Va. Tech builds a new `normal'

Students try to put massacre aside as school year opens

August 21, 2007|By Robert Little and David Nitkin | Robert Little and David Nitkin,Sun reporters

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Brittany Rytter strolled across the sun-splashed Virginia Tech campus yesterday with a bouquet of mums and daisies, ignoring the pickup soccer reverberating in the distance as she approached one of 32 small stone monuments commemorating the April shooting massacre that catapulted this rural campus to international prominence.

A 21-year-old psychology major who grew up in Reisterstown, Rytter had met one of the victims - Leslie Geraldine Sherman - on a trip to aid Hurricane Katrina victims, and she wanted to honor her memory. As the buzz and blur of a new college semester swarmed around her, she deposited the flowers by Sherman's stone before heading off into her senior year.

"We want to get back to normal," Rytter said. "But normal is different now."

Virginia Tech began its fall semester yesterday with hopes of finally pushing the memories of death and gunfire into the background of college life. And save for the low-key semicircle of monuments occupying a prominent edge of the Drill Field, the main open space in the central campus, there were few reminders of the violence that occurred four months ago.

Students rushed from one end of Blacksburg to the other, flip-flops clapping at their heels, mobile phones attached to their ears. There were textbooks to buy and posters to mount. The crime scene tape and SWAT vehicles were gone, replaced by the games and social gatherings of a new year.

"It feels about the same," said Dan Foltin, 20, a finance major from Hereford. "You don't want to forget it, but at the same time, life goes on."

"People definitely haven't forgotten about it, but it's not the main topic of conversation any more," said Katie Runge, 19, a sophomore from Towson. "The talk on campus has been mostly about the football games coming up, or about finding the people you haven't seen all summer. I'd say it's back to normal."

Any hope of an uneventful return to normal was spoiled yesterday by news of an off-campus carbon monoxide leak that left two university roommates hospitalized in serious condition and sickened 20 other people. The leak, apparently from a faulty water-heater valve in an apartment the students shared, was discovered by neighbors Sunday.

But the incident did little to interrupt students as they established the rhythm of a new school year.

"It's exciting. It's good to be back," said Allie Stack, 21, a psychology major from Towson who accompanied Rytter to the memorial site.

More than 10,000 students and teachers attended a service Sunday dedicating the permanent memorial, which replaced a makeshift memorial created by students days after the April 16 shootings by Seung-Hui Cho. School officials said the service's timing was deliberate and meant to symbolize both the end of an ordeal and the beginning of a healing process.

The memorial, steps away from Burruss Hall, the school's administration building, was only recently completed, and it drew a steady stream of visitors yesterday. Many left flowers. Others brought cards. But just a few feet away, life went on. A kiosk was selling posters of reproductions of famous paintings and political screeds attacking the Bush administration. Some students flung a Frisbee.

The display, students and others said, would be a daily reminder of the tragedy. But it did not dampen the energy that comes with the start of a new school year.

"We've got a memorial now that's going to be a permanent part of our life here, but we move on," said Col. Rock Roszak, alumni director for the campus' military Corp of Cadets, who began his 14th year on campus yesterday.

"To me, the only thing that's changed is I have to use a swipe-card to get to the bathroom now."

The enhanced security in places such as Roszak's office, housed inside one of the dormitories, is another fixture of the university's post-shooting reality. Once locked only at night, the dorms are now on round-the-clock security - one answer to critics who have argued that tighter measures on campus might have saved lives.

A victims advocacy group in Pennsylvania, founded by a couple whose daughter was raped and murdered on a college campus 20 years ago, issued a call yesterday for federal officials to investigate why Virginia Tech officials waited two hours before warning students about Cho's first shootings, which killed two students. Sixteen minutes after that warning was issued by e-mail, Cho began a second shooting rampage that killed 30 students and teachers and ended when he killed himself.

An eight-member panel appointed by Virginia's governor to investigate the shootings met yesterday in a final, closed-door session, and plans to release its report Friday.

Enrollment at the university has remained steady at roughly 25,000, officials said, and the school enrolled a record number of freshman this year.

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