“Good afternoon, Mr. Steger,” the families’ attorney, Robert Hall, said as Virginia Tech’s President Charles W. Steger slipped into the wooden box.
After Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people and injured at least 17 on April 16, 2007, most of the victims’ families accepted a settlement that prohibited them from suing the university or the state. The Petersons and Prydes refused, creating a schism in a small community born of bloodshed and bound by anger and grief.
But by the time the lawsuit reached trial in early March — just weeks shy of the massacre’s fifth anniversary, it was no longer theirs alone. Other families, many of whom had come to regret accepting the state’s settlement, were also watching, some from the courtroom’s gallery. They, too, were haunted by critical questions: Why didn’t the university issue an earlier warning of a possible gunman on campus after two students were found shot in a dorm room? Why hadn’t Steger ever apologized for what he once called “a tragedy . . . of monumental proportions”?
During two hours of questioning, Steger explained that officials believed that the gunman had fled campus after the first shooting. “Given what we knew at the time,” he said, “we believe we did the best we could.”
Eventually, Hall had one question left for him: “Is there anything you want to say to these two families on the deaths of their daughters because they had no warning?”
Before Steger could utter a word, an attorney for the state offered a response: Objection.
A family’s compass
In a basement storage closet in Centreville, 14 boxes sit stacked, labeled “Erin’s clothes,” “Erin’s shoes,” “Erin’s toiletries.”
After her daughter died, Celeste Peterson would sit next to them, her nose pressed to the small openings on the sides, seeking the smell of her only child. Over the years, the scent has faded, but the boxes remain, unopened.
“People don’t understand. Erin was our compass,” Peterson says. “She kept us going in the right direction. Without her, we are just spinning.”
Peterson was almost 30 when her husband, Grafton, suggested that they have a child. She says she prayed on it, decided to leave it in God’s hands and weeks later discovered that she was pregnant.
“I believe that God specially designed her for us, because she was perfect for us,” Celeste Peterson says, sitting in the family’s home one recent evening. “God knew exactly what it was we needed in our lives.”
To her father, Erin was the girl who would sneak out of bed to watch ESPN with him and, later, the teen who could give him a look from the basketball court that conveyed everything she was thinking.