Emily Haas, now 29, was in French class in Virginia Tech's Norris Hall on April 16, 2007, when gunman Seung-Hui Cho burst in and opened fire, shooting Emily twice in the head. He killed 12 people — including himself — in that room, as part of what remains one of the deadliest mass shootings in the United States; 32 people were killed that day and dozens more wounded across the VT campus.
In light of the 10-year anniversary of the attack, Emily's mom Lori, 57, spoke to Cosmopolitan.com about how their lives changed that day — and how she was once apathetic toward guns but has committed her life to gun violence prevention as the Virginia state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence as a result of the attack.
Emily is my oldest child and my only daughter. She has two younger brothers, so she was the first to go to college. Of course, your greatest fear for your children entering college is that they won't make good decisions. You want your children safe and healthy and whole; I recall being worried for her safety, that she'd abuse alcohol or get date-raped... the kinds of things a lot of mothers worry about, you know? You don't prepare your children for mass shootings. I didn't even discuss guns with Emily.
April 16, 2007, was a Monday. Emily had been home for the weekend and she had gone back [to school] Sunday afternoon around 4 or 5 o'clock. Monday morning, I got up and met my minister at the store. We were going to shop for fabric for stoles for my middle child's confirmation. My phone rang several times — 10 years ago, cell phones weren't really as integrated into everyday life as they are now, and I just recall saying, "Oh my gosh, I'm with my minister, it would be so rude of me to look at my phone."
At one point, though, and I don't know why, either divine intervention or sheer stupid luck, my phone rang again. I looked at it in my purse and I didn't recognize the number but I saw the area code was 540, which is Blacksburg, Virginia, [where Virginia Tech is located]. I said to myself, "I need to answer this call."
It was Emily on the line. She just said, "Hi, Mommy, I've been shot. There's shooting all over. I'm OK." She was with an EMT who was a young mother herself, and after she had triaged Emily, she handed Emily her personal cell phone and said, "Call your mom and dad. This is a very bad scenario. They don't need to hear this on the news, they need to hear it from you."
I called my husband as I rushed home. He wasn't as shocked quite as I was — his mother had called and told him there had been a shooting on campus but that it was in a dormitory, and Emily was living in a sorority house at that time. He didn't think she'd been near the shooting. I was… frantic. Just frantic. Thinking, Do we pack? Are we going to be there for a day? Are we going to be there for three days? What does Emily need? What do we need? How soon can we get there and what in the hell is going on?
Emergency vehicles and law enforcement vehicles and unmarked cars were passing us by the dozens and dozens on the drive there. It was just the most surreal thing. Can you imagine going 85, 90 miles an hour down the highway and people are passing you? And we're listening to the radio while the body count goes higher and higher and higher. When the body count had gotten to 22, I said to my husband, "How many parents are making this same drive to pick up dead children?" I was trying to wrap my brain around the fact that Emily was OK, but I was terribly upset that there were other parents making that same drive to rush to the sides of their dead children. It was disturbing beyond comprehension.
How many parents are making this same drive to pick up dead children?
Meanwhile, we got a second call from the EMT not long after we got in the car and a third call came not long after, maybe an hour after that. Emily was assuring us she was fine and she tried to tell us we didn't need to come.
We got to the hospital mid-afternoon and she was in a hospital room. We got to see her and hug her. She'd been grazed in the head by two bullets. Her injury just required stitches and the [physical] recovery was minimal. She was OK. But we quickly got shuffled out of the room because she was surrounded by law enforcement who needed to talk to her as a firsthand witness.
We spent that night in Blacksburg. We went to her sorority house late that afternoon [to get her things] and then took her to a friend of a friend's house for the night — the hospital had wanted to keep her overnight but she didn't want to stay, so we didn't make her. We drove back to Richmond on Tuesday, all the while trying to comprehend what had happened, the magnitude of what had happened. Reports were slow. Everybody knew about the tragedy and knew about the body count, but nobody knew about the hows, the whys, the wheres, the whens, the chronology. None of that became apparent for weeks.
The aftermath [of a shooting] is hard to describe. You're just putting one foot in front of the other; all of a sudden, the world doesn't remotely resemble what it did the day before. Everything's changed and you're adrift. You don't know what's going on. [I remember on] Wednesday night, Emily and I didn't sleep at all. She came down in the middle of the night sometime and we sat in the den. She had a piece of paper, and she was trying to figure out who was dead and who was alive. She said, "I know these classmates were killed," and, "I know where Allison is and I know where Colin is," and, "I don't know where so-and-so is." She did not want the TV on because she did not want to hear or see anything about the shooter.
I do think the media has had the tendency to give shooters too much coverage. Of course, we need to learn from these tragedies about the motivation of the shooter and what the circumstances were that lead them to be armed. However, notoriety is often what these shooters seek, and the media should not provide that. I never use the shooter's name if I can help it. And I don't believe Emily has ever uttered his name aloud.
We had tons and tons of support and compassion from friends and family. Our family was here 24/7. Emily has 20-plus cousins, so, if you can imagine, it was crazy. And after three or four days at home with family, we began to try to pick up some pieces and gently figure out what she wanted to do to move forward. But there's just no guidebook. I couldn't go online and search "How do you parent a 19-year-old who was shot and injured in the largest massacre in the history of the United States?" You feel pretty rudderless.
Emily is resilient. She went back to campus a week later. We stayed [with her] for a few days. She attended Madame's funeral. [Editor's note: Madame Jocelyne Couture-Nowak was the French professor teaching the class Emily was in at the time of the shooting. She urged students to call 911 before the shooter entered the classroom; she was shot and killed trying to barricade the door.]
She met up with friends and sorority sisters, and she began to make decisions about what she wanted the next several months to look like. Classes started back up that same day, and professors and students were given free rein to make decisions about how they wanted their spring semester to end. That was lovely and smart because so many people were traumatized by this. The ripple effects were grand and unbeknownst. They could take their grade from the day of the massacre and do nothing else for the rest of the term. They could cherry-pick which classes they wanted to attend for the remainder of the semester. They could attend and try it, and then if it didn't work, they could go back. They could not attend at all.
Emily wanted to see what it would be like if she went to class. I was concerned about it, but she did it. She walked by herself to class, went to class, sat there for 45 minutes. She met me afterward and said, "OK, I did it. I don't need to do it again; I'll just take my grades [for the semester]." It wasn't an experience she cared to repeat.
I felt like it was my job as her parent to be there for her and guide her through some of the decision-making that 19-year-olds didn't have to make. Not things like who to go out with on a Friday night or what classes to take; Emily had decisions to make about her care and who and how and where and when, and dealing with PTSD. She had to go back to the site of her attempted murder every single day trying to finish a college degree. That's very, very difficult for someone who has survived gun violence and is suffering from PTSD. And PTSD waxes and wanes — it might bubble up in a bigger way at certain times and then drift back.
Colin Goddard, another student who was shot, and his dad, Andy, were at Madame's funeral when Emily and I attended. Andy and I met that day and became fast friends. He had a son who was shot and survived, I had a daughter, they were in the classroom together [at the time of the shooting], and they knew each other. We learned really quickly about some of the gaping holes in Virginia's gun laws that allowed someone like [the shooter] to have easy access to firearms. We were alarmed and disturbed and upset and angry, and that started on the path that led me to where I am now. I work full-time for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. I'm the state director for the GVP [gun violence prevention] movement here in Virginia, and I am passionate about this work and committed and hoping to make a difference.
Like other survivors, I got into this GVP movement because of what happened. But that's in the past, and what we're working for is a future where there's less gun violence and where we're doing more to prevent it. Our goals are to take the evidence and the policies that work and begin to apply as many as are appropriate. For example, we understand that domestic violence situations become exponentially more lethal when there's a firearm introduced. Road rage with a firearm can turn lethal. Confrontation in the streets becomes lethal when there's a firearm. Toddlers have killed more Americans than terrorists if you look at the numbers over time — all because somebody was careless and left firearms out and unsecured.
We want policies that make us all safer. We think domestic abusers shouldn't have access to guns. We think that there should be a background check on all buyers — how do you stop a prohibited buyer from purchasing a gun if you don't do a background check to figure out if he or she is prohibited? We believe that you should have to have hands-on training around concealed carry. We think there should be penalties so that gun owners must properly store and secure their firearms so that children can't get access to them. We think there should be limitations on the type of firepower that everyday citizens can carry on our street. The efficacy of a lot of those policies have been proven in other states and those states have fewer deaths. New York's gun death rate per 100,000 is in the low, low single digits. Virginia's is 10.9.
It's devastating for all of the families, me included, to relive the trauma each time another school shooting occurs. And you can't help but relive it. What we're also really traumatized by is the fact that someone else is now added to the club nobody wants to be in: the one where your loved one's been shot and killed or injured. But [that] club is strong, the club is active, the club is compassionate and supportive. I know dozens of families from dozens of mass shootings. Every day we have gun violence in America, so there is a camaraderie that's very understood by those [who have experienced it].
Time is a great healer. With all the gun violence we have in this country, the tragedy is brought to the surface [for Emily] very often, but she is very strong and resilient and capable, and she's able to handle, clearly, any adversity that's thrown her way. Emily supports me and my work. I know she is proud of me and is committed to it — but she chooses a lower profile. She finished her college degree. She got married in 2012, and she had a baby in 2015. She became a high school French teacher. She's doing great.