Virginia Tech students react
In wake of tragedy, students reflect on shootings that rocked community, describe “fearful environment”
Jordan Dods and Courtney Kessler, Cavalier Daily Associate Editors
Blacksburg,VA(rushprnews) April 18, 2007- Only in her worst nightmares could Nicole Shyti have anticipated the carnage transpiring as she slept on the fifth floor of West Ambler Johnston dormitoryÂ Monday morning. One floor beneath her, two Virginia Tech students had been murdered by a gunman who was still at large. It wasn’t until 9:30 a.m., when a friend called her to make sure she was safe, that she learned about the killings.
Shyti said she heard the sounds of siren after siren outside her dorm room. It was at that point, she said, that she knew something serious had happened.
“I saw people running across the lawn outside, and it was just a lot of commotion,” Shyti said.
The shootings, which eventually left 33 dead, instantly transformed the Virginia Tech campus into a worldwide epicenter of tragedy and confusion. The campus was left nearly deserted as the university went on lockdown. An impromptu vigil on the Drill Field yesterday evening captured the intensity of emotion. Students locked arms — some crying — still waiting to find out whether friends had made it out alive.
Virginia Tech student George Lane-Roberts said the rapid escalation of casualties left him “dumbfounded and shocked.”
As students spent the day within the familiar walls of their dorms, press outlets from around the world descended on Blacksburg to report the greatest tragedy to hit an American college campus.
That blanket of media coverage provided many Tech students, hunkered around televisions, with their primary window into the events of the day. Tech student Joseph Chapman said he first found out about the shootings on TV before reading official e-mails from the university.
Some have criticized Tech’s response to the initial shooting as too little too late, saying that an earlier lockdown of campus could have prevented 30 deaths. The initial e-mail from the university came almost two hours after the first shooting occurred. Lane-Roberts recalled a shooting in Blacksburg on the first day of classes last August. He said he remembered that the entire campus had been locked down, even though no students were casualties of that shooting.
Members of the media may be coming to their own conclusions, but students at Tech are still more confused than angered by the administration’s response.
Nathan Carter, who is still waiting to find out whether three of his friends are all right, said he doesn’t blame the administration for its handling of the shootings.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said, adding that what Virginia Tech officials thought they had on their hands with the Ambler Johnston incident was a domestic dispute gone wrong.
Freshman student Holly Faust said she was leaving campus, on her way to Radford University with a friend. By late afternoon, she said half of the students in her dorm had already left. Faust, who lives on the top floor of Slusher dormitory, one of the tallest buildings near Norris Hall, said a number of students went up to the top floor to observe clumps of police. Despite being within eye shot of the center of events, Faust said she also relied on television news reports for information about the unfolding events.
Faust said she received the first official e-mail informing students of the shooting at about 9:30 a.m. and decided not to go to class.
Many students first heard about the massacre not from the Virginia Tech e-mails, but through calls, e-mails and instant messages from friends and concerned family members.
A resident advisor in Payne dormitory, who has chosen to remain anonymous, said he found out about the incident through an instant message from a friend.
To notify his residents, the RA said he posted notices in stairwells and alerted students leaving the building to be cautious.
He said RAs are trained extensively to handle serious situations such as this. Most of his duties yesterday included dispelling rumors and providing his residents with as much information as was available, he said.
Carter described how the lack of solid information added to the confusion surrounding the events, saying the rumors ranged from gang-member involvement to “ridiculous” reports that the shooter was eight feet tall. Some may have falsely assumed that the shooter was lurking nearby, even after he had killed himself — fears that were heightened by the saturation of gun-toting police who were sweeping the campus for any suspicious activity.
Lane-Roberts said he and other students watched from a window as two police officers with assault rifles “tackled” a black student. The officers were “shouting” at students to close the blinds and “get in our rooms,” he said.
Chapman said RAs played a major role in communicating the lockdown to students.
Virginia Tech freshman Margaret Hatcher said she never left her room because she had been advised to stay there and distance herself from the windows; however, her roommate had to find shelter in an academic building.
“My roommate was actually in class this morning, and actually she was in the building next door to Norris,” Hatcher said. “They took them all into the basement for a few hours” and around 12:30 p.m. told them to leave campus immediately.
Sophomore Erik Stange said he lives off campus and learned of the situation when his parents called him around 11 a.m.
Stange said he later learned from friends that a friend of his who was an RA in West Ambler Johnston had been shot.
“He got shot in the leg, [so] hopefully he’ll be okay,” Stange said.
Hours later, Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Finchum confirmed that an RA in West Ambler Johnston had died.
Stange is just one of many students forced to cope with uncertainties about yesterday’s events.
“At this point, there are still a lot of questions and not answers,” Shyti said. “We’re in a fearful environment right now, [and] I think what contributes to the fear is that people don’t know what’s safe.”
As the community looks to beging the healing process, Virginia Tech has organized a memorial service in Cassell Coliseum, the basketball stadium, to be held today at 2 p.m. Freshman Elizabeth Rogers said she plans to attend the service.
“Even though I don’t know anyone directly who [has] been harmed, I just feel that as a university we need to band together … and try to find the best way to be there for everyone in this time of need,” Rogers said.
Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said the university is starting a “long, difficult road” to recovery from the massacre. As the initial shock turns into a quest for answers, students at Virginia Tech are finding that the first step on that road is coming to terms with the magnitude of what has occurred.
As one RA said, “Most of us are just kind of sitting here wondering when we’re going to wake up, because it feels like a dream.”
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