BLACKSBURG, Va. – An outburst of gunfire at a Virginia Tech dormitory, followed two hours later by a ruthless rampage at a classroom building, killed 32 students, faculty and staff and injured about 30 others Monday in the deadliest shooting attack in the nation’s history.
The shooter, whose name was not released Monday night, carried two 9mm semiautomatic handguns and wore blue jeans, a blue jacket and a vest that carried additional ammunition, law enforcement officials and witnesses said. Witnesses described the shooter as a young man of Asian descent – a silent killer who was calm and showed no expression as he pursued and shot his victims. He killed himself as police closed in.
He had left two dead at the dormitory and 30 more at a science and engineering building, where he executed people taking and teaching classes and shot at a custodian helping a victim. Witnesses described scenes of chaos and grief, with students jumping from windows to escape gunfire and others blocking classroom doors to keep the gunman away.
Even before anyone knew who the gunman was or why he did what he did, the campus community in Southwest Virginia began questioning whether most of the deaths could have been prevented. They wondered why the campus was not shut down after the first shooting, in which two people were killed.
The enormity of the event brought almost immediate expressions of condolences from President Bush, both houses of Congress and across the world.
“I’m really at a loss for words to explain or to understand the carnage that has visited our campus,” said Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech’s president.
The rampage began as much of the campus was waking up. A man walked into a freshman coed dorm at 7:15 a.m. and fatally shot a young woman and a resident adviser.
Based on witness interviews, police believed it was an isolated domestic case and chose not to take any drastic security measures, university officials said. But about 9:45 a.m., a man entered a classroom building, chained some of the doors shut behind him, then started walking into classrooms and shooting faculty and students with the two handguns, causing some to leap out of second-story windows and others to lie on the floor and bar their doors. Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said investigators still were not certain that the same man committed both shootings. But several law enforcement sources said it was the same person.
As police entered Norris Hall, an engineering and science building, shortly before 10 a.m., the man shot and killed himself before officers could confront him. He had killed 30 people in that building. One witness said the gunman was “around 19” and was “very serious but (with) a very calm look on his face.”
“He knew exactly what he was doing,” the witness, Trey Perkins, 20, of Yorktown, Va., said. He said he watched the man enter his classroom and shoot Perkins’ professor in the head. “I have no idea why he did what he decided to do. I just can’t say how lucky I am to have made it.”
The university canceled classes Monday and Tuesday and set up counseling for the grief-stricken campus. Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who had just arrived in Japan on a trade mission, immediately flew back to Virginia. He was expected to attend a vigil today.
None of the victims’ names was released Monday, pending notification of their families.
Students and parents launched a frenzied round of phone calls and text messages Monday morning, monitoring news reports and waiting for information. And the shootings prompted intense questioning of Steger and Flinchum from a community still reeling from the fatal shootings of a security guard and a sheriff’s deputy near campus in August and the arrest of the suspect on the edge of campus on the first day of classes.
Although the gunman in the dormitory was at large, no warning was issued to the tens of thousands of students and staff at Virginia Tech until 9:26 a.m., more than two hours later.
“We concluded it was domestic in nature,” Flinchum said. “We had reason to believe the shooter had left campus and may have left the state.” He declined to elaborate. But several law enforcement sources said investigators thought the shooter might have intended to kill a girl and her boyfriend Monday in what one of them described as a “lover’s dispute.” It was unclear whether the girl killed at the dorm was the intended target, they said.
Students who lived in the dorm said they received knocks on the door telling them to stay in their rooms but nothing else. Shortly before 9:30 a.m., the university sent out this e-mail: “A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston (dorm) earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case.”
Steger said that, even though the gunman was at large, “we had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur.” He said 9,000 students live on campus and 14,000 off-campus, and “it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to get the word out spontaneously.”
Students on campus and parents were angry. When Blake Harrison, 21, of Leesburg, Va., learned of the shootings, he said, he called an administrative help line and was told “to proceed with caution to classes.” He said: “I’m beyond upset. I’m enraged.”
Monday, as officials began to sort out the shootings, tales of the horror began to emerge.
Alec Calhoun, a junior, was in Room 204 in Norris. When the shootings began, people pulled off screens and pushed out windows. “Then people started jumping,” Calhoun said. “I didn’t just leap. I hung from the ledge and dropped. Anybody who made it out was fine. I fell and I hit a bush to cushion my fall. It knocked the wind out of me. I don’t remember running.”
In a German class in Room 207, Perkins was seated in the back with about 15 fellow students. The gunman barged in with two guns, shot the professor in the head, then started shooting students, Perkins said.
“Everyone hit the floor at that moment. And the shots seemed like they lasted forever.”
The gunman left Room 207 and tried to return several minutes later, but Perkins and two other students had blocked the door with their feet. He shot through the door.
The last time anyone spoke with Kristina Heeger, she was headed for a 9 a.m. French class in Norris. Within an hour, the sophomore from Vienna had been shot in the back. But she survived.
It was a story that played out across campus, and far beyond, with so many injured, so many dead. “She’s doing better,” said a friend, Eric Anderson, Monday night after seeing her. “She’s recovering. We’re praying for her right now. She couldn’t talk to them yet, or anyone, and they didn’t know any details about what happened.”
Police and ambulances poured into the area. Dustin Lynch, 19, a sophomore from Churchville, Md., watched from the nearby Drillfield, as unresponsive students were carried out of Norris Hall.
“I saw police officers literally carrying kids out,” Lynch said. “It basically looked like they were carrying bodies.”
Parents arrived at the Inn at Virginia Tech to meet with other grieving families and were distraught at the university’s management of the incident. “I think they should have closed the whole thing. It’s not worth it. You’ve got a crazy man on campus. Do something about it,” said Hoda Bizri of Princeton, W.Va., who was visiting her daughter Siwar, a graduate student.
The Bizris were waiting for news about a friend whom they could not locate. They think she was inside Norris Hall.
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