If you were lucky enough to have a choice, there were only two ways to go Monday morning on the campus of Virginia Tech: away from danger or toward it. Engineering professor Liviu Librescu chose the second option, saved a classroom full of students and became a hero – at the cost of his life.
As a child, he survived the Holocaust. As an adult, he survived persecution for defying Romania’s brutal communist regime during the Cold War. At last, with their children grown, he and his wife, Marlena, seemed to have found a safe haven on a quiet campus in rural Virginia.
But Monday, trouble found him once more. With bursts of gunfire rattling through the second floor of Norris Hall, Librescu, 76, closed his classroom door and urged his students to escape out the windows, recalled senior Caroline Merrey, of Baltimore, the third student to jump.
As they fled, Librescu held the door shut as the gunman, 23-year-old senior Cho Seung-Hui, tried to force his way in.
Moments after the last student leapt to safety, Cho apparently succeeded in forcing the door open and shot Librescu to death.
“My father has showed a sense of his courage in standing up for what he believed since long ago,” said Joe Librescu.
Liviu Librescu’s actions struck a chord around the world.
“Just one candle can light up a room filled with darkness. Professor Librescu has lit the entire world with hope, reminding us that heroes can still exist even in our dark times,” Evan Goldenthal, of Toronto, wrote on a Facebook .com page of tributes.
What Librescu did was not the only story of bravery and determination in the face of mortal danger.
Elsewhere in the building, students fought off attempts by the gunman to force open the doors to their classrooms. In one case, Cho shot as many as a dozen students in a German language class, then departed in search of new targets. Two students held the door shut when the gunman returned; he reportedly fired several rounds into the door.
There were numerous reports of students using articles of clothing, and in one case a piece of wire, to fashion tourniquets to stop bleeding from gunshot wounds, as well as taking other measures to provide first aid.
Derek O’Dell, a 20-year-old sophomore majoring in biological sciences, said the gunman entered his classroom and opened fire without saying a word. O’Dell said most of the approximately 20 students in the class were hit. A bullet struck him in the right arm.
Cho left the room, and O’Dell and another student, who was not identified, slammed the door and held it shut with their feet. Minutes later, Cho reportedly returned and tried to push his way back into the classroom.
“He got the door open maybe an inch or two, and then we were able to shut it again,” O’Dell told news organizations.
Another student who kept Cho at bay was Zach Petkewicz: “I was completely scared out of my mind originally and just went into a cowering position,” Petkewicz told CNN in describing his initial response. “And then I just realized, I mean, you’ve got to do something.”
Petkewicz said he and his 10 classmates became aware of the danger when they heard gunshots and a scream. One student, peaking out the door, glimpsed the gunman and ducked back inside.
“Everybody kind of went into a frenzy, a panic. I hid behind the podium and then just kind of looked up at the door. It was just, like, there was nothing stopping this guy from just coming in,” he told CNN.
“And so I said, ‘We need to barricade this door.’ Me and two others got up, threw a couple of tables in front of it, and had to physically hold it there. … He came to our door, tried the handle, couldn’t get in, because we were pushing up against it.
“He tried to force his way in, got the door to open up about six inches, and then we just lunged at it and closed it back up. And that’s when he backed up and shot twice into the middle of the door,” Petkewicz said.
Minutes later, when police reached the second floor of Norris Hall, they found Cho dead, apparently having killed himself.
In the case of Liviu Librescu, violent death came with a special irony: It arrived when he seemed to have found tranquillity – as well as contentment – after a life of danger and struggle. He had become a popular professor with an international reputation in aeronautical engineering.
“He and my mom led a simple life in a pastoral place in Virginia, between hills and mountains, and he loved the school in which he taught,” said Joe Librescu, who is a Virginia Tech alumnus.
In Israel, Monday was Holocaust Remembrance Day.