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At Va. Tech, gunfire revives awful memories

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Not again.

That’s what everyone is thinking.

How could it be possible that on this beautiful campus tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a place prepared with an alert system, lockdown plan and evacuation routes, blood could spill once more?

The moment shots were fired and a university police officer was killed in what appeared to be a murder-suicide on Virginia Tech’s campus Thursday, what would be an isolated tragedy anywhere else became amplified into the epic, unshakable curse of the Hokie.

Kids who were in middle school when a troubled student named Seung Hui Cho redefined horror by killing 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech were now going through their own lockdown.

Texts went out, students bolted their doors. And the imagery of that frightening day in 2007 surely replayed in everyone’s minds.

Back then, lecture halls, classrooms and hallways were bullet-riddled. The campus was blood-soaked for days, tear-stained for months. The lawns glowed at night with candlelight vigils.

It was a massacre, and something that forever scarred families, students and victims. On each anniversary, flags are flown at half-staff statewide, there is a moment of silence, bells are rung for each of the 32 victims killed. This year, the state Capitol unveiled a walkway with a brick for each of them.

For the freshmen, sophomores, juniors and even seniors at Virginia Tech — the first complement of undergraduates who weren’t there in 2007 — April 16 will never be just another day on campus.

But there is healing. “We’re planning a new arts program for the fall. We have a new building going up,” said Nikki Giovanni, who was one of the professors who flagged the 2007 gunman’s violent and ominous writings in her class. “We’re making strides.”

I called a friend of mine who is a Virginia Tech alum and a parent, who made sure her child was safe as soon as she heard the news.

“It’s just so sad. I mean, we’re going to the Sugar Bowl. The Sugar Bowl! That’s a big deal,” she said.

They all hope that maybe, eventually, Virginia Tech won’t have that comma after it, where we pause to explain its bloody history. But it may be a while.

As the freshmen studying for finals locked their doors and followed their Twitter accounts Thursday, they had to wonder, will Dec. 8 be another terrible day in Virginia Tech history?

Students were shaken enough by the burst of violence on their campus that they scheduled an evening vigil at the memorial for the 2007 shooting.

Off campus, the reverberations of memory and pain were felt in waves when the news of the shooting hit.

“It’s hard to think about anything else,” said Peter Read, father of one of the 2007 victims. “It’s like deja vu all over again.”

Read took Thursday afternoon off from his job as a federal contractor because it was difficult to concentrate. He had been firmly thrust back into that day in 2007, when his daughter Mary, a 2006 Annandale High graduate, was killed.

“Your first thought is ‘Please, not again,’ ” Read told Washington Post reporter Annie Gowen. “You’re shocked, and it kind of numbs you. Your immediate next thought is for the downed officer and the other person who was killed, their family and the whole Tech community. In so many ways, this is a replay of what happened to us. I hope to God they do all the right things.”

Some students freaked. Others calmly stayed indoors and just waited.

Giovanni was on campus Thursday when the shooting happened.

After the lockdown, she was able to leave campus and go home. It wasn’t a scene of chaos or panic. Sadness and heartbreak were the mood.

“We’re good people,” she said, “and I guess bad things happen to good people.”

She said there will be sadness and mourning and memories, yes. But she wouldn’t say that she thought “not again.”

“Again would be 30 people. This is not ‘again,’ ” she said.

In 2007, Giovanni read a poem to the campus community, a pounding, uplifting aria at a convocation the day after the massacre.

“We are Virginia Tech.

“We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.

“We are Virginia Tech.

“We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly, we are brave enough to bend to cry, and we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.

“We are Virginia Tech.”

Yes, this, these words, again.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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