choices?"

"I go in spurts … between believing in fate and not," Ms. Anderson wrote back, "but mostly I prefer to think our choices and decisions play a larger role."

The immediate high from a talk often gives way to loneliness as she drives away from the venue. A few minutes after her presentation at the threat-assessment conference in Orlando, she catches a ride to the airport. In her bag she carries a heavy glass plaque, a parting gift.

Thousands of miles away, in Seattle, the walls of her studio apartment are bare. On a table there’s a cactus and two small plants. She’s rarely home for more than three or four days at a time. Now she’s on her way to another city.

April 16, 2007, continues to affect her relationships. It has drawn her closer to her own family, persuading her to live near her much younger siblings. It’s pulled her closer to some friends and distanced her from others. She’s never sure how much new acquaintances might want to hear the whole survival story. One man she dated showed little interest in her work, which is to say, the experiences that led her to it.

Ms. Anderson plans to have a family one day. She’s considering graduate school, perhaps a degree in clinical psychology or public health. A book, for sure. She wants to learn more about the experiences of first responders, about how trauma affects survivors over the long haul.

Early on, Ms. Anderson felt above all an obligation to preserve the memories of those killed at Virginia Tech. Talking about the shootings over and over again has allowed her to reshape that day, like clay on a wheel, into a reminder, a tribute, a lesson. "I feel like my survival at the cost of theirs is a never-ending process," she says. One day, though, she wants to stop talking about that day, give a different kind of talk, let go of the girl who got shot.

On her flight to Baltimore, a friendly fellow her age chats her up.

"So, what do you do?"

"I run a nonprofit that promotes safety and violence prevention."

"Married?"

"No, not married. What about you?"

A wife, he says, a few kids. They turn to watch a coral sunset, darkening the cabin as it slips away.

After a layover in Baltimore, Ms. Anderson flies to Ohio for an unusual visit. Recently an acquaintance there told her about a colleague who, having been robbed at gunpoint, is afraid to leave his house. And so she offered to help him if she could.

The next day, Ms. Anderson sits down with the man at his dining-room table, joined by their mutual acquaintance. A few red candles flicker in the afternoon light.

She describes what happened in her classroom at Virginia Tech, the swiftness of it. She leaves out the gore, mentions her wounds. He leans closer, chin on his palm, a middle-aged man stung by violence.

When he describes his recent incident, she can tell how shaken he is. His eyes get moist.

Ms. Anderson asks him some questions, and he asks her some, too. Gently, she draws him out, why he feels anxious in certain places, what might confirm or deny that fear.

It’s been only two weeks, she tells him. It’s OK to be afraid. It will get easier.

He nods. She gets him to laugh a bit.

After an hour or so, the conversation winds down. The man thanks her for coming. The two strangers get up from the table and hug. Before leaving, she hands him her business card. That’s my cell number, she tells him. Reach out anytime.

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is eric.hoover@chronicle.com.