Grief and outrage

Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Mary Ellen Fowler hugs Virginia Tech freshman Matt Malagavi, a friend of her son Ryan, near Norris Hall, the site of a shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Monday, April 16, 2007. MaryEllin and her husband drove down from Maryland to pick up their son, who was not injured in the attack, after they heard of the shootings. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- At first, the shootings seemed like the sort of thing police around the country are called to every day. A domestic dispute in a dorm room, something that could happen on a big college campus without every student feeling touched by it. Certainly not the beginning of the worst shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.

Thousands of Virginia Tech students drove to classes Monday morning, unaware that anything had just happened. Those who checked their e-mail found a terse message from the university: "A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating."

Be careful, and tell police about anything suspicious, the e-mail advised. The university president later said police thought a gunman was on the loose, but that he had fled campus.

That conclusion was proven wrong about half a mile from the first shooting, at Norris Hall, an engineering classroom building.

The gunman wielded two pistols, and the doors were chained from the inside. For reasons police had yet to determine, he gunned down 30 people, about two hours after he killed two in the dorm room. The gunman put a bullet in his head, bringing the death toll to 33.

Shots rang out at the classroom building as faculty there discussed the e-mail, which had just been sent.

At least 15 people were hurt, some seriously, and the shootings spread panic and confusion on campus.

Students jumped from windows. Young people and faculty members carried out some of the wounded themselves, without waiting for ambulances to arrive. Many found themselves trapped behind the chained and padlocked doors. SWAT team members with helmets, flak jackets and assault rifles swarmed over the campus. A student used his cell-phone camera to record the sound of bullets echoing through a stone building.

The killings caused not just grief, but outrage, from students angry that there were no public-address announcements on campus after the first shots, and that the school didn't lock down the 2,600-acre campus at first. Many said the first word from the university was an e-mail more than two hours into the rampage -- around the time the gunman struck again.

"I think the university has blood on their hands because of their lack of action after the first incident," said 18-year-old Billy Bason, who lives in the residence hall where the first shootings occurred.

Virginia Tech president Charles Steger defended the school officials' actions. "We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur," he said, adding that the fact that many students were driving in to class made a lockdown problematic.

"We can only make decisions based on the information you had on the time. You don't have hours to reflect on it," Steger said.

The gunman's name was not immediately released, and it was not known if he was a student.

At an evening news conference, police chief Wendell Flinchum refused to dismiss the possibility that a co-conspirator or second shooter was involved. He said police had interviewed a "person of interest" in the dorm shooting who knew one of the victims, but he declined to give details."I'm not saying there is someone out there, and I'm not saying there is someone who is not," Flinchum said.

Ballistics tests would help explain what happened, he said.Sheree Mixell, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the evidence was being moved to the agency's national lab in Annandale.

At least one firearm was turned over, she said.

The gunman opened fire about 7:15 a.m. at West Ambler Johnston, a coed dormitory, then stormed Norris Hall on the other side of campus.

Trey Perkins, who was sitting in a German class in Norris Hall, told The Washington Post that the gunman barged into the room at about 9:50 a.m. and opened fire for about a minute and a half, squeezing off 30 shots in all.

The gunman, Perkins said, first shot the professor in the head and then fired on the students. Perkins said the gunman was about 19 years old and had a "very serious but very calm look on his face."

"Everyone hit the floor at that moment," said Perkins, 20, of Yorktown, Va., a sophomore studying mechanical engineering. "And the shots seemed like it lasted forever."

A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was incomplete, said that the gunman had two pistols and multiple clips of ammunition.

"I'm really at a loss for words to explain or understand the carnage that has visited our campus," Steger said.

Steger emphasized that the university closed off the dorm after the first attack and decided to rely on e-mail and other electronic means to notify members of the university, but with 11,000 people driving onto campus first thing in the morning, it was difficult to get the word out. He said that before the e-mail went out, the university began telephoning resident advisers in the dorms to notify them and sent people to knock on doors to spread the word. Students were warned to stay inside and away from the windows.

Some students and Laura Wedin, a student programs manager at Virginia Tech, said the first notification they got of the shootings came in an e-mail at 9:26 a.m., more than two hours after the first shooting.

Everett Good, junior, said of the lack of warning: "Someone's head is definitely going to roll over that."

Edmund Henneke, associate dean of engineering, said he was in the classroom building and he and colleagues had just read the e-mail advisory regarding the first shooting and were discussing it when he heard gunfire. He said moments later SWAT team members rushed them downstairs, but the doors were chained and padlocked from the inside. They left the building through a construction area that had not been locked.

Until Monday, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history was in Killeen, Texas, in 1991, when George Hennard plowed his pickup truck into a Luby's Cafeteria and shot 23 people to death, then himself.

The massacre Monday took place almost eight years to the day after the Columbine High bloodbath near Littleton, Colo. On April 20, 1999, two teenagers killed 12 fellow students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

Previously, the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history was a rampage that took place in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin, where Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower and opened fire with a rifle from the 28th-floor observation deck. He killed 16 people before he was shot to death by police.

Founded in 1872, Virginia Tech is nestled in southwestern Virginia, about 160 miles west of Richmond. With more than 25,000 full-time students, it has the state's largest full-time student population. The school is best known for its engineering school and its powerhouse Hokies football team.

The rampage took place on a brisk spring day, with snow flurries swirling around the campus. The campus is centered around the Drill Field, a grassy field where military cadets -- who now represent a fraction of the student body -- practice. The dorm and the classroom building are on opposites sides of the Drill Field.

A White House spokesman said President Bush was horrified by the rampage and offered his prayers to the victims and the people of Virginia. "The president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed," spokeswoman Dana Perino said

After the shootings, all entrances to the campus were closed, and classes were canceled through Tuesday. The university set up a meeting place for families to reunite with their children. It also made counselors available and planned an assembly for Tuesday at the basketball arena.

It was second time in less than a year that the campus was closed because of a shooting.

Last August, the opening day of classes was canceled and the campus closed when an escaped jail inmate allegedly killed a hospital guard off campus and fled to the Tech area. A sheriff's deputy involved in the manhunt was killed on a trail just off campus. The accused gunman, William Morva, faces capital murder charges.

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