A campus subdued by chill of shock, fear

Virginia Tech's youthful energy is wiped away by deadly violence, overwhelming police presence

Aftermath

Virginia Tech Shootings

April 17, 2007|By Robert Little and Jeff Barker | Robert Little and Jeff Barker,Sun reporters

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- The flip-flops and backpacks were gone, replaced by black boots and assault rifles. The lone figures crossing the Drillfield in the center of Virginia Tech's campus, which is usually alive on a late-semester Monday, mostly shuffled past with quick glances at the police cars and trucks, all of them flickering blue and red.

At least for a day, the deadly killing rampage did more than create a sprawling, cross-campus crime scene. It drained the energy out of the mountain university, leaving its students shocked and tired, whispering about near-misses and wondering what could possibly be next.

"It's never been this quiet," said Safal Bhattarai, a 20-year-old marketing student who was carrying food from a dining hall guarded by police and dogs.

"Normally you'd see soccer games, you couldn't park anywhere, there'd be just people, everywhere," said Colin Braley, 19, a computer science student trying to scare up a game of Frisbee. "It's pretty cold, but I don't think anyone's in the mood."

They thought a bomb threat two weeks ago was a big deal, but that was before the black-clad commandos showed up yesterday, screaming for students to get inside and stay away from the windows.

David Keith, a 20-year-old commuter student, wound up spending the whole day inside his girlfriend's dormitory because he couldn't get back to his car. By the time he ventured across the Drillfield at 7 p.m., police were still surrounding Norris Hall, the site of the second shooting, and scowling at the few passers-by.

"It's felt like this all day," he said.

Anna Bowling, a 19-year-old psychology major from Lynchburg, used her hand to block the wind from her eyes, which were moist and red. She had spent much of the day e-mailing friends and calling campus officials as she searched for a friend who had a French class in Norris Hall and hadn't been seen since. She gave up by sundown and went out in search of food.

"No one knows anything, and the cops won't release any information except to the family members," Bowling said. "Her family's coming in tonight, so maybe we'll know soon. I don't know what else to do."

Banners on Blacksburg's streetlight poles declare the small college town "A Special Place." Until yesterday, area media had been consumed by the community's opposition to the planned arrival later this week of a crew from Girls Gone Wild, which films college women in raunchy poses.

"That was the big news on campus," said Christie Wills, a spokeswoman for the local Episcopal diocese. "Until this morning."

By yesterday afternoon Blacksburg resembled a coastal town after a hurricane, from the police manning the intersections to the family shelters and nonstop radio broadcasts.

Lauren Petty of Pittsburgh and Alex Moore of Bel Air, Md., fellow seniors and sorority sisters, said they felt like outsiders at their own school. Most of what they learned throughout the day came from CNN and from relatives phoning. They learned about students who might be injured through social networking Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

"I felt like this was all happening at another school," said Moore.

"So far no one I know was hurt. But I'm dreading seeing the list."

Parents described the anguish of learning what had occurred on campus but - because so many people were using their cell phones - being unable for hours to get through to their sons or daughters.

Brandon Renick, a junior, called his mother, Barbara, in the morning to tell her he had heard gunshots on his way to class and had taken refuge in the nearest classroom building. A few hours later, the panicked mother heard about the second string of shootings through media reports - "They were talking about students being dead," she said - but couldn't reach her son.

Finally, Brandon called at 3:30 p.m., "and that's when the tears started to flow," the mother said.

Still shaken several hours later, she found herself along with about 60 others at a quickly convened memorial service at St. John's Episcopal, a church dating to the 19th century in Roanoke, about 30 miles from the school.

Also at the service was Richard Fife, pastor at another Episcopal church nearby. His son is a Virginia Tech senior.

"I'm numb, I'm overwhelmed," said Fife, who had spoken to his son since the shootings but was waiting for him to come home. "I'm walking around but am more like a zombie.

"This will never be forgotten here. Some people will be permanently scarred and will be afraid to do this, that and other thing.

"You can't even make up an answer as to why something like this happens. There is no good `why.'"

robert.little@baltsun.com jeff.barker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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