Derek O'Dell: A Quick Thinking Virginia Tech Survivor

by Al Siebert, Ph.D.

Some of the survivors of the Virginia Tech shootings are alive because of quick thinking action by one of their classmates. Twenty students in beginning German class in room 207 of Norris Hall heard some popping sounds nearby, but ignored the noise because they were used to many loud noises coming from construction sites on campus. At about 9:20 a.m. the meaning of the popping noises became clear. A gunman wearing a black leather jacket, dark pants, and a maroon baseball cap stepped into the room. He raised his pistol and shot a student in the front row in the head. Next, he turned and shot the professor. As he quietly and methodically shot the students in the front row one or more times, many students scrambled and crawled toward the back of the room.

Sophomore student Derek O'Dell, sitting in the second row, instinctively dove under his desk after the first killings. He felt a stinging sensation in his right bicep, but didn't know he was shot until he saw blood running down his arm. When the shooter left, O'Dell got up, ran to the classroom door, pushed it shut and wedged his foot under it. "I knew if he got back through that door we'd all be dead," O'Dell says. He enlisted the help of several other students to hold the door shut using their hands and feet while lying on the floor keeping their bodies away from the door.

The gunman returned several minutes later. He tried to open the door, but couldn't. He pushed and pounded on the door and managed to shove it open an inch or two, but Derek kicked back harder and shut the door. The gunman pushed again, but couldn't get it to open. He fired five or six shots into the door and at the handle, but the bullets didn't dislodge the handle nor hit anyone inside, so he still couldn't get in. He gave up and left to go to other classrooms.

Derek stayed where he was, not knowing what would happen next or when police would arrive. He pulled off his belt and cinched it around his upper arm to stop the flow of blood. When the police and paramedics arrived, Derek was rushed to a hospital for emergency treatment. He was fortunate that the bullet went through his muscle without hitting a major blood vessel. He was soon released to go rest at his parent's home in Roanoke.*


A professor and five students were killed in room 207 on the morning of April 16, 2007. Ten students were wounded. Five emerged shaken, but unharmed. Derek O'Dell's way of quickly problem-solving what was happening and taking effective action kept himself and many of classmates alive. His response shows that some people have a better chance of surviving a totally unexpected, deadly situation when what they do can make a difference between living and dying. Read here why some people have a better chance of surviving when survival is necessary.

*Information compiled from various news sources.

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