Bill Hopkins tells story of his friend, Virginia Tech graduate student and Valley resident Gil Colman, who was wounded in Monday's shooting.
“Saved by the blood”
This means different things to people. We sometimes say that we were “saved by the blood of Jesus” when he died on the cross
It was about 9pm on April 16th, and Gil, Nell-Marie, Ellen and myself were in the hospital room in Roanoke. Gil said, “Can I have a tissue…there’s blood inside my nose.” We got him one, and as he cleaned the dried blood from inside his nose he said…”It’s not my blood…it’s from the guy who was on top of me….his blood was everywhere…on my face, in my eyes, my nose, my mouth…it was all over.” He said that the reason he was not killed must have been “all that blood” that covered him. “He must have thought that I was already dead”. It was the blood of the student who had been seated behind Gil when it all started.
I thought about Godfrey Birtle, a British singer we know, who wrote and sings a tremendous song titled, “If it wasn’t for the blood, I’d be dead!’ The recovering heroin addicts at Betel, in Birmingham, UK where our church goes and ministers to the guys and women who are living new lives in Christ know this song well! All of the residents there at Betel have overcome the odds of addiction and death…they exclaim, “If it wasn’t for the blood, I’d be dead!” And, they sing it with such passion…it’s difficult for us to recognize just how literally, they mean those words!
Almost 12 hours to the minute before Gil asked for the tissue that night, the carnage began. It was Monday morning, April 16th, about 9:20 am, when Gil, the Professor, and 13 other graduate students were interrupted, (the class began at 9am) by someone who opened the wooden door to the classroom (a smaller room about 20’ by 30’ in size) and took up a “shooters” stance at the front of the room and began firing his semi-automatic 9mm pistol directly at students on the front row. He moved from his left to his right. Gil sat on the last chair in the front row, on the shooter’s right.
Gil dove for the floor, at the side wall of the room, by a radiator. (This building was built in the 1950’s) He felt the student next to him dive for cover in the same way landing on top of him. Not fully covering Gil, but “scissored” across his body. The shooter emptied the first 15 round clip and ejected it, and inserted another one. He moved about the room shooting. Gil felt a bullet strike the guy on top of him…then he felt some searing pain in his neck. He later speculated that the bullet went through the body of the person on top of him, before it entered his mastoid bone just behind and below his left ear. The surgeon later indicated that he thought it was a direct shot.
Then the shooter left the room, and they heard shots being fired nearby. Lots of gunshots. Gil motioned a student nearby to get his phone out of his book bag and call 911. The guy retrieved Gil’s phone and dialed and told the police what was happening. It is about 9:25 or so.
Gil told us that, “I don’t recall having fear…I only recall praying and thinking about my wife and my son”.
Gil and a couple of others strategized, that the best thing to do was to remain in the positions they were in and “play dead” because the shooter was right outside the door and might very well return…so, that’s what they did. Gil was underneath the bleeding student from Indonesia. No talking, nothing was heard from him.
Just when they thought the terror might have ended…the shooter comes back in the room! Where are the police, Gil thought…why aren’t they here protecting us? The South Korean student, (23 years old) came back firing at people strewn about the room. 10 shots, or more. Gil recounted that at one point, the shooter was standing right beside where he was lying underneath the Indonesian and felt 3 or 4 more bullets impacting into the body above him. “Thump, thump, thump”…but none seemed to hit Gil…
Then the shooter left and shot some more outside (actually across the hall in another classroom) Then SILENCE. Finally, no more shooting.
They remained in position for a time and gradually, when the police came, they got up…but only two of the 14 people got up. Only two of them, Gil and his friend named Nathaniel could walk out. Lee, another student was later seen safely outside. The others were either deceased already or badly wounded. At this writing, 11am on the 17th, Gil still doesn’t have a definitive listing of who might have survived. The Professor was killed.
The shooter shot himself before the police could engage him.
It’s about 9:50 am, by this time, and the police lead Nathaniel, and then Gil, down and out of the building, and into a brown Explorer. They were taken to “triage” there on campus along with the other injured students.
Nell-Marie called me at about 10:15 and gave me the unbelievable news. I was watching the report on TV when she called. She was calling to tell us that Gil was ok and not involved, right? Of course…but no, that’s not what Nell-Marie said. “Gil’s alright”, she said, but, “he was right in the middle of it…it was in his classroom.” She had spoken to Gil only minutes before. “But, he’s ok!”
I hung up and dialed Gil’s cell phone. He answered, “Hi, Billy”, seeing my caller ID light up. He sounded quite normal. I was relieved. There was noise in the background, but I could hear him clearly…he said that, “I don’t think I was shot, but a bullet grazed my arm and my neck”. I’m ok. (actually, the bullet grazed his back and entered the base of his skull, we were to find out…the bullet was still lodged against his mastoid bone in there as we spoke.) So I knew at the outset that he was in the classroom where shooting happened, but nothing else…no more details, until later…then our connection went bad…I redialed and began talking again…Gil said something…”It was...he….shot…” and then he couldn’t speak…he was unable to get out anything but sobs..I pictured him there with the phone in his hand, trying to imagine what he must have been feeling….”I’ll be there in two hours!” I said…”I’ll find Nell-Marie and I’ll see you by one o’clock.” He said, “Ok”, and we hung up.
Nell-Marie learned that they had taken Gil to the Lewis Gale Hospital in Roanoke, by ambulance, along with a Professor, from the triage area on campus. It was too windy for helicopters to fly.
I arrived about 1:30, and found Nell-Marie in the emergency room waiting room. She had not yet seen Gil.
Momentarily, someone came out to identify us, and Nell-Marie got connected. They took her back to Gil. 20 minutes later, a nurse came out to say that Gil was being X-rayed at that time because there was a bullet still in his head! What? But she assured us that it was not in a dangerous place neurologically and that they might even leave it in there…of course, they took Gil into surgery about 2:30 and removed the bullet..a 9mm slug, in tact and placed a drain in the wound. So by 5:30, Gil was in recovery and wide awake. By 5:40 pm, he was wheeled into room 526, where we got to see him for the first time. He looked ashen, washed out, serious and tired, but remarkably good. He was alert and fully aware of everything.
Then he talked and talked, freely giving us every detail. That’s where we learned that he was “saved by the blood” of the Indonesian student.
I suggested to Gil that if I were the Dad in Indonesia and found out that my beloved son was killed in this way…I would have so many unanswered questions…I would feel so helpless. I would be comforted to know, perhaps, that you (Gil) survived because of my son’s blood…that my son’s death in some way “saved” or shielded you from that fate. Gil agreed. And, perhaps he will someday get the chance to give his story to the parents from Indonesia.