Memories of 1984 shooting at U of O haunts witness

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — In 1984, Derek Phillips was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Oregon. A Clark Honors College student. A wrestler on scholarship who, after 35 straight wins at Churchill High School, hoped to someday make the U.S. Olympic team.

He had close buddies, a girlfriend and dreams — to be a doctor and perhaps coach a little wrestling on the side. His coach dubbed him "The Professor" because he studied the sport so intensely.

Then one morning he found himself holed up in an exercise room in the bowels of Autzen Stadium, feverishly scribbling farewell letters to his parents and girlfriend, saying how much he loved them.

He thought he was going to die.

A gunman was stalking the stadium, and Phillips was among 10 UO athletes — one already bleeding from gunshot wounds — trapped in the room.

"My whole life fell apart within a couple of months of that," says Phillips, now 46, living in Portland and still haunted by the incident in which a gunman killed a former UO runner and then killed himself. "Everything I experience is now tempered with melancholy. And I wasn't that way before."

In the nearly two months since the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook tragedy — in which a gunman in Connecticut killed his mother, 20 grade school students and six educators — a spotlight has shone brightly on those victims. And rightly so.

But what about those who survive such tragedies without any physical wounds? What happens to them?

"After Sandy Hook, I wanted to say, 'Come on, people, pay attention'," says Eugene resident, Pat Phillips, Derek's mother. "There are a lot of victims who aren't listed in the paper."

This is the story of one of them.

It was Veterans Day, a Monday, about 8:30 a.m. Two days before, 23,262 fans had gathered at Autzen Stadium to watch the Oregon football team get drubbed by Arizona State, 44-10, the Ducks' fifth loss in their last six games.

Now in a workout room below the stands in the east end zone — tucked between two tunnels — a UO football player was among the athletes lifting weights or doing other exercises. Derek Phillips remembers that the group included several wrestlers, a couple of golfers and a female cross-country runner.

Though only a freshman, Phillips had made varsity in the 150-pound weight class and wanted to do whatever he could to hone his body for upcoming competition.

He was lifting free weights in the balcony part of the split-level room when he went to get a drink near the front of the room, near where it empties onto the edge of the playing field.

That's when he saw them: a handful of athletes hustling up toward where he'd come from. They looked nervous.

"It's the only time in my life where I've seen someone that fits the phrase 'white as a ghost'," Phillips says.

At first, nobody said a thing. But as Phillips headed past them there came a warning.

"Don't go out there. There's someone with a gun."

Phillips hadn't seen him, but a young man dressed in fatigues, face painted black, had come into the front room and pointed a rifle at a handful of athletes.

"Get to the back of the room," they said the gunman had instructed them. Otherwise, he would kill them.

Then, just as quickly, the gunman returned to the field.

In 1984, the world hadn't been jolted by the shootings at Thurston and Columbine and other now-infamous places of mass shootings.

"It was Veterans Day," Phillips says. "Some thought it had something to do with that. Others thought it was a joke."

After the gunman left, a wrestler, Rick O'Shea, ventured outside. Phillips and a few others were going to join him, but the sound of gunfire pop-pop-popped.

Two wrestlers dragged O'Shea back into the room. His backside was splattered with blood, oozing from bullet holes.

"What I recall is total disbelief," Phillips says.

More gunfire. The door was still open. Phillips remembers thinking: If I don't get that door closed, we're all dead.

Phillips jumped over O'Shea and headed for the door, but it was as if he were in slow motion, as if caught in a nightmare where he wanted to do something but couldn't. "Like my whole body was fighting against where I was going," he said.

But he got to the door and shut it, noticing how thin and hollow it was.

I'm dead, he thought. He's coming back for us.

Phillips dragged the heaviest barbell he could find in front of the door. Others were doing the same with a side door that opened into one of the tunnels. Some tended to O'Shea.

In an office, someone called Eugene police.

"They got hung up on twice," Phillips says. "Someone thought we were pranking them."

Finally, a dispatcher realized this was the real deal. Officers were on their way, she said.

Time passed. The athletes' fear intensified. Phillips wrote letters to his mother, Pat, 50 at the time, and his father, Al, 51. And to his girlfriend.

"I didn't know that I was going to get out of this, and I had things that needed saying," he says.

Someone in the room picked up KUGN-AM on a transistor radio. The station had a reporter at a restaurant-turned-command-center on what was then Centennial Boulevard, and the athletes gained a bit of perspective as a reporter talked.

Suddenly, heavy knocks on the door to the tunnel.

"Don't open it!" the dispatcher said. "That's not us! That's not the police!"

The knocking stopped. The panic level ratcheted up. Confusion reigned.

Finally, late in the morning — nearly three hours had passed — knocks came again.

"Police!"

"Don't open it!" one of the athletes screamed. Others agreed.

"It's the cops!" others said.

"It's us," the dispatcher said.

The athletes grabbed whatever weights they could, just in case. Phillips stood above the door. Someone unlocked it.

All Phillips saw was the nose of a rifle. He braced to slam down his weights. In walked a man whose face was smeared in black.

A SWAT team member. It was the police. The athletes were hustled up the tunnel and into a van.

The next day at wrestling practice, most of his teammates knew what Phillips and the others had experienced. But nobody said a word.

It was, he says, as if nothing had happened.

But something had happened. The gunman — a 19-year-old UO student, Michael Feher of Everett, Wash. — had, in a 40-minute shooting spree, killed Chris Brathwaite, 35, of Eugene, a sprinter for his native Trinidad in two Olympics, as he ran on a bike path southeast of the stadium. He had wounded O'Shea, 22, who was in stable condition after the shooting.

He terrorized a handful of athletes.

And then he killed himself.

Phillips remembers talking to a counselor soon after the incident. "It amounted to, 'Are you OK?'

"I think so.' I really had no idea what was going on at that point."

After injuring an ankle while wrestling, he tried to bounce back but ultimately found himself alone in the wrestling room, tears running down his face. He didn't realize that another wrestler was in the room. Phillips told him his frustrations and that he was considering quitting.

"Do what you have to do," his teammate said, then turned away.

Phillips quit the wrestling team. Quit school. In essence, quit life. He and his girlfriend broke up, he says, and he lost friends who he figured considered him to be damaged goods.

"By the following year, I was lost," Phillips says. "I didn't hear from anybody after the shooting. None of my high school coaches or teammates or classmates.

"I think that hurt as much as anything."

But does that explain why Phillips then gave up on most everything? Or was that just a cop-out or convenient excuse for a young man who admits that, even before the shooting, he was "insecure and arrogant?"

No, insists Pat Phillips, Derek's mom.

"When he came out of that stadium he was a different boy than the one we knew," she says. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"In his mind, he was trapped in a life-threatening situation," said David Baldwin, a Eugene psychologist who specializes in stress and trauma counseling. "Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't, but that's how he felt. And that causes the damage that can persist."

Phillips couldn't stay focused on tasks. Couldn't sustain a relationship. Couldn't stay in school.

His grade-point average plummeted from 3.8 (nearly straight A's) to 2.6 (a C-plus), unheard of for him. Five times he dropped out of the UO, then re-entered.

In 1986, he made the dean's list for two terms, then got failing grades the third.

"I tried to kill myself in 1992," he says. "I lost wrestling. I lost the social ability to deal with people."

Ultimately, the former honor student took 14 years to complete his undergraduate degree, graduating from Western Oregon University in Monmouth in 1997. He took seven years to finish Willamette University's College of Law, taking a medical leave of absence after he "broke down completely."

Phillips began seeing counselors as early as 1985. He's been on numerous types of antidepressants. He's hiked himself to exhaustion at Yellowstone and in the Tetons in search of an answer. He's been on a 10-day meditation retreat in which he had no physical contact with anyone else.

Nothing, he says, has helped.

Beyond psychological wounds, he links physical ailments to the trauma: Back spasms keep him awake, chest pains rarely go away.

Phillips married 13 years ago.

"I can't imagine another woman sticking with me this long," he says. He and his wife, Tatiania, have a 19-month-old son, Isaac, whom Phillips stays home and watches.

"Isaac is the best thing that ever happened to me," he says.

Phillips is a self-described loner who rarely leaves the house. He has few relationships beyond two or three close friends.

And he estimates that his cumulative income in the nearly three decades since the incident is about $40,000.

Not a day goes by, he says, when he isn't back in that wrestling room. That's often accompanied by the guilt for having been a rough, tough wrestler — people who thrive on overcoming pain — and now being, as he says, "broken and unable to fix myself."

"The worst you can do in wrestling is quit," he says. "And when I quit, I gave up the thing that had given me my identity in large part.

"Between that and dropping out of school, I was an enormous failure."

Baldwin, the psychologist, says shame is often a part of PTSD.

The teachers and children who survived the Sandy Hook tragedy may feel supported now, he says, "but we don't know how supported the kids are going to feel 30 years from now. Some who were trapped and unable to jump the shooter may be blaming themselves.

"Feeling shame goes with feeling helpless."

Incidents such as Sandy Hook, Phillips says, intensify his own guilt. He's read about people who have been through traumas much more severe than his and yet have found a new zest for life afterward.

Phillips, while he never saw the shooter and wasn't physically injured, wishes that were him.

But it's not.

"I feel," he says, "like I died that day."

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.