A Hero with a Boat
by Kjell Brataas, Norway
«Someone is shooting on the island.» That was the message Jørn Øverby got when he answered his phone on the afternoon of July 22, 2011. Until then, it had been a normal Friday. He had left work early and had just returned from a short trip with his boat when the phone rang. The caller was a friend who knew someone who was participating at the youth camp at Utoya island close to Øverby’s house. The message he received was shocking: “Something is happening at Utoya! People are throwing themselves in the water to save their lives. Do you know anyone with a boat?”
The next couple of hours would change the lives of thousands of people in Norway, including Øverby’s.
He ran down to his dock, and while getting his boat ready, he noticed the distinct sound of shots being fired. The sound came from Utoya, but he could not really believe what was happening. “It must be someone wanting to scare the people there, or maybe someone is using a paintball gun,” Øverby thought to himself. He nevertheless started the engine and gave full speed towards the island.
It was around 5:50 pm when he got closer. He noticed two unusual facts: a constant sound of gunshots; and a lot of people in the water swimming away from the island. “I maneuvered towards the first person I saw and lifted her onto my boat,” Øverby explained. The young woman he helped was in shock, and when Øverby asked what was happening, her reply was unreal: “There is a man dressed in a police uniform walking around killing people. I am sure he has shot 50 already.” There was no time to discuss or elaborate. Øverby’s main concern was to pick up as many people as he could and bring them to safety. He filled his boat with some of the young men and women he saw swimming, then turned his boat around and drove as fast as he could towards the land side. The journey across the lake was surreal and scary, as his “passengers” were hiding as best as they could, screaming, crying, bleeding from open wounds and cuts.
On the land side, neighbours and private individuals gathered to take care of those being rescued. After helping the people on his boat onto land, Øverby immediately turned the boat around and drove towards Utoya to try to save more lives. Fortunately, he was not alone, as a few other people in the area also took part in the rescue efforts.
On his second trip to Utoya, Øverby picked up three more people from the water, and before returning them to the mainland he threw out his six life jackets. He then took his boat across the lake to the land side, delivered his victims and drove back to the island to pick up the individuals who were now wearing his life jackets. He got them onboard, took their life jackets off carefully and then threw them back on the water before again driving back to land.
The shots get closer
Øverby’s next trip to the western part of the island got even more dramatic. He picked up two swimmers, but as he got closer to a third person he wanted to save, the terrorist on Utoya started aiming for Øverby. “I saw gun splashes getting closer and closer, and then I heard a bullet whizzing by my left ear,“ Øverby said. He then had to make a hard decision. “I knew that if I was shot myself, I could not save any more lives.” He therefore shouted to the young man in the water to return to the island and hide behind a rock formation. Then he turned the boat around, and gave full speed towards the mainland.
While driving back with the two people he had saved, he glanced towards the island and saw a disturbing scene. On the southern tip of the island, 10-15 young people were gathered, all of them waving frantically for help. “My plan was to get there after my trip back to the mainland,” Øverby said. However, when he came to the dock where survivors were gathered and taken care of, two policemen approached him and said they needed his boat. Øverby was asked to take his boat to an area called Storoya, where more police were arriving. “The police filled my boat with more men and equipment, then left me on Storoya while they used my boat to get to Utøya,” Øverby said. For the first time, he had some time to think about what was happening. He started shivering. Øverby had given most of his clothes to the survivors, and it was raining heavily throughout the ordeal. “At the same time, my adrenalin level was really high, and I did not want to be left on Storøya when there were more people to save,” Øverby explained.
He got a chance to continue soon afterwards, when another private person was asked to use his boat to take two policemen and two police dogs to Utoya. Øverby was allowed to join them, and on the way to Utøya one of the officers said that one person had been apprehended on the island and that the shooting had stopped. However, no one knew if there were more perpetrators.
Saving lives on land
When they arrived Utoya, Øverby found his own boat tied to a dock and asked if he could get it back. The policeman he talked to said that was OK, but that he had to be careful because no one knew if more shooting would erupt. Øverby climbed on board, then drove slowly out from the dock towards the southern part of the island. Soon he saw police there, who, by hand signals, urged him to come. “What I saw when I got there was sad and shocking,” Øverby explained. All the 15 people in the area had been shot, and six of them were dead. Øverby and the policemen started first aid, then picked out five people who were badly hurt but who might survive being transported in Øverby’s boat across the lake.
Getting them on board was a heavy burden, physically as well as emotionally. “I will never forget the images of the five people in my boat. They were all young and had their lives ahead of them, yet here they were with bleeding wounds from being shot.” Øverby said. Once they got to the land side, Øverby used his military experience in categorizing the victims. He told ambulance personnel: “This is priority 1, this is 2” and so on. There was no discussion.
Øverby returned to the island. Once there, he helped a policeman bring some of the bodies out of the water before taking the police officer to the main dock at Utoya. There, another policeman entered Øverby’s boat, and the three of them headed for the west side of the island. As they approached, survivors there started screaming and panicking as they thought the boat carried another killer dressed in a police uniform. Øverby and the policemen managed to calm them down, then started giving first aid to the victims. “It was very chaotic,” Øverby remembers. There were dead and hurt people everywhere, and it was hard to decide how to best save the victims. One of them had lifted his mobile as a protection from being shot, but the bullet had penetrated his phone, cut off three fingers and then continued into his eye, taking out much of his brain. (He survived, thanks to first aid from a policeman and assistance from Øverby.) “We carried the most wounded onto other boats that were lower, so that they would not be endangered by heavy lifting,” Øverby explained. They then ordered everyone who could walk by themselves to get on board Øverby’s boat. He filled it to capacity and took them all to safety on land.
At around 8 pm that evening, Øverby drove towards Utoya for the last time. He looked for survivors in the water, but found none. “I will never forget the images and sounds from that final trip to the island,” Øverby said. On Utøya he saw lots of policemen walking in formation around the island looking for survivors, while at the same time mobile phones left by victims were constantly ringing…
When he returned to his home later in the evening, the area was still like a war zone. Helicopters were constantly flying above, ambulances were everywhere and boats with strong flashlights were searching for survivors and bodies in the water.
The days after
The next morning, without having had much sleep and still with a high adrenaline level, Øverby decided to go to the Sundvollen Hotel which had been set up as a family reunification center. Once there, he briefly talked to a policeman and told him about his experience the evening before, then got a chance to talk to a psychiatrist he knew who was there to help anyone who needed someone to talk to. “Even if I was still in a kind of shock and very tense, I think the conversation helped me,” Øverby said. He especially valued advice regarding typical reactions like aggression, depression and so on.
On his way out of the hotel, Øverby coincidentally met a friend who asked him how he was doing. Øverby explained what had happened the night before and about his many trips back and forth to Utøya island to save lives and assist the police. They did not notice him at first, but next to them was a journalist from Sweden who started listening intently and then asked Øverby for an interview.
When Øverby returned to his house about an hour later, news about his heroism had spread internationally. Reporters from Norway, France, Japan and USA were gathered on his lawn, all asking for interviews and his first-hand accounts of what had happened. Øverby told his story, then later in the day walked down to his dock to check out his boat. “Fortunately, it had rained a lot, and my boat had a self-cleaning system,” Øverby explained. The result was that most of the blood had been washed away, but he picked up mobile phones and clothes that had been left in his boat Friday night. He then had dinner. “I probably had not eaten anything substantial since Friday at lunch,” Øverby said.
Keeping in touch
For the next weeks, months and even years, it would be impossible for Øverby to forget or not be reminded of what he took part in on July 22, 2011. The police called him in for many interviews and interrogations, and the official enquiry team also had many questions. Then followed the presentation of its findings, and later the court case became international news for many months.
Even today, Øverby has contact with several of the people he rescued. One of them is a girl who spent five weeks in induced coma. Early in her recovery, she visited Øverby at his home where she gave him a crystal bowl with the inscription: “You are my hero.”
Øverby also had to get used to not being in the spotlight. “Sooner or later the curtain goes down, and there are no more phone calls from journalists,” he said. He appreciated getting back to a normal life, but even today – six years after – he has nightmares and flashbacks of what happened. “I had training in the army and had watched movies that were supposed to prepare you for gruesome sights in war, but I never thought I would experience it myself – and to a much worse degree,” Øverby said. He explained that the images of killed and hurt people are what haunts him even today, not the fact that he put himself in real danger.
No one knows the exact number, but Øverby estimates that he helped bring 30-35 young people to safety that evening. All of them survived.
In 2012, five people who saved lives by using their own boats on July 22, 2011, were awarded a Gold Medal for Bravery:
· Jørn Øverby
· Oddvar Hansen
· Otto Kristian Løvik
· Lill Hege Nilsen
· Erik Martinsen Øvergaard
(You can read more about the tragedy on Utoya in Norway in 2011 in Kjell Brataas’ book «Crisis Communication», published in February 2018: https://www.routledge.com/Crisis-Communication-Case-Studies-and-Lessons-Learned-from-International/Brataas/p/book/9781498751346