SPECIAL- Raw terror: "We just started hearing sirens"
As new information continues to shape the nation's perception of the massacre at Virginia Tech, what remains unchanged for the dozens of young Charlottesvillians who attend Virginia Tech are the indelible memories of what happened on April 16. Whether holed up in a classroom or huddling behind locked dorm-room doors, all those students to whom the Hook spoke say that the day was marked by confusion.
Tech junior and Covenant graduate Mary Grace Giles was in her 9:05am class in Seitz Hall– near the green Drillfield at the center of campus and just south of the shootings at Norris Hall– when she knew something wasn't right.
"With about five minutes left in class, around 9:50, we started hearing sirens," she says, "and then we saw police run by our window and heard more sirens. We thought it was another bomb threat."
Indeed, bomb threats three days before had closed three academic buildings and canceled classes. But the threats turned out to be only a hint of the horror to come. As soon as Giles left class, she realized something was very wrong.
"I got a text message from a friend," she says.
"A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning," was the word the Virginia Tech community received via campus-wide e-mail at 9:26am. "Police are on the scene and are investigating."
The e-mail that came a little over two hours after the dorm shooting contained no suggestion of canceling classes. Approximately 20 minutes later, the Norris Hall classroom shootings began. For many living in off-campus housing, this official communication about the dorm shooting was the first word they had received of anything out of the ordinary.
"I woke up in my apartment and saw my friend in A-J's 'away' message on Instant Messenger that said, 'There's a gunman in my dorm,' and that's when I got the e-mail," says junior and Miller School alum Lauren Purpura, who lives about a mile and a half away from campus.
Tech officials continued periodic e-mail updates, but that didn't prevent misinformation from clouding the picture.
"Nobody knew what was going on," says another Miller School graduate, junior Brandon Bishop, who was in his apartment a mile from campus. "I heard rumors through IMs, e-mails, people saying there were shots at Lee Hall [another campus dorm], shots at Burruss Hall [an administrative building]. It was chaos."
Except for the chaos, those reports were false. Meanwhile, many students locked in classrooms on campus, like people all over the country, were staying updated electronically.
"We had a TV with cable in our classroom, so we were watching that," Purpura says. "It was so surreal watching TV and seeing your campus flooded by SWAT teams, seeing pictures of them carrying a body across the Drillfield where you always feel so safe."
"It felt like I was watching something else," says Bishop, who was watching television in his apartment, "like a gang shooting in New York or L.A. It didn't really hit me that this was happening here."
Unbelievable as these reports seemed to them, the students attempted to account for each other almost immediately. While nobody in this report had heard of a friend who had been hurt in the shootings, some knew classmates who witnessed the horrific events.
"One of my good friends was in Norris, helping to barricade the door when [the shooter] left her classroom," says Bishop. "She called me right after, hysterical, freaking out, saying that when he was trying to shoot through the door, she could feel bullets going right by her head, grazing her hair. I had no idea what to tell her."
"One of my friends pretended to be dead, and that's how he survived," says Giles. "I haven't spoken with him yet. I don't know what I'd say to him."
St. Anne's Belfield grad Sean Yemen was getting a ride from his girlfriend to a 10:10am class when she mentioned she'd heard there had been a shooting on campus.
"What else is new?" thought Yemen, a senior, recalling the horror of last August 21 when self-described survivalist William Morva escaped police custody and allegedly killed two people.
Yemen thought it odd that the door to Derring Hall– where his biology class was held– was locked. But he got in as someone exited. "I went to class, and that door was locked," says Yemen. "The TA looked at me. I said, 'I'm not the shooter.'"
They stayed in class for 10 minutes. On the way back to his apartment, Yemen was surprised at how few people he saw, but he could hear a loud speaker. Derring Hall is on the same side of the campus as Norris Hall, where the second round of shootings occurred.
"People looked at me, I'd look at them, and we're thinking, are you the shooter?" says Yemen.
Back at his apartment, he was still processing the information. "At first it didn't hit me. It's really sad," he says.
Yemen wonders why the campus wasn't closed after the first shooting. With a second shooting at Virginia Tech this school year, and with two bomb threats recently at Torgerson Hall, "Who the f**k are we letting in to our school?" he asks.
His roommate, another St. Anne's grad, Kenny Chernauskas, found out about the shootings through the Virginia Tech webmail. "The second one said a gunman is on the loose, don't go out," he says.
"It's been devastating," says his mother, Penny Chernauskas. "It's been horrifying. I can't get away from the TV. It's unbelievable that a young kid could get that many rounds off two hours after the first one. How could they not catch him?"
She's not worried about her son's safety, but "I hate he's having to experience that horrific atmosphere," she says. "I'd like to protect him, but he's 21."
Even though she doesn't know anyone directly affected, St. Anne's grad Julia Johnson, a senior at Tech, is "kind of in shock." By late afternoon, friends had gathered at her Blacksburg apartment.
Like Chernauskas, she found out about the shootings via email. "They said there was a gunman loose," says Johnson. "It's happened before. I didn't think it would be this catastrophic."
A Western Albemarle graduate and engineering major who asked to remain anonymous says he was walking up the Drillfield when he saw a lot of people stopped at the edge. "You know how the Drillfield normally is: people moving like cattle," he says. "Then some people were running and coming back. No one really knew what to do or what to think. Everyone was just going on word of mouth."
He reports that the residential halls were locked, no one allowed in or out. "People were mostly milling around the halls," he says. "Some people were staying in their rooms with the doors locked."
Chris Koch, another Western graduate, who lives just a few blocks off campus, woke up to the PA system. "It's the ones they use for hurricane and tornado warnings," he says. "They got on there and told everyone to stay in their apartments and stay away from the windows."
The more than two-hour period between the first gunfire at Ambler-Johnston at around 7:15am and the first campus-wide communication has sparked controversy nationwide, and the opinions of these students vary.
"I cannot believe they didn't cancel class after the first shots were fired," says Tech grad student and Monticello High alum Victoria Via. "My roommate went to her 10 o'clock class in Pamplin Hall [one building over from Norris Hall], and she wasn't stopped by any police."
Bishop agrees: "If someone gets shot, you need to close the school down."
On the other hand, Purpura says she understands why university officials would assume the first shooting was an isolated incident.
"Virginia Tech is such a small community, and everyone in it was so much in shock that the shootings in A-J could occur," she says, "that they could never have imagined something of this magnitude could happen. It would have been easy for the gunman to conceal that amount of ammunition because it was a cold windy morning, and it would have been easy for him to blend in as another cold kid in Blacksburg."
And now that the unthinkable has come to pass, students are left to wonder not just "why?" but also "why here?"
"This is a peaceful community," says Via. "It's a small town consisting almost entirely of Virginia Tech. It's just so hard to believe something like this could happen here."
The only answer, it seems, lies in just how random this tragedy was.
"It just shows that no small town is safe," says Purpura. "If it happened here, it could happen anywhere."
–with additional reporting by Hook reporter Lisa Provence and special correspondent Ryan Yemen