BLACKSBURG, Va. -- The first shots came soon after sunrise.
The killer walked from room to room in West Ambler Johnston Hall, a freshman dormitory on the south side of Virginia Tech's campus, and seemed to be searching for an acquaintance before he shot and killed two students, witnesses said. Police started picking through the grisly fourth-floor scene soon after the first 911 call at 7:15 a.m., then rushed with weapons drawn toward nearby Cassell Coliseum, apparently thinking the suspect was there.
But the killer, identified yesterday as 23-year-old English major Cho Seung-Hui, went the opposite way, probably mixing in with the yawning, shivering students who were spreading across the grounds for their early-morning classes.
Somehow, even as police cars swarmed around the dorm, he was able to lose himself on the vast campus and remain unnoticed for nearly two hours, hiding his pistols and ammunition clips from view and concealing any hint of the double murder he had just committed.
He was spotted just after 9 a.m. in Norris Hall, a classroom building on the campus' north side, just before unleashing an attack that ended in the deaths of 31 more people, including himself.
"It's scary to think he shot two people right above my head, then he was out there with everyone else," said freshman engineering student David Rhymers, who was showering downstairs in West Ambler Johnston Hall when the first shootings took place.
Rhymers left for an 8 a.m. class, mostly unaware. "I saw the commotion outside, but it was up the other way," he said. "I just figured something had happened, but it was over."
It wasn't. More details of the campus rampage emerged yesterday, revealing a thorough killing process by a student who apparently planned the slaughter weeks in advance. Preparations began at least a month earlier, when Cho bought one of two handguns used in the crime - a 9 mm Glock - from a dealer in nearby Roanoke. He also carried a .22-caliber Walther pistol.
Dressed in a black vest or jacket and clothes that one witness described as resembling a Boy Scout uniform, Cho struck first while most of the campus was asleep, fleeing the dorm as students awoke to screams in the halls and police frantically cleared out the unlikely crime scene.
Ashley Burris, 19, was asleep on the fourth floor when her resident adviser awakened her and asked her to go to the third floor, without saying why. She and others packed into hallways away from the windows. Like many on campus, she learned what was happening from television and e-mail.
"You see this stuff about Columbine, you see those families weeping, but somehow it seems more devastating. It doesn't really feel real," Burris said.
Still, most of the campus was as yet unaffected and unaware. When her 9:05 a.m. mathematics class went on as scheduled - despite the wailing of sirens and the professor reporting rumors of a shooting - freshman Colleen Ackermann of Fairfax, Va., wasn't too concerned.
"You hear sirens all the time," she said.
Ackermann recalled a September incident in which a prison inmate escaped and was accused of killing two people while on the loose.
"We had heard back then that he was in Squires [the campus student center], and it turned out he never was there. That's what we were thinking back to," she said.
Cho was seen next on the second floor of Norris Hall, across the campus' wide drill field, when students saw him roaming the halls. Erin Sheehan had just arrived at her 9:05 a.m. German class when she saw him look in.
"It seemed so strange, because he peeked in twice, earlier in the lesson, like he was looking for someone, somebody, before he started shooting," Sheehan told The Collegiate Times, the campus newspaper. "But then we all heard something like drilling in the walls, and someone thought they sounded like bullets. That's when we blockaded the door to stop anyone from coming in."
Witnesses said Cho walked calmly and quietly among the second-floor classrooms, wielding a pistol in each hand and pausing periodically to reload. At least twice he tried to push open doors that students had barricaded with desks or tables. He shot through the doors of an engineering class, launching splinters of wood and metal into the air.
Sophomore Derek O'Dell was crouching behind a desk as the killer made his way through a classroom, shooting students at point-blank range. He felt a "tingling sensation" when a bullet struck his right arm, he told CNN yesterday, displaying the bullet hole in his black North Face jacket. He didn't realize until later that he had been shot.
"He didn't say anything. That's the weirdest part," O'Dell told The Roanoke Times. "No screaming, no yelling. He just shot people."
Students in Professor Liviu Librescu's engineering class heard shots in the classroom next door. He held the doors shut as they knocked out windows and jumped to the grass below, according to witnesses. Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, was later killed.