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How Olympian Townley Haas' family overcame personal horrors of Va. Tech shooting

Townley Haas (center) will compete in the 200-meter freestyle at the Rio Olympics. (AP)
Townley Haas (center) will compete in the 200-meter freestyle at the Rio Olympics. (AP)

The Nova Aquatics of Virginia swim team had a rule: no cell phones on the pool deck during practice.

The teenage star of the team broke the rule daily. Not as an act of rebellion, but as a means of allaying anxiety.

Townley Haas insisted on keeping his phone in his swim bag. Just in case. If there ever again was going to be terrible family news, he needed to know immediately.

Townley was 10 years old when it happened. The date was April 16, 2007. A family member unexpectedly arrived at his elementary school and picked him up, taking him home and explaining what had happened:

Your parents are on their way to Virginia Tech. There has been a shooting. Your sister Emily is OK, but she was wounded by the gunman.

Thirty-two people died that day at Virginia Tech – prior to The Pulse nightclub massacre earlier this summer in Orlando, it was the deadliest public shooting in American history. Another 23 people were injured. That number included Emily Haas, who had two bullets graze her head.

Sunday, Emily Haas will turn on the TV and watch her youngest brother compete in the Rio Olympics. “I’m definitely going to be cheering,” Emily said. “This has been his goal, and to be there at 19 is amazing.”

Townley, the surprise champion in the 200-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials in June, will be an American sporting hero if he makes it onto the medal podium. But the Haas family knows what true heroism looks like.

It looks like Emily.

Her calm courage in a 9-1-1 call that directed emergency first responders to a scene of horrific carnage helped save lives. Emily survived something no human should ever have to endure, and it transformed her entire family.

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Lori Haas’ Twitter bio lays it out very clearly: “Advocate for gun violence prevention. My daughter was shot & injured at #VT in 2007. I work for @CSGV & @VA4RespGunLaws.”

Townley’s mother is the Virginia state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and one of the organizers of Virginians for Responsible Gun Laws. From a terrible tragedy sprang a calling.

“I was a stay-at-home mom for 19 years,” Lori said. “I had been taking classes before the tragedy, basically looking for what I wanted to be. I thought about social work. But now I have found my life’s work. I have found my passion.”

She is part lobbyist, part activist, part policy wonk and full-time firebrand advocate for changing America’s gun laws. She has worked with former Virginia governor Tim Kaine, the current Democratic vice-presidential nominee. She maintains a hectic travel schedule raising funds and awareness to the cause.

Lori is very proud of Townley, but she is far more likely to author social media posts about gun violence prevention than her Olympian son. And Townley has supported his mom’s work on his Twitter feed.

“We had a front-row seat to such pain and suffering for so many families,” Lori said. “If my work, however small a piece of the pie it is, saves one life, I will go to my grave a blessed person.”

Lori Haas addresses a meeting of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee in 2008. (AP)
Lori Haas addresses the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee in 2008. (AP)

Lori Haas is a tireless fighter, but the fight can be frustrating. Laws are hard to change and the gun lobby is active. The mass shootings continue.

Every time one happens, it reopens wounds for those who have been affected by previous gun violence.

“It’s unconscionable that we have the kind of gun violence that affects so many families,” Lori said. “For God’s sake, terrorists are on no-fly lists but not on no-buy lists. We want to find policies that identify who is at risk. We want to prohibit – in some cases only temporarily – the purchase of firearms by people who are dangerous.

“In Emily’s situation, glaring holes in firearms laws at the state level and federal level allowed that to happen. How did this person, who was so evidently disturbed, have such easy access to firearms? A lot was wrong with this picture.”

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The voice on the phone was a whisper.

“We’ve been hurt,” Emily Haas told Virginia Tech police officer Debbi Morgan.

Haas had picked up the cell phone that belonged to fellow student Colin Goddard. He had called 9-1-1 at 9:43 a.m. on April 16, 2007, when deranged Virginia Tech student Seung Hui Cho pushed past desks that were barricading his entrance into Room 211 in Norris Hall.

Armed with a Walther P-22 pistol and a 9 mm Glock he had purchased earlier that year, Cho opened fire on teacher Jocelyn Couture-Nowak’s French class. Couture-Nowak, who had heard shots in the hallway, looked outside and then ordered her students to the back of the room, was the first to die in Room 211. Eleven students would follow in a two-minute killing spree.

Goddard made his call, but then dropped the phone when he was wounded by Cho. Lying on the floor against the wall in the back of the classroom next to him, Emily picked it up, keeping the crucial line of communication open.

She kept her eyes squeezed shut, breathing into the phone but not talking. When the room went silent and Cho moved on down the hall, she maintained a cogent conversation with Morgan.

“Where are you?” Morgan asked.

“Two-eleven Norris Hall,” Emily said. “Please hurry. … We need an ambulance.”

A few minutes later, Cho returned to the room. Morgan could hear him firing more shots through the phone. Emily played dead, as did others.

“He’s in here,” Emily whispered to Morgan.

Cho went around the room firing shots into the heads of the wounded. Suddenly Emily screamed.

“I just got hit,” she said into the phone.

A bullet had sliced the back of her head, near the base of her skull. Another shot grazed the crown of her head. Emily was bleeding and in pain, but unaware of the extent of her injuries. She was one of the few fortunate ones in the room.

“She was very, very lucky,” Lori Haas said. “Another half an inch …”

Thanks to the call, SWAT team members knew where to go on campus. As they broke into a building Cho had locked up before starting his shooting spree, Cho shot himself in Room 211.

Law enforcement reached the room but couldn’t get in. Morgan asked Haas if she could open the door for them. She opened her eyes, seeing the devastation around her for the first time, and unsteadily walked to the door. She tried to push it open but was too weak, so the officers broke in and took her to safety. She had spent eight minutes on the phone with Morgan.

Sometime later, an executive in a private security firm told Lori’s father that Emily’s actions that morning were exactly what they trained their staff for hundreds of hours to do. And she did it under extreme duress, while wounded.

“She was very brave that day,” Lori said. “To remain that calm, that cool, that collected – I’m just very proud of her.”

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Back home in Richmond, Lori Haas was shopping with her minister for fabric to make confirmation stolls for her 15-year-old son, Wyatt, and others. Her phone was blowing up, but in deference to her minister she didn’t answer it.

Finally, she took a call from her husband, Channing, who said there had been a shooting at Virginia Tech. They didn’t know Emily had been involved until she called herself to tell them what happened.

Stricken and panicked, Channing and Lori got in the car and raced the 200 miles to Blacksburg. Along the way they arranged for family members to take care of Wyatt and Townley.

“Leaving our two boys behind was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a mother,” Lori said.

With Emily’s injuries relatively minor, she was able to return home with her parents. They kept the TV off for days, until Emily started to ask questions about what had happened to her classmates.

The boys had questions, too. To answer them, the family took an extraordinary step that summer: they went back to the scene of the horror.

Accompanied by a campus police officer who had been among those on the scene, all five Haases walked through Norris Hall. The boys asked their questions about what happened, and the officer answered. At times, he asked Emily if she wanted to add any information herself.

“For some families, information is key to healing,” Lori said. “In talking with counselors, we made the decision to take the kids to Blacksburg. It was very difficult, but there was a sense that they wanted to know what happened.

“They just couldn’t quite grasp the sequence and put the story together in their mind. This gave them a beginning, a middle and an end. This gave them a sense that it’s really over.”

Given some sense of closure from that visit, the Haases healed together. The most noticeable lingering aftereffect of the trauma is an extreme need to stay in contact with each other.

“All of us, in this day and age of cell phones, like being in touch,” Lori said. “We have maybe an innate, bigger obsession than most with being in touch.”

This already was a close family. Despite an age difference that led to the kids all running on very different schedules – Emily is four years older than Wyatt, who is five years older than Townley – they made a point of having at least four family dinners per week when everyone lived at home. But after April 16, 2007, that closeness reached a different level.

“I have a very, very supportive family,” Emily said. “They’ve always been there for me. Therapy helped, and talking with friends and classmates and other students. But my immediate family helped me very much.”

The great triumph that emerged from an unspeakable tragedy was this: every Virginia Tech student who was wounded in that shooting returned to school there in the fall. And they all graduated.

Armed with the support of each other and the entire campus community, they didn’t just survive. They thrived.

“They went back to the scene of their attempted murder every damn day,” Lori said. “It’s unbelievable.”

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Today, Emily Haas is married and has a 1-year-old daughter, Mae. She is a teacher at a high school in Virginia. In a striking karmic twist, she teaches French.

After doing many interviews in the immediate aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting, she has largely removed herself from the public domain. Her interview with Yahoo Sports for this story is the first one she has done in several years. Behind the scenes, she strongly supports her mother’s work.

“There’s lots of frustration,” she said. “Disappointment in our elected officials for not doing anything. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating for the survivors of Virginia Tech and for a lot of people.

“The majority of our citizens, if they really understood what my mom and her colleagues are trying to do, would support them.”

Emily took her students on a trip to France earlier this summer. She is not going to be in Brazil – leaving her baby girl twice in one summer would be too much. But she was thrilled that Townley got to come home for Mae’s first birthday between Olympic trials and Team USA training camp.

“We’ve gotten closer as we’ve gotten older,” Emily said. “I was the baby-sitter most of the time, but now we have a deeper relationship.”

The rest of the family will be in Rio. Enthusiastically and confidently. They listened to the warnings about Zika, pickpockets and potential violence, and basically shrugged.

“Frankly,” Lori Haas said. “We’re not scared of much these days.”

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