Va. campus demands answers after gunman kills 33 in deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history

Virginia Tech Shootings

April 17, 2007|By Gadi Dechter, Sumathi Reddy and Julie Bykowicz | Gadi Dechter, Sumathi Reddy and Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

BLACKSBURG, Va. — BLACKSBURG, Va.-- --Thirty-three people were killed and at least 15 injured at the Virginia Tech campus yesterday in the worst shooting rampage in modern U.S. history - a massacre that left the stricken campus in mourning and overwhelmed with questions about who the gunman was and how the shooting could have happened.

Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger described the scene as "carnage," and President Bush said the tragedy's impact would be "felt in every American classroom and every American community."

The shooting took place at two locations yesterday morning. First, at West Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory, where a gunman killed two people shortly after 7 a.m., and again more than two hours later at Norris Hall, a classroom building across the sprawling campus. The bulk of the casualties occurred there, where the gunman also took his own life. Authorities said 15 people were injured, although some news reports put the number at more than 30.

Campus police said last night that they had made a preliminary identification of the gunman but did not release his name, say whether he was a student, or shed light on a motive. Identities of students and staff members who were killed or wounded could be released today.

The day's events unfolded on television and on popular networking Web sites such as The eerie pop of 27 gunshots could be heard on a student-filmed video streamed on CNN throughout the day. On Facebook, students swapped information, some saying simply, "trying not to get shot," while mourning for the missing and dead.

Students were especially upset about why the campus was not secured after the first shooting.

The first campuswide e-mail, describing a shooting and urging students to be cautious, went out at 9:26 a.m. Twenty-four minutes later, a second, more-ominous message was sent: "A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows."

The more than two-hour gap between the shootings had authorities struggling to explain why the school was not locked down after the first incident and why the entire campus community still had not been informed more than two hours later.

"After the first person was shot, the campus should have been closed right away," said Alex Moore, a 22-year-old senior from Bel Air. "It's kind of scary how little information we had, especially because we already had one shooting here."

"We're just shocked that the school would let us come to school when they knew two kids had already been shot on campus, way before classes started," said Mackenzie Melfa, 21, a junior from Towson. "We feel like this could have been prevented if our school had let us know."

Steger defended the university's response to the first shooting, saying that officials locked down the dormitory, activated a telephone tree and sounded sirens.

But one student who lived in the 895-bed dormitory disputed that account, saying he and his roommate walked out of the "locked down" residence hall at 7:40 a.m. to go to class.

"There was a cop at the first floor, but he didn't stop us from going anywhere and he didn't say anything," said Keith Stricker, 19, a freshman from Ellicott City.

Steger said that with 14,000 out of more than 25,000 of its students living off campus, determining whether people are more safe in their dormitories or classroom buildings is difficult. "The question is, where do you lock them down," Steger said at a news conference. "It takes 20 minutes to walk from some parts of campus to the classroom, so people are already in transit."

Chris Roil, 20, a junior from Towson, was taking an accounting test on the third floor of Norris Hall when he heard a rapid succession of bangs from the floor below.

"We heard faint screams," said Roil, "but they were really faint, so I wasn't sure if I had actually heard them or not." He continued with his test, as did the other students, he said.

Then a fellow student who had completed her test and left the classroom ran back in, "freaking out," Roil said. "She said it was really hot in the stairwell and it was full of smoke. A kid dove headfirst into the second-floor hallway, she said, and was like, `I think someone is shooting people.'"

Roil's professor ushered about 20 students into a nearby office, where they listened to gunshots outside. About 20 minutes later there was a knock on the door.

"It was the SWAT team," Roil said. "They had weapons pointed straight in our face telling us, `Get your hands up! Everyone get your hands up!'"

At an afternoon news conference, Steger, the university's president, said: "I want to repeat my horror and disbelief and profound sorrow at the events of today. I'm really at a loss of words to explain or understand the carnage that has visited our campus."

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