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Chess Heroism at Virginia Tech Print E-mail
By Michael Atkins   
April 28, 2007

by Michael Atkins

From every tragic drama surrounding a mass shooting, heroes arise. Ordinary people who do extraordinary things in the midst of a chaotic crisis. One of the heroes that emerged from the April 16th Virginia Tech massacre is a chess player.

Derek O'Dell is both the President of the Virginia Tech Chess Club and this year's Va. Tech Intramural Chess Champion. He is a sophomore majoring in Biological Sciences and Pre-Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, which is located in southwestern Virginia in the small town of Blacksburg.

Derek was in German language class when the deranged student burst in and immediately began shooting, leaving no time to prepare or respond. Cho Seung-Hui apparently shot the first student he saw, who was seated in the front row. The gunman then turned and shot the class instructor, Prof. James Bishop. The killer promptly fired at virtually every other member of the class as they ducked for cover.

Derek, sitting in the second row, was shot in the arm as he crouched. He was more fortunate than most. Moving closer after quickly re-loading, Cho then aimed a second time at Bishop and many students. The professor and several students were shot execution-style at close range, seemingly to ensure their deaths. In all, 13 of the 15 students in Derek's class and the professor were shot. Six of the 13 victims died. After finishing his German class rampage, the shooter left to attack other classrooms.

Derek rushed to the door and slammed it shut. He was quickly joined by two uninjured classmates, Trey Perkins, and Katelyn Carney. They faced a very difficult dilemma: since there was no suitable furniture to barricade the door, they would have to attempt to prevent the attacker from re-entering by pushing against the door with their bodies. The murderer did indeed return to their classroom, perhaps with the grim intent to finish off any survivors. Unable to re-enter, the frustrated Cho emptied a cartridge of bullets into the door.

While Derek and his two classmates waged a desperate struggle to keep the door closed, bullets pierced the door. Katelyn was shot through the hand as the three watched. Another bullet grazed her head. Then the door opened a couple of inches. Cho's gun aimed menacingly at Garrett Evans, an already wounded student lying in close range on the floor. Pressing hard again, the door was re-closed. After moving down the hall, Cho returned a third time, and again was kept out. Soon thereafter, the killer turned the gun on himself, resigning from the battle, and ended it all. Due to the timely actions of these brave students, several lives were saved, including their own. Garrett saw it unfold before his eyes, unable to help, but gave them due credit for saving his life in a subsequent interview on national TV.

Derek, too, was interviewed, photographed, and taped dozens of times by the news media from across the country and around the world for much of the following week. Describing his assailant, Derek said, "He just opened the door and started shooting. He didn't say anything, that was the weirdest part. No screaming, no yelling. He just shot people - he was like the silent killer." One can only imagine what these students at Virginia Tech are going to have to deal with in the coming months. Trauma like this produces Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and students who were not even directly involved could easily be affected.

The chess connection to Derek became clear at a recent meeting of the Arlington Chess Club when member Chris Bush reported that Derek was a former chess student of both himself and Rusty Potter. That a chess player became a hero really isn't that surprising when you think about it. Chess teaches you to make correct decisions under pressure, often with little advance notice and little time left for further thought. On April 16th, Derek was obviously forced to do just this for both his own survival as well as the survival of his remaining classmates. While it is extremely sad that this horrific event ever happened, the fact that a fellow chess player could step up and respond admirably to the crisis gives honor to chess players everywhere.

The USCF is giving Derek O'Dell free entry and room at the US Open and a free lifetime USCF membership in honor of his heroism.