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The Campers of Utvika: A Tale of Heroism During the Norwegian Massacre

By and in Utvika, Norway

Marcel Gleffe and his family had been hoping for a week of relaxation at a Norwegian campground. But when gunfire started on an island across the water, he and several others jumped into their boats and began rescuing distraught teenagers swimming for their lives. "It goes without saying," he says.

Photo Gallery: Saving the Survivors of the Norwegian Massacre Photos
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The man who had suddenly become a hero pours himself a beer and lights a cigarette. He only managed one or two hours of sleep the night before and he looks tired. It is the day after the massacre at the Norwegian youth camp on Utøya Island. The suspected perpetrator, Anders Behring B. cold-bloodedly shot down 85 people on the previous day -- but dozens were able to flee by jumping into the water and swimming towards the mainland.

It is 24 hours since Marcel Gleffe became a key figure in pulling many of these young camp goers out of the water. Thirty-two years old, Gleffe is a roofer from Germany who has worked in Norway for the past two-and-a-half years. Currently, he is vacationing at a campground in Utvika together with his parents Walter and Heidrun. The campground is directly across from the island where the massacre took place.

He takes a deep drag on his cigarette and begins to tell his story. It was a chilly late afternoon on Friday and the Gleffe family had just sat down for coffee at the table in front of their RV. They were talking about the attack that had just taken place in Oslo, about the bomb and the several people it had killed. A neighbor at the campground had told them of the shocking attack.

Suddenly, they heard a hollow bang. First just one or two, "but then it was an entire salvo," says Heidrun, 53. They saw dark smoke rise up from the island. "I said to my husband, 'come on, lets go down to the jetty, we have to see what happened." Maybe it was some fireworks, they thought, or some sort of exercise.

Bobbing in the Water

The jetty is just 200 meters from where their RV was parked. Several boats are tied up there and the island is just 600 meters across the water. It's easy to see the rocks on the island's shore and the ferry bobbing in the water.

When they arrived at the jetty, the Gleffes could see a man fishing a girl out of the water, she must have been 16 or 17 years old, and she was clad only in her underwear. Immediately behind her was another girl, screaming as she swam. "She was yelling 'help, help,' she screamed 'shooting!' and that we should call the police, Heidrun says.

It was the moment when the Gleffes realized that something terrible must have happened on the island. "We saw several heads bobbing in the water," Heidrun says.

The heads they saw were several teenagers who had jumped into the water in an attempt to escape. By the time the Gleffes saw them, dozens had likely already been killed by the gunman rampaging across Utøya.

The family immediately jumped into action, as if by remote control, not wanting to lose a second. Heidrun wrapped the girl who had reached the shore into a blanket and brought her to their RV. She was freezing and in shock.

Helping Each Other

"In such a situation, you don't think at all," her son Marcel says. He took off and grabbed the key for the small red boat that they had rented for the week and quickly got the motor running. "I immediately suspected that there was a connection to the attack in Oslo," he says.

The teenagers who were swimming in the water called out: "Don't come closer! Don't come closer."

But Marcel did. "I just acted," he says. He saw more and more people jumping into the water from the rocks on the shore and looked through a telescope at the island. Suddenly, he saw the attacker, squatting on a rock with his weapon raised. Eyewitnesses later said that he also shot at those who had already managed to jump into the water.

"There were people swimming everywhere in the water," Marcel says. "I threw them lifejackets and pulled those into the boat who were having the most trouble. Everyone was screaming, but they were also helping each other." They screamed, they cried, but they also hugged each other for courage. "It was unbelievable to see how strong they were," Marcel says.

The 32-year-old took his boat out into the water again and again, collecting more people and bringing them back to the jetty. There, additional helpers were waiting, and several other campers with their boats were also pulling teenagers out of the water. Marcel guesses that he alone was able to bring about 20 of them to the shore, he doesn't know exactly how many anymore.

'Goes Without Saying'

Some of the teenagers seemed not to want to be saved by the campers from the other shore. They screamed "don't come too close" or "do you want to kill us?" The reason only came to light the next day. "The attacker was so cynical that he called out to the young people and promised that he would save them," a Norwegian man, who had likewise pulled people out of the water, says.

Psychologists who arrived at the campground after the massacre ended expressed amazement at how well organized the campers were. When the shooting started, many of them put their small children in their cars so that they wouldn't realize what was going on. One man drove many of the freezing teenagers to the campground office to warm up.

In total, the campers at Utvika managed to pull 150 people out of the water. "Still, many of them feel guilty," says psychiatrist Kirsti Oscarson. "They think only of the people they had to leave behind because they didn't fit in the boat and not about the ones whose lives they saved." Her job now is to reassure them that their thoughts in such a situation are completely normal, Oscarson says.

Psychologists are now providing assistance for those in need at the camping ground. They say that about a third of them are likely going to have difficulties processing their experiences.

Marcel Gleffe says that "yesterday, I was okay. But today I feel terrible, just terrible." But, he adds, he couldn't have done anything but help. "What we did simply goes without saying."

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