Susan Nicol Kyle
BLACKSBURG, Va.-- As an advanced EMT with Virginia Tech Rescue Squad, Matthew Lewis knows to expect the unexpected.
And, that's just what he encountered Monday morning when he walked into the Ambler Johnston dorm room on the VT campus.
"We were called for someone who had fallen out of their loft," Lewis said. "Instead, we found two patients with gunshot wounds. We started treatment and called for a second unit."
Both patients, a male and a female, were transported to Montgomery Regional Hospital. Lewis would not say whether or not they were in cardiac arrest.
VT Chief of Police Wendell Flinchum said witnesses told officers they believed the dorm shooting was domestic related. A "person of interest" was located off-campus, and was being interviewed when the second shooting occurred.
At 9:45 a.m., callers to 9-1-1 reported shots being fired in Norris Hall. Officers arrived to find the doors chained from the inside. They forced the doors, and as they reached the second-floor the shooting stopped.
They found the gunman dead inside a classroom where other slain and wounded people were located, Flinchum said.
"It's the worst I've seen in my life," the chief said, describing the bloody crime scene.
When Virginia Tech Rescue received the call for Norris Hall, it was for "multiple patients with traumatic injuries."
Realizing they would need assistance, they immediately requested mutual aid from nearby companies. "We had practiced for MCI (mass casualty incidents). We were ready," said Matt Green, an EMT. "The training paid off today."
Lt. Matt Johnson established command, and requested Montgomery County respond with its trailer of extra medical supplies such as backboards, straps and collars.
Since the scene was not secure, the ambulances staged away from the scene. Personnel were assigned triage, treatment and transportation duties.
They also had to warn other students about the incident. "People would say they had a class in Norris," said Lt. Sarah Walker, of Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad. "They hadn't heard what was going on. There was no panic. Some just didn't get it when we told them to go home."
Police officers carried some injured patients to the ambulances, while others walked to the treatment areas.
Some of the victims had been shot multiple times. Medevac helicopters were grounded by high winds. The most serious patients were taken to the trauma center in Roanoke.
Walker praised the cooperation of the EMS companies involved. "We work together..." Communications worked well also.
Exactly a year ago, the crews participated in a MCI drill. "Little did we know," Walker said.
A Blacksburg EMT was injured when the ambulance door slammed shut on his fingers. "It was awful. I couldn't get that door open. He finally managed to get them free. Despite his pain, he drove the ambulance to the hospital."
D.J. Robinson eventually sought treatment, and suffered no fractures.
Green also said things went smoothly because his squad trains with others. "Everyone knows what's expected. We believe you can't train too much."
Lewis said the crews approached the incident as they would any other, working feverishly to save their patients.
But, squad members are facing tough days ahead.
On Tuesday afternoon, more than 40 crew members gathered at their campus station before heading out to a memorial service. Their badges were covered with black bands.
They were joined by other EMTs and paramedics who helped in the effort Monday.
"It hasn't sunk in yet. We all know it," Lewis said. "We'll have to lean on each other."
The student rescue squad has been thrust into the international spotlight. Lewis and Green have been interviewed by nearly every major news anchor in the country.
Lewis said he and Green realize when the hoopla eases, when their cell phones stop ringing, when the bright lights go off, life will take a different tone.
"We're trying to make sure every squad has a debriefing with a CISM official. It's important to know how to cope. Some people keep it bottled up, some let it out. Everyone's different."
The atmosphere on campus Tuesday was surreal. People hugged and cried. A beating drum accented the mood.