Heroes in Hell's Mess

Maggie Gallagher

4/17/2007 10:56:19 PM - Maggie Gallagher

No one who hasn't been through it can tell the family, friends and victims how they should react, or what helps them cope. To mangle Frank Sinatra: I'm in favor of God or grief counseling or whatever else helps you get through the night.

But for the rest of us, who sit helplessly on the sidelines watching another senseless massacre break out at a McDonald's, a post office, a Luby's cafeteria, a high school, or a Virginia university, I personally want to say: Enough with the healing process, the fingers of blame, and most of all enough with the senseless explanations of the mass murderer's psyche, background and motivations.

It's almost always a man who pulls the trigger, but otherwise the cast of characters morphs: discharged ex-Marines, unemployed blue-collar white men, high-tech immigrants, affluent homegrown suburban boys. Is it video games or mass unemployment that is "responsible"? Enough.

Yet, in these unimaginable situations, some choose to act. I want -- no, I need -- to remember them, too.

In Room 204, professor Liviu Librescu was showing his engineering students slides of "virtual work" when the gunfire went off next door. "A steady pop, pop, pop, pop," a student eyewitness told The Washington Post. Librescu went to hold the door, giving students time to escape through the windows. He is reported among the dead.

Meanwhile, in Room 207, the gunman shot instructor Christopher Bishop in the head and began firing on the students, killing three or four. "Everyone hit the floor," said Trey Perkins, and the gunman left. Trey, a student named Derek and an unnamed girl went to the classroom door and held it shut with their feet. Two minutes later, when the gunman returned, he couldn't get in. He started shooting through the door, but the kids, lying flat on their backs on the floor, feet pressed to the door, held it tight.

For some the decision to become a hero is delayed. Alberto Leos was a 17-year-old cook at a San Diego McDonald's in 1984 when a gunman shot him point-blank, and killed 21 of his co-workers and customers. For Alberto, according to an interview in the San Diego Union-Tribune, true healing didn't come until 10 years later, when he saved a man's life by pulling him from a burning car. He's been a cop for almost 20 years now.

In 2002, at the Appalachian School of Law (one of the many smaller incidents we never hear of, or quickly forget because the body count is not high enough), a dean, a professor and a law student were killed, but the gunman was stopped by law students Tracy Bridges, Ted Besen, Mikael Gross and Rob Sievers(including two gun-bearing members of the Federalist Society). I want to remember the name of Jake Ryker (where is he now?), the high school wrestler in the 1998 Springfield, Ore., shooting who, unarmed and wounded, wrestled the gunman to the ground, saving who knows how many lives.

Why do they kill? Who cares? The explanation varies in the details, but the basic script is the same: They are men who choose murder to combat humiliation, to reign for a few ghastly moments in hell, rather than to serve in heaven.

How do some facing hell find the courage to act to stop it? That's what I want to know.