Witnesses recount day of horror on campus

Associated Press • Apr 18, 2007 at 12:21 PM

BLACKSBURG - Janitor Gene Cole was cleaning bathrooms on the first floor of Virginia Tech's Norris Hall when a colleague told him there had been a shooting on campus.

We have to evacuate, the colleague said.

Cole headed for the second floor to look for a co-worker. As he walked down the hall, he saw a shape on the floor - a student, covered in blood, his body jerking.

Then, from a door about 20 feet away, the black-clad gunman burst out. Gripping the gun in both hands, the man assumed a police stance and began firing.

"He's going to kill me! He's going to kill me!" the 52-year-old Cole screamed as he spun and sprinted down the hall, a half-dozen bullets whizzing by his head.

He took the stairs two and three at a time, ran through an auditorium and into a neighboring building.

For Cole and others in Norris Hall on this picturesque southwest Virginia campus, the nightmare began around 9:45 a.m. Monday. Only later would the full chronology of the two-tier burst of terror became clear: a day of horror that actually began more than two hours earlier with two students shot dead in a dormitory, and ended across campus with an even greater bloodbath.

In the end, 33 people would be dead in what has become the nation's deadliest shooting spree.

Just before 7:45 a.m. Monday, Josh Ball shut the door to his fourth-floor West Ambler Johnston dorm room and headed toward the elevator. When the freshman got to the double wooden doors between the men's and woman's wings, he met a paramedic.

"You shouldn't go that way," the man said. "Just use the other stairs."

Outside, the 19-year-old from Vail, Colo., saw a stretcher being loaded onto an ambulance. He assumed there had been a fight, and kept walking. He had just a few minutes to make it a half-mile across the Drillfield to his German class in Norris Hall.

Ball had no idea that a fellow student had just unleashed hell - and that he was headed into the maw.

He wasn't alone in not knowing.

It wasn't until 9:26 a.m. that the university sent out the first e-mail to students and faculty. The subject line read, "Shooting on campus."

"The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case," the message read.

About 20 minutes later, junior Alec Calhoun was in professor Liviu Librescu's solid mechanics class on the second floor of Norris when shots rang out from the German class next door.

It sounded like the pounding of an enormous hammer, so Calhoun thought it was just construction. Then he heard the screams, and realized the sounds were gunfire.

With no locks on the doors to shut out the gunman, Calhoun began flipping over desks to make hiding places.

As the shooter - armed with two semiautomatic pistols, a .22-caliber and a 9 mm - moved to the room across the hall, several classmates dashed to the windows, kicked them open and pulled out the screens. Then they jumped from the second-story ledge to the cold ground below - breaking legs and ankles in the process.

Calhoun decided to abandon his makeshift fort and jump.

As he reached the ledge, the two people immediately behind him were shot. Calhoun landed in a bush, then ran to safety.

The diminutive Librescu - who had survived the Nazi Holocaust - stayed behind in an apparent attempt to bar the door. He was killed.

Freshman Hilary Strollo was in her intermediate French class when the gunman entered the classroom. He moved methodically through the room, firing several bullets into each victim - emptying five or six clips in all.

Strollo was shot in the abdomen, head and buttocks. One bullet passed through her liver and exited out her side. She was hospitalized Tuesday near Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech Police received the first 911 call from Norris at 9:45 a.m. When they arrived, they found the front doors chained shut from the inside.

Outside Norris, there was also pandemonium.

The wind was blowing hard and cold for a mid-April morning, and it was spitting snow.

Senior Ben Anderson of Burke, Va., was on the Drillfield with two fraternity brothers collecting donations for a local fire department when the shooting started. Police cars careened in from both directions, and officers jumped out with guns drawn, running for Norris Hall.

Freshman Andrew Huang was on his way to class when he heard shots and saw police. Unsure what to do, he followed a gang of fellow students into the center of the Drillfield, assuming that was as safe a spot as any.

At 9:50 a.m., a second e-mail went out warning students and staff to "stay put."

"A gunman is loose on campus," it read. "Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows."

In the third-floor provost's office in neighboring Burruss Hall, administrative assistant Nadine Hughes fielded calls from concerned colleagues at colleges around the country.

Helpless to assist the wounded and dying next door, Hughes did the only thing she could think of: She pulled a miniature tract from her purse and began to pray.

But even then, much of the campus was oblivious to the carnage playing out just buildings away.

As SWAT teams were retaking Norris, Katrina Broas, a junior from Middletown, N.Y., chatted with classmates about humid temperate zones in her World Crops class in Litton-Reaves Hall. She heard sirens, but wasn't too concerned.

When class ended at 10:10 a.m., students and faculty filed out to find the building locked down. They gathered in a conference room and watched the events unfolding on television.

When an announcer said the death toll had surpassed 20, the group let out a collective gasp. Broas called her mother to tell her she was OK, then wept silently with the others.

A third e-mail, time stamped at 10:16 a.m., announced that classes were canceled.

Not until 10:52 a.m. was the fourth e-mail issued, this one informing students of the shootings at Norris.

"Police have one shooter in custody and as part of routine police procedure, they continue to search for a second shooter," it said.

Finally, around mid-afternoon, authorities announced that the gunman - later identified as Cho Seung-Hui, a senior with a history of bizarre, anti-social behavior - had apparently acted alone, and that he had taken his own life.

Throughout the afternoon, a steady stream of students emerged from the West AJ dorm, shouldering backpacks and dragging suitcases, unable to bear the thought of spending the night in the charnel house that their dorm had become.

Brittany Zachar had left her dorm room Monday morning knowing from a pink notice in the sixth-floor bathroom that something had happened on campus. She had no idea two students had been shot to death just two floors below her.

Hours later, Zachar left campus for the safety of a friend's apartment in town. Clutched tightly to her breast was "Hokie," a stuffed dog her boyfriend had given her.

On the dormitory's deserted fourth floor, yellow police tape hung from the double doors leading to the area where Resident Assistant Ryan Clark and another student were killed.

The hall smelled vaguely of incense.

As he loaded a car for the trip home to Martinsville, Va., Billy Bason chastised the administration for not locking down the campus immediately after the first shootings.

"I think the university has blood on their hands because of their lack of action after the first incident," the 18-year-old freshman said.

At 7 p.m., as darkness enveloped the campus, shell-shocked students, faculty and residents gathered in the sanctuary of Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. But even as the weeping, sniffling faithful tried to pray, wailing sirens pierced the solemnity.

"Death has come trundling into our life ... laying waste to our hearts and making desolate our minds," associate pastor Susan Verbrugge said, gazing out at some 150 bowed heads.

Pastor Alex Evans invited the crowd to name their loved ones. After long moments of silence, they spoke.

"For Ryan and Emily," a young woman said, "and for those whose names we do not know."

"For Heidi, and her doctors and nurses and friends and families," added another.

"For all the children in our community who are afraid," said a third woman.

Then a man: "Lord, I pray for the family of the gunman, who will forever be searching for answers I know they'll never find."

Sitting alone in his home in nearby Radford, Cole, the Norris janitor, not usually a drinking man, was finishing his 12th beer. It would be another three hours before he fell into a fitful sleep.

In the shadow of Tech's iconic War Memorial Chapel, at one end of the Drillfield about midway between the West AJ dorm and Norris, students erected a makeshift monument to the casualties of Seung-Hui's attack.

The cardboard and wood "VT" - maroon edged with Hokie orange tape - was lashed to a tree. By day's end, nearly every inch was covered with black and silver writing.

"We'll never forget you," pledged one mourner.

"Hokies forever stand together," declared another.

"Dr. Librescu," read another, "Your heart was bigger than your stature."

At the memorial's base stood several tiers of white and red candles, along with several butane lighters. But they remained unused.

The cold wind blowing across campus was just too strong.

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