Monday, April 16, 2012

Virginia Tech, five years later

Today is the fifth anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech. I was at lunch uptown that day when my editor called. He said I probably needed to get up to Blacksburg. Why? I asked. All I'd heard at that point was that there'd been a shooting on campus, and one person had died.

There's more, he said. A lot more.

J. Freedom du Lac of the Washington Post has a great piece on the survivors (one in particular) and other people who lived that day up close. Make sure to look at the photos and video, too.

I wrote two columns from Blacksburg. Here are those pieces.


The cold wind blew in overnight, it brought snow to the Virginia Tech campus Monday morning, around the time the early risers heard the first shots.

The wind blew harder at midmorning, when the people on the upper floors of Norris Hall heard the guns firing again and again from down below.

It blew in the news that was impossible. Thirty-three dead. Another score wounded. A campus with its heart cut out.

Two students waited to get a table for supper at Shakey's, right across from campus, and pieced together the day.

"My dad called, " said senior Joe Lemanski, 24. "It woke me up. He said something was going on."

"I heard at work, " said senior Brian Snyder, 22. "The first report said there was one dead. We couldn't believe it. Then the next report, there were 20."

By the time the full reckoning was complete, it had become the worst mass shooting in American history. You could not imagine it anywhere. But especially not here, among these gorgeous stone buildings, across the flat green lawn of the Drillfield in the middle of campus.

You do notice one thing. No buds on the trees. Spring never got here.

Two died early from the shots fired at Ambler Johnston Hall, a dorm on the south side of campus. Then 31 more two hours later at Norris Hall, a classroom building on the northside.

So many questions and so few answers.

Some news report said the gunman was a nonstudent, possibly with a girlfriend on campus. Police did not name him but said he used his last bullet on himself.

No one released the names of those who died.

The morning was chaos. Cell phones couldn't get through because so many people were trying to call. Police locked down the campus. Students watched from buildings across the way as people inside Norris jumped from second-story windows to escape.

By evening, as the wind blew even harder, the campus felt empty. A few students ventured from their dorms, walking in silence. Up at the War Memorial Chapel, a solitary student waited with a camera until the sun sank to the top edge of Norris Hall. He stood up, took one picture, and left.

We will sit down and have a discussion soon about guns, about campus security, about what happened in those hours between the first group of shots and the second.

Not now.

For now, think about what it's like to be in college, walking the bridge between child and grown-up, wearing old sweatshirts and drinking cheap beer, and dreaming up schemes that would let you always live this way.

Just after the sun set, a student named Shannon Turner set out candles on the lawn next to Henderson Hall.

She picked that spot because that's where people gather on sunny days to walk their dogs and throw Frisbees and work their bare feet into the grass.

She puts the candles in a Mason jar, a jelly jar, a flower vase. Pretty soon, some friends stopped by. She pinched off the blooms from a store-bought bouquet and handed them out.

Somebody asked her what kind of place Blacksburg is.

"It's not the kind of place where something like this can happen, " she said.

But, of course, it did.

And so the kids hugged each other close and lit candles against the bitter wind.

That's the first column. You can find the second one over here at my website.

I still think about those two days a lot.


Anonymous said...

I can not begin to imagine the trials and tribulations of anyone that had to live through it, as a survivor or as a family member of those that were lost.

The entire VT Family will forever mourn those who passed and hope that support will be there for those who might do something like this in the future, to keep such tragedys from ever happening again

Anonymous said...

the memories of that day will remain for a long long time.....just like the bell tower shootings at ut austin many years ago.......