COVER- Hokie low: Blacksburg campus fills with somber throngs
Other than state troopers stationed at each intersection and television trucks weighted down with satellite dishes, the entrances of Virginia Tech on Tuesday gave little sign of the previous morning's catastrophic events. But upon walking deeper into campus, it became immediately apparent this was not a day like every other.
By 11am, students were already lined up by the thousands to enter Cassell Coliseum, site of the Convocation that Tech president Charles Steger hoped would "begin the healing process" following the massacre of 32 of their classmates.
They were three hours early. As unimaginable as the events of Monday were, this scene seemed strangely familiar. Each and every student was dressed in Hokie maroon and orange, some with painted faces. Marching band members were decked out in full uniform– but today, without the cheers of "Hokie, Hokie, Hokie high!" that normally accompany this colorful display of school spirit.
Instead, the only sounds were people trying to locate friends on their cell phones. An occasional tearful reunion prompted sobs and embraces, but mostly it seems people just wanted to see each other simply to share the moment in solemn silence.
Within 100 yards of the coliseum stands West Ambler-Johnston Hall, where two people were killed in the first round of shooting. No student leaving "A-J" does so without first confronting one of the smattering of reporters hovering around the building. One student interviewed by a television newscaster seemed at a loss to relate what he knew– not because of the horrific nature of the tragedy, but because he simply had nothing left to say. "You know the story," he said.
Indeed, the media presence was ubiquitous. At every turn, another journalist could be spotted quickly dashing to the scenes of the crimes, or to a student who might be able to illuminate the many unanswered questions. The hundreds of reporters– laden with all manner of cameras, microphones, pads, and pens– spoke languages of every kind. A French reporter wanted to know the way to Norris Hall. A Portuguese language tele-journalist did several takes to perfect his gesture toward a blood-stained sidewalk.
Student reaction to these visitors seemed mixed. Some spoke quietly in carefully chosen words, while others changed course while walking to avoid having to face yet another round of questions. Some seemed fascinated by the experience.
"Guess what– I was on NPR!" one student exclaimed.
"That was the only one I didn't do," his friend replied.
Standing in the middle of the Drillfield, Virginia Tech's central quad, one could see only subtle reminders of the horror and chaos that had transpired little more than 24 hours earlier. Flags flew at half staff. A lone, unlit candle in a red vase bearing the handwritten name of G.V. Loganathan, an engineering professor struck down the previous day, had been placed outside Burruss Hall, the main administrative building. A makeshift memorial in the shape of the letters "VT" stood by the War Memorial where students signed a guest book at its base.
In front of Norris Hall, where 31 people died, yellow plastic police tape flapped in the wind, making a sound like chattering teeth.
The real evidence of what happened here is the faces and demeanor of the students: universally blank expressions, resignation, and sadness rather than numbness. At around 11:15am, a fighter jet flew over Cassell Coliseum, causing everyone to stop and turn around. For a moment, people froze in terror, wondering if the boom of the engines could be recent history repeating itself.
The same frightened looks emerged again when those walking the Drillfield around 12:30pm heard more low booms in regular succession. Moments later, they discovered it was the campus military band, the Hightie Tighties, marching to a lone bass drum.
But these flashes of fear did not keep students from sharing this day. For hours, they all slowly made their way across campus to Cassell, as if borne by a tide that made it impossible to move in any other direction, as if all at once accepting that there is no direction to move but forward.
By Tuesday morning, passers-by had begun to leave flowers at West Ambler-Johnston Hall.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
A Portuguese-speaking newscaster shows the blood-stained sidewalk outside Norris Hall to viewers overseas.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER