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Vicki Gardner, Virginia TV shooting survivor, on recovering and uniting after tragedy

Vicki Gardner, the lone survivor of a shooting that killed two Virginia journalists, reflects on how she and her community have united in the face of tragedy.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Vicki Gardner is the lone survivor of an Aug. 26 on-air shooting that left two Virginia journalists dead and Gardner hospitalized for two weeks with internal injuries.

The executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center reveals how the tragic event shaped her resilience and deepened her commitment to her community as part of "2015 Voices,"a special series of essays and interviews with newsmakers behind some of TODAY's biggest moments of the year.

After two days of life-saving surgery, I awoke on Aug. 28 in the intensive care unit of Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, Virginia, struggling with blurred recollection of the events bringing me there.

In drug-induced delirium, unable to talk because of the tubes down my throat, I tried to sort dream from reality. But the pieces weren’t coming together. Everything was hazy. It was like my body had blanked out.

'Our community will not be defined by this horrific act,' Gardner said.Courtesy of Vicki Gardner

I woke up to see my husband, Tim, with our two daughters — yet, how could that be? Erin lives in Florida and Jacqui, then 8 ½ months pregnant, was supposed to be in Oregon. But each caught the first flight to Virginia, after their dad called with grave news: “Your mom has been shot and is in critical condition.”

I was shot outside the Chamber of Commerce office during the final segment of a three-part interview intended to showcase 2016 events planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Smith Mountain Lake’s completion.

The shooter wore protective gear and video equipment and was armed with a handgun. He deliberately waited until we were live on the air before he opened fire on reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, ending their lives. It was them he was after. I just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The cameraman had stood in front of me, and when he was shot, I just fell with him. I was laying there on a deck, overlooking the water, staying very still, not knowing what was going to happen. And then the gunman fired a bullet into my back. I thought, ‘He shot me through my spine,” but I had to lay very still. I wanted him to think that I was dead. I think he ran out of bullets at that point, because I’m sure he would have shot me multiple times.

The bullet through the back did a lot of damage. It nicked a main artery and completely took out one of my kidneys. It also did a lot of damage to other organs, including both intestines and my colon.

Vicki Gardner, with her husband and two daughters, recovering from her August 2015 shootingCourtesy of Vicki Gardner

My last memory before surgery was inside an emergency room full of bright lights and a huge crew of people around me asking questions.

When I woke up two days later, I had tubes everywhere. I couldn’t speak because I had tubes in my mouth. I now have four belly buttons because of the tubes in my stomach. I was just hooked up to so many different things.

RELATED: Father of slain Virginia reporter Alison Parker: 'We have a new mission in life'

Having my daughters with me obviously helped me through that period. They really helped me to blank out the horror that I had just experienced.

But what I found unbelievable was the support from friends and strangers alike during my two-week hospital stay. I must have received a thousand letters. They just kept bringing in huge bags of them, showing support from all over the world.

I was shocked by how far this story reached. In fact, I have relatives up in Calgary, Canada, that I had completely lost track of. When they saw this story and realized who it was, they reached out. I don’t know how it happened, but I have now spoken with three of my first cousins I haven’t seen in 40 years. We’re all on Facebook now, and I never would have found them if it weren’t for this.

RELATED: Chris Hurst, boyfriend of slain reporter Alison Parker, on mourning with meaning

During my hospital stay, I resolved to carry on with a positive outlook. Our community should not be defined by this horrific act — and it won’t be.

Rather than dividing or finding anger in this act, which would be so easy to do, our community pulled together and created a unity campaign around Smith Mountain Lake: #SMLStrong. The campaign held fundraising events, with contributions allocated to a scholarship in memory of Adam and Alison.

The community of Smith Mountain Lake on a remembrance event for slain journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward.Courtesy of Vicki Gardner

They also organized a day of remembrance and created “Vicki’s Vision” (which I did not name, by the way) to help finally build a much-needed Smith Mountain Lake community center. This “Vision” has given me something to look forward to. It gives me that golden ring to reach for.

Gardner, speaking at a remembrance eventCourtesy of Vicki Gardner

There can be no better way to respect the memory of Adam Ward and Alison Parker than to complete the topic of my unfinished interview with them. A community center will provide a “lasting legacy” that will become an enduring cornerstone of Smith Mountain Lake and its golden anniversary.

I foresee a strong, vibrant outcome from this tragic event. Our community will not be defined by this horrible act. We’re going to turn it into a positive, just like the way Paris responded to the tragic attacks in that city. Paris said, ‘We’re not going to be afraid. We are not going to hide in our houses and separate. We’re going to come together.’ And they did. And that’s what we have done in Smith Mountain Lake.

—As told to's Eun Kim