10 years later: Virginia Tech massacre haunts local survivor

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — Ten years ago we were reporting how stunned the country was, how stunned we all were about what remains the worst school shooting in our country’s history.

All week we’ve looked back at the Virginia Tech mass shooting where 32 innocent souls lost their lives on April 16, 2007. The victims were not only the ones killed, or injured, the victims include thousands of students who were simply there and took in the unspeakable horror.

People like 2007 Virginia Tech graduate Ebony Stephenson. She was not shot during the tragedy, she wasn’t injured, she wasn’t in the two buildings during the killing spree, she didn’t even live on campus, but as you’ll see like thousands of others, Ebony, too became a victim.

“It has changed me in every aspect of my life,” says Stephenson, who met us at her home in Newport News.

Virginia Tech Remembrance

Days before Stephenson was set to graduate she remembers, “Something doesn’t feel right. It is snowing. Something doesn’t feel right.” She then got a phone call from a friend who was in a building next to Norris Hall where 30 would die.

“I still hear her voice. ‘Do not  come to campus. People are shooting. I am hiding and hanging up’.” It haunts me to this day she says.

She then turns on the TV, and only one station is unraveling the horror, “I flip to one station, and I see everything. I see my entire life unfolding in front of me. It’s my school. It’s a half-a-mile away, and my friends are being killed right now,” Ebony remembers.

One of those killed is 18-year-old freshman Reema Samaha from Centreville in Northern Virginia. Ebony had encouraged Reema to enroll in her major of Urban Planning, and Reema did.

“Reema is the type of person who when she walks in a room she lights up the room. Her smile is contagious. She was a beautiful soul inside and out,” Ebony says.

Reema invited Ebony to her dance recital. Ebony didn’t go, but she saw Reema the weekend before she would die.

“This light was shining down on her, and she looks so angelic, and this notion kept coming to me to go say hello to her. Don’t just wave, go say hi, and explain why you couldn’t make it to the recital.” Ebony doesn’t know why, but she didn’t do that, she did not go up to Reema, she just waved at her. We asked Ebony, “Do you regret you didn’t go up to her?” Her quick answer, “Every single day.”

What Ebony didn’t do to Reema, she now does for most everyone who crosses her mind.

“if it is three in the morning, and someone crosses my mind, I will wake up and send them a message on Facebook, just to say you were on my mind today. I was thinking about you. If I see someone I will go up, and wave at them, and then go up and make sure I say hello to that person,” Ebony says.

That tragic day in Blacksburg has frightened Ebony to her core, “To this day, if I go into a room, I have to see the exit. If I go to the movies, I have to sit on the end of the row. I have to be able to get out. That is every single day and every single place I go.”

When Ebony travels, she wears her Hokie memorial shirt. Airplanes are the worst for her, “And I sit on that plane, and I start having anxiety attacks because I realize how am I going to get out? I am constantly thinking, how am I going to get out?”

Movie theaters and gunfire are the worst for Ebony, “I can’t watch movies in the dark, if I hear gun shots, I am in a ball crying, having the worst anxiety of my life.”

Ebony can’t get over that dark day and she quit a job following an incident with a colleague.

“He said, ‘Why are you wearing that shirt today?’ I said, this is April 16th. He said, ‘ Oh get over it’ and what he said after that, I won’t even repeat,” Ebony remembers.

So devastated by that, she went to her office and turned on a vacuum cleaner, “My first thought was turn this vacuum on because that noise is going to mask the fact you are sobbing uncontrollably. No one has ever said that to me before. I quit that job in part because of that incident,” she says.

Ebony also remembers that cartoon of all the Virginia School mascots weeping over the Hokie Turkey, once rivals, but not anymore, “I always look at that cartoon. It shows that everyone came together across the state, across the country, across the world.”

On this Easter, Ebony, who is a Christian, has never blamed God. But she blames man and how he treats his fellow man.

“It really made me do some soul searching after that because I am a Christian. I need to forgive.” We asked whether Ebony can forgive the shooter Seung-Hui Cho? After a pause she said, “Because God  told me too, yes.”

Looking back this day reminds us of our mortality. To hold fast to what’s important: Family, friends, love. Because for us, the living, a reminder, that in a snap of a finger it can all be gone.

We need to be appreciative for all we have.