Covering a bizarre scene

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April 22, 2007|By Christopher T. Assaf | Christopher T. Assaf,Sun Photographer

Go! Go! Go!

My heart raced as I drove, searching for a place with people who would be watching for the first time pictures and video from Cho Seung-Hui's macabre package sent to NBC News. The newscast would start at 6:30 Wednesday evening. I had 10 minutes. Working in Blacksburg, Va., since Monday night, I had spent most of my time on campus and had not even been close to the downtown district. I was driving blind, and quickly made a wrong guess on which direction to turn on Main Street, picking north instead of south.

Once turned in the right direction I sped on, relieved to find downtown and a parking spot - a little farther from where I wanted to be than I'd have liked. My mind and body were already worn out, having worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. the day before. My emotions, worn by the tragic circumstances, were also wreaking small havoc with me. I was ready to go home. But now I had a job to do. I popped into the first place I saw with televisions.

From the open door to Poor Billy's Raw Bar and Grill I was able to see that the newscast had started. Two still photographers were already working the sushi and wet bar area. The hostess was nice enough to let me work, and I started figuring out the exposure and my strategy in the dark room as the news cut to commercial.

The need for these photos arrived suddenly at 4:30 when the local police revealed that NBC had received a multimedia packet Cho created and mailed the morning he went on his hate-filled rampage. I had thought that I had finished my last job on the Virginia Tech campus, photographing people gathered around the memorial created on the edge of the drill field at the center of the campus, Unfortunately, I was very wrong.

Now I had to hope that the flickering screens would once again flash an eerie image easily readable and that the patrons not get annoyed at the presence of the clutch of photographers, videographers and reporters in the room.

I quickly went to the back, apologizing for getting in the way, seeing out a higher angle and setting myself to shoot when the news came out of commercial.

Fade from black, and Cho threateningly pointed a gun directly from the big screen on the wall. In the foreground, no one seemed to pay much attention, continuing to dine or wait on tables. Cho seemed briefly invisible - a continuation of what had been happening throughout his years hiding in plain sight on campus. Except this time he did not avert his eyes. He wanted to be noticed.

The juxtaposition of Cho and the indifferent audience felt surreal. In fact, the moment was fleeting. Soon, people began to watch and were shocked and angered as his frightening images and hostile message pushed themselves into the their consciousness. My heart grew heavier. Now, I really wanted to go home.

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