By Ian Shapira and Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
BLACKSBURG, Va., April 16 -- An outburst of gunfire at a Virginia Tech dormitory, followed two hours later by a ruthless string of attacks at a classroom building, killed 32 students, faculty and staff and left about 30 others injured yesterday in the deadliest shooting rampage in the nation's history.
The shooter, whose name was not released last night, wore bluejeans, a blue jacket and a vest holding ammunition, witnesses said. He carried a 9mm semiautomatic and a .22-caliber handgun, both with the serial numbers obliterated, federal law enforcement officials said. Witnesses described the shooter as a young man of Asian descent -- a silent killer who was calm and showed no expression as he pursued and shot his victims. He killed himself as police closed in.
He had left two dead at the dormitory and 30 more at a science and engineering building, where he executed people taking and teaching classes after chaining some doors shut behind him. At one point, he shot at a custodian who was helping a victim. Witnesses described scenes of chaos and grief, with students jumping from second-story windows to escape gunfire and others blocking their classroom doors to keep the gunman away.
Even before anyone knew who the gunman was or why he did what he did, the campus community in Southwest Virginia began questioning whether most of the deaths could have been prevented. They wondered why the campus was not shut down after the first shooting.
The enormity of the event brought almost immediate expressions of condolences from President Bush, both houses of Congress and across the world.
"I'm really at a loss for words to explain or to understand the carnage that has visited our campus," said Charles W. Steger, president of Virginia Tech, one of the state's largest and most prestigious universities.
The rampage began as much of the campus was just waking up. A man walked into a freshman coed dorm at 7:15 a.m. and fatally shot a young woman and a resident adviser.
Based on witness interviews, police thought it was an isolated domestic case and chose not to take any drastic campus-wide security measures, university officials said. But about 9:45 a.m., a man entered a classroom building and started walking into classrooms and shooting faculty members and students with the two handguns. Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said investigators were not certain that the same man committed both shootings. But several law enforcement sources said he did.
As police entered Norris Hall, an engineering and science building, shortly before 10 a.m., the man shot and killed himself before officers could confront him. One witness said the gunman was "around 19" and was "very serious but [with] a very calm look on his face."
"He knew exactly what he was doing," said the witness, Trey Perkins, 20, of Yorktown, Va. He said he watched the man enter his classroom and shoot Perkins's professor in the head. "I have no idea why he did what he decided to do. I just can't say how lucky I am to have made it."
The university canceled classes yesterday and today and set up counseling for the grief-stricken campus. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who had just arrived in Japan on a trade mission, immediately flew back to Virginia. He was expected to attend a vigil today.
"We've been devastated as the death toll has been rising," said Payton Baran, 20, of Bethesda, who is a junior majoring in finance. "I've been calling everyone I know, and everyone I talk to is pretty much in tears. It's really, really depressing."
None of the victims' names was released yesterday by officials, pending notification of their families. University officials said 15 people were injured, but spokesmen at four area hospitals said they treated 29.
Initial reports from the campus raised the specter of "another Columbine," in which two teenagers in Littleton, Colo., killed 13 people inside a high school in 1999 before killing themselves. But soon, the Virginia Tech rampage dwarfed Columbine to become the biggest shooting rampage by an individual in U.S. history.
Students and parents launched a frenzied round of phone calls and text messages yesterday morning, monitoring news reports and waiting for information. And the shootings prompted intense questioning of Steger and Flinchum from a community still reeling from the fatal shootings of a security guard and a sheriff's deputy near campus in August on the first day of classes and the arrest of the suspect on the edge of campus that day.
Although the gunman in the dorm was at large, no warning was issued to the tens of thousands of students and staff at Virginia Tech until 9:26 a.m., more than two hours later.
"We concluded it was domestic in nature," Flinchum said. "We had reason to believe the shooter had left campus and may have left the state." He declined to elaborate. But several law enforcement sources said investigators thought the shooter might have intended to kill a girl and her boyfriend Monday in what one of them described as a "lover's dispute." It was unclear whether the girl killed at the dorm was the intended target, they said.
The sources said police initially focused on the female student's boyfriend, a student at nearby Radford University, as a suspect. Police questioned the boyfriend, later termed "a person of interest," and were questioning him when they learned of the subsequent shootings at Norris Hall. A family friend of the boyfriend's said the boyfriend was stopped by police alongside Route 460 in Blacksburg, handcuffed and interrogated on the side of the road and later released.
Students who lived in the dorm said they received knocks on the door telling them to stay in their rooms but nothing else. Shortly before 9:30 a.m., the university sent out this e-mail: "A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston [dorm] earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating.
"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."
Steger said that, even though the gunman was at large, "we had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur." He said only a fraction of the university's 28,000 students live on campus, and "it's extremely difficult if not impossible to get the word out spontaneously."
Students on campus and parents were angry. When Blake Harrison, 21, of Leesburg learned of the shootings, he said, he called an administrative help line and was told "to proceed with caution to classes." He said: "I'm beyond upset. I'm enraged."
Yesterday, as officials began to sort out the shootings, tales of the horror began to emerge.
Alec Calhoun, a junior, was in Room 204 in Norris. When the shootings began, people suddenly pulled off screens and pushed out windows. "Then people started jumping," he said. "I didn't just leap. I hung from the ledge and dropped. Anybody who made it out was fine. I fell and I hit a bush to cushion my fall. It knocked the wind out of me. I don't remember running."
About 9:50 a.m., Jamal Albarghouti was walking toward Norris Hall for a meeting with his adviser in civil engineering "to review my thesis. As I was walking, about 300 feet away, I started hearing people shouting, telling me to run or [get] clear."
He started to move away, but he also pulled out his cellphone, which has videorecording capability, and he began filming. His video, which he later shipped to CNN, captures officers running toward the brown three-story building, a couple of flashes from the second floor and 27 gunshots.
The video soon became the defining image of the rampage. "I just didn't think I was in great danger," Albarghouti said later.
In a German class in Room 207, Perkins was seated in the back with about 15 fellow students. The gunman barged in with two guns, shot the professor in the head, then started shooting students, Perkins said.
Panic ensued, he said. "And the shots seemed like it lasted forever."
The gunman left Room 207 and tried to return several minutes later, but Perkins and two other students had blocked the door with their feet. He shot through the door.
The last time anyone spoke with Kristina Heeger, she was headed for a 9 a.m. French class in Norris. Within an hour, the sophomore from Vienna had been shot in the back. But she survived.
It was a story that played out across campus, and far beyond, with so many wounded, so many dead. "She's doing better," said a friend, Eric Anderson, last night after seeing her. "She's recovering. We're praying for her right now. She couldn't talk to them yet, or anyone, and they didn't know any details about what happened."
Tucker Armstrong, 19, a freshman from Stephens City, Va., passed by Norris as he headed to a 10 a.m. class. He said in an e-mail that he "noticed several kids hanging and jumping from the second floor windows trying to land in bushes."
Armstrong said he heard repeated bangs. He went to help the people who had leapt from the building, but they yelled at him: " 'Get out of here, run!' At that point I realized they were shots and they just kept going and going."
Police and ambulances poured into the area. Dustin Lynch, 19, a sophomore from Churchville, Md., watched from the nearby Drillfield as unresponsive students were carried out of Norris Hall. "I saw police officers literally carrying kids out," Lynch said. "It basically looked like they were carrying bodies."
Parents arrived at the Inn at Virginia Tech to meet with other grieving families and were distraught at the university's management of the incident. "I think they should have closed the whole thing. It's not worth it. You've got a crazy man on campus. Do something about it," said Hoda Bizri of Princeton, W.Va., who was visiting her daughter Siwar, a graduate student.
Brett Hudner, 23, communications major from Vienna, was heading toward one of the dining halls and suddenly a scrum of police cars raced by. "The scary thing is I know I'm going to go into classes, and there's going to be empty spaces," Hudner said.
The Bizris, meanwhile, were waiting for news about a friend whom they could not locate. They think she was inside Norris Hall.
Jackman reported from Washington.