Shooting Survivor May Show Giffords' Future

It's a miracle that Matthew Gross can still play the guitar, because 14 years ago a bullet went through his brain.
By Michelle Miller & Phil Hirschkorn

HALEDON, N.J. -- It's a miracle that Matthew Gross can still play the guitar, because 14 years ago a bullet went through his brain.

On February 23, 1997, Matt was one of six people shot by a Palestinian gunman on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building in a pre-9/11 act of terrorism.

It would turn out that gunman Ali Abu Kamal, 69, wore a note around his neck saying he would go to the landmark to shoot as many Egyptians, Zionists, and Americans as possible.

"He came up to me and said, 'Hi, are you Italian or American?" Matt recalled in an exclusive broadcast interview with CBS NEWS. "Were you born here?" Kamal asked.

"Not on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building," Matt replied with his typical wit.

"30 seconds later, he took out the gun and started shooting," Matt said. Matt's best friend, Chris Burmeister a guitarist in their rock band was shot in the back of the head and died.

"I went after the guy," Matt said. "I must have been lunging after him. I don't know what happened."

A single bullet from Kamal's Florida-purchased .380 Barretta semi-automatic handgun went in the right side of Matt's head and out the left side, piercing the frontal lobe of his brain.

"How many people are shot in the head and live? Not many," Matt said. "I have parts of the bullet in my head which they couldn't take out."

Matt was in a coma for a week.

"Of course, they said I would die," he recalled.

Physically, Matt now appears fine. He can talk and walk and see. He lost his sense of smell, but not his sense of humor. During our interview, he broke out frequently into a hearty laugh.

Matt says his ability to reason and perform one task after another has improved over the years, but his competitive drive is gone, and his memories are easily jumbled.

He takes a lot of medications, and undergoes brain therapy every week at Rehabilitation Services in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, these days, concentrating on word associations and organizing ideas in a way that may help him compose song lyrics.

During a visit this week with a speech pathologist, he rattled off words relating to a subject, like candy or baseball, and then tried to use them in sentences and rhymes.

"You get rehabilitated. You don't recover. You don't get to where you were before," Matt said.

His rehabilitation has been aided by friends and family, particularly his parents and his big brother, Daniel, 43.

"That person who was amazing that we loved so dearly -- is gone," Dan said in an interview

"I miss that person too," Matt added, with a chuckle.

After the shooting, Dan quit his partnership at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency to launch PAX, a
non-profit whose mission is to educate the public about and prevent gun violence, for example, on the risks of loaded weapons in the home.

"Between suicide and accidents," Matt said, "that contributes to almost half of the eight kids that die every day in our country from guns."

PAX established a national tip line, 866-SPEAK UP, for anyone to call in weapon-related threats. To date, it has received 35,000 calls.

"We can point to hundreds of tragedies that have been prevented," Dan said.

For those rare survivors of bullets to the brain, Matt's is an inspiring and a cautionary tale, including for Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head three weeks ago allegedly by Jared Lee Loughner, who is accused of wounding 12 other people and killing six with a semi-automatic Glock handgun in 15 seconds outside a Tucson shopping center.

Complete Coverage: Tragedy in Tucson

Matt posted a message on Giffords' well-wishers bulletin board, saying, "If you have any questions about how I handled the situation you are welcome to get in touch with me."

Both brothers warned against overly optimistic expectations.

"That's what I think about when I hear talk about that glorious day when Congresswoman Giffords is going to walk back into her office," Dan said. "Maybe the most important initial step is acknowledging that's not the goal."

Matt said, "I tried going back to being a musician. Maybe one day I will."

He still plays guitar, but writing songs is a struggle.

"I've written maybe five hundred songs in my life. I'm lucky if I can remember the words to three of them," he said.

Keeping a girlfriend or a job has been hard. Matt currently works part-time in a community food bank handling garbage removal, pest control, and other chores. He lives independently with two roommates from his rehabilitation center in a small house in New Jersey.

Dan considers Matt's road to recovery endless but inspiring. "I now have a new brother, and he is even more amazing than the other one was," Dan said.

"I've seen people that are so upset about what happened to them that they want to kill themselves," Matt said. "I'm happy."