Virginia Tech officials and local law-enforcement authorities faced pressure April 17 to explain how a gunman apparently avoided detection after killing two people and then went on to kill 30 others two hours later in the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.
Police identified the gunman as Cho Seung-Hui, 23, a senior from South Korea. Seung-Hui killed himself in a classroom at Virginia Tech after opening fire on students and staff during class in an apparently premeditated massacre April 16.
Police said he appeared to have used chains to lock the doors and prevent terrified victims from escaping the building. Fifteen others were wounded, including those who were shot and those hurt jumping from windows in a desperate attempt to flee the gunfire.
Many students expressed outrage that they were not warned of any danger until more than two hours after the first attack at a dormitory, and only then in a series of eMail messages from the university.
“We knew that there was a shooting, but we thought it was confined to a particular setting,” Virginia Tech President Charles Steger told reporters, explaining the lack of more urgent measures, such as evacuating the sprawling grounds or shutting down the whole campus, which has more than 25,000 students.
The shootings ended with the gunman committing suicide, bringing the death toll to 33 and stamping the campus in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains with unspeakable tragedy, perhaps forever.
“Today, the university was struck with a tragedy that we consider of monumental proportions,” Steger said on the morning of the attacks. “The university is shocked and indeed horrified.”
But he was also faced with difficult questions about the university’s handling of the emergency and whether it did enough to warn students and protect them after the first burst of gunfire. Some students bitterly complained they got no warning from the university until an eMail message arrived more than two hours after the first shots rang out.
Wielding two handguns and carrying multiple clips of ammunition, Seung-Hui opened fire about 7:15 a.m. on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston, a high-rise coed dormitory, then stormed Norris Hall, a classroom building a half-mile away on the other side of the 2,600-acre campus. Some of the doors at Norris Hall were found chained from the inside, apparently by the gunman.
Two people died in a dorm room, and 31 others were killed in Norris Hall, including the gunman, who put a bullet in his head. At least 15 people were hurt, some seriously.
Alec Calhoun, a 20-year-old junior, said he was in a 9:05 a.m. mechanics class when he and classmates heard a thunderous sound from the classroom next door–“what sounded like an enormous hammer.”
Screams followed an instant later, and the banging continued. When students realized the sounds were gunshots, Calhoun said, he started flipping over desks for hiding places. Others dashed to the windows of the second-floor classroom, kicking out the screens and jumping from the ledge of Room 204, he said.
“I must’ve been the eighth or ninth person who jumped, and I think I was the last,” said Calhoun, of Waynesboro, Va. He landed in a bush and ran.
Calhoun said that the two students behind him were shot, but he believed they survived. Just before he climbed out the window, Calhoun said, he turned to look at the professor, who had stayed behind, perhaps to block the door.
The instructor was killed, he said.
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 male who was 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’s a gunman on the loose,” Flinchum said. Ballistics tests will help explain what happened, he said.
Young people and faculty members carried out some of the wounded themselves, without waiting for ambulances to arrive. Many found themselves trapped behind 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.
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 about 30 shots.
The gunman 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,” he said.
“Everyone hit the floor at that moment,” said Perkins, 20, of Yorktown, Va., a sophomore studying mechanical engineering. “And the shots seemed like [they] lasted forever.”
Erin Sheehan, who was also in the German class, told the student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, that she was one of only four of about two dozen people in the class to walk out of the room. The rest were dead or wounded, she said.
She said the gunman “was just a normal-looking kid, Asian, but he had on a Boy Scout-type outfit. He wore a tan button-up vest, and this black vest, maybe it was for ammo or something.”
Students said that there were no public-address announcements after the first shots. Many said they learned of the first shooting in an eMail message that arrived shortly before the gunman struck again. Students subsequently surfed the web looking for more details.
“I think the university has blood on [its] hands because of [its] lack of action after the first incident,” said Billy Bason, 18, who lives on the seventh floor of the dorm.
Steger defended the university’s conduct, saying authorities believed that the shooting at the dorm was a domestic dispute and mistakenly thought the gunman had fled the campus.
“We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur,” he said.
Steger emphasized that the university closed off the dorm after the first attack and decided to rely on eMail and other electronic means to spread the word, but said that 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 eMail messages went out, the university began telephoning resident advisers in the dorms and sent people to knock on doors. Students were warned to stay inside and away from the windows.
“We can only make decisions based on the information you had at the time. You don’t have hours to reflect on it,” Steger said.
Some students and Laura Wedin, a student programs manager at Virginia Tech, said their first notification came in an eMail message at 9:26 a.m., more than two hours after the first shooting.
The message had few details. It read: “A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating.” The message warned students to be cautious and contact police about anything suspicious.
Edmund Henneke, associate dean of engineering, said he was in the classroom building and he and colleagues had just read the eMail advisory and were discussing it when he heard gunfire. Moments later, he said, SWAT team members rushed them downstairs, but the doors were chained and padlocked from the inside. They left the building through an unlocked construction area.
Until April 16, the deadliest 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 April 16 massacre took place almost eight years to the day after the Columbine High School shootings 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 in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin, where Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower and opened fire. He killed 16 people before police shot him to death.
Founded in 1872, Virginia Tech is about 160 miles west of Richmond. With more than 25,000 full-time students, it has the state’s largest full-time student population. It is best known for its engineering school and its sports teams.
After the shootings, all campus entrances were closed, and classes were canceled through April 17. The university set up a spot for families to reunite with their children. It also made counselors available and planned an assembly for April 17.
It was second time in less than a year that the campus was closed because of a shooting.
In August, the opening day of classes was canceled when an escaped jail inmate allegedly killed a hospital guard off campus and fled to the Virginia Tech area. A sheriff’s deputy was killed just off campus. The accused gunman, William Morva, faces capital murder charges.
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