Surviving the Unthinkable

I've been thinking about the horrific massacre at Virginia Tech yesterday, where some deranged idiot murdered 32 people and wounded 15 others before taking his own life. We will hear over the coming days about those murdered people, about promising lives cut short, about the sorrow felt by mourning families and friends. And we will wonder, "What would I have done under those circumstances?"

Now, it's kind of tough to second-guess those who were there, and many times the information originally given out is garbled, distorted, inaccurate or just plain wrong. But I heard that in at least one place, students were shot "execution-style," that is, lined up and shot in the back of the head. And when I hear that, and about the shooter moving methodically through the halls of the academic building, I wonder why there wasn't more resistance and why nobody tried to jump him. They had to have heard the shots coming toward them.

So I thought about this last night at work, and asked the question, "How do you survive a situation like that? What do you do if a gunman comes into your workplace or your school or the mall where you are shopping?" If you get to the point where you're lined up and waiting for the gunshot from behind you like a sheep led to the slaughter, you've screwed up, big-time.

First, DON'T PANIC! Panicking is the most likely thing to get you killed. If you hear gunshots nearby, the first thing you should do is get down on the ground, fast. This makes you less of a target. When you're on the ground, take a deep breath and take stock of your surroundings.

Second, DON'T FREEZE! Just as running around wildly in a panic can get you killed, so can freezing in fear. Don't count on the cops to save you. Don't count on the SWAT team. They may be able to respond within a few minutes, but you may be dead if you wait for them. The best thing you can do is...

GET OUT! Know where the emergency exits are around you. You don't want to be a hero if you don't have to, so the best thing you can do is get away from the situation. Low-crawl on the floor to the nearest emergency exit. If the gunshots are coming from that direction, then low-crawl to the next-nearest one. If the gunshots are coming from a hallway outside of your office and you have a window in the office, go out the window if you are on the first floor.

If you are on a higher floor, you'll have to decide if dropping to the ground from that floor will kill you. You can probably drop from a second or even third floor without taking too much damage. If there is anything around that might break your fall, cushions on a chair or couch, etc., drop those out first and try to land on them. If there are bushes below, try to land on them. If there's a ledge, try to walk out onto it, then bend down and grasp the ledge and swing over, and hang by your arms before dropping. This will lessen the distance you will fall and cut the amount of damage you will take when you hit the ground.

What about if you're on an upper floor? Then you can try barricading the door, as one roomful of students at Virginia Tech did. Look at the hinges on the door. If they are on your side of the door, then it will swing in and it can be barricaded with a heavy piece of furniture like a desk or a couch. If the hinges are on the other side of the door, then it will swing out and barricading it is a waste of time.

Finally, what do you do if there's nothing to barricade the door with? What if there's no way to escape? Then the best thing to do is to try to jump the gunman if you are with a group of people. Make sure that the lights are turned off so that the gunman's eyes have to adjust when entering the room. Look for anything that you can use as an improvised weapon. One possible tactic would be to have everyone remove their shoes and throw them at the gunman's head as he enters the room, in order to distract him, since his natural reaction will be to raise his hands to block the objects coming at his face. At that point, everyone should charge the gunman and knock him to the floor. The odds are that someone will be shot in the process, but he can't shoot everyone at once, and once he's on the ground, your greater numbers can neutralize him.

Remember that it's not a fair fight; he came at you with a gun, so anything you do to him is fair. Repeated kicks to the groin should immobilize him, and when you're taking off your shoes to use as missiles, be sure to pull out the laces to use as an improvised garrote. Have someone try to get behind him, loop the shoelace around his neck, and strangle him with it. Heavy leather bootlaces probably would work better than the cloth laces in an average pair of tennis shoes. You may not have anything else to use as a weapon, but shoes and shoelaces could do the trick in a pinch. Be prepared to improvise with whatever is at hand, and think outside the box about things that you can use to defend yourself.

Think about what you would do in that kind of a situation. It's unlikely that you'll ever have to do it, of course. But then again, it was unlikely that those murdered students ever would either. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they didn't respond in a way that allowed them to survive. If they had done this mental exercise sometime in the past, perhaps they might have.