The Response

2-Hour Gap Leaves Room For Questions

Freshman Ryan Fowler hugs his father, Tim, right, as his mother, MaryEllen, hugs another student. Fowler's parents drove from Maryland to pick him up.
Freshman Ryan Fowler hugs his father, Tim, right, as his mother, MaryEllen, hugs another student. Fowler's parents drove from Maryland to pick him up. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Alec MacGillis and Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A single question stood out yesterday at Virginia Tech: Would more students be alive if the university had stopped them from going to class after a shooting occurred in a campus dorm?

The first shooting was reported at 7:15 a.m. in a dormitory, West Ambler Johnston Hall, where police found two people fatally wounded. But the first e-mail message from the Virginia Tech administration to students did not go out until more than two hours later, at 9:26 a.m., stating that a shooting had occurred but with no mention of staying indoors or staying off campus or canceling classes.

About 9:45, the shootings began in Norris Hall, a classroom building at the other end of the sprawling campus. Police said the gunman killed 30 people at Norris and wounded about 30 before killing himself.

"I don't know why they let people stay in classrooms," said Sean Glennon, a junior from Centreville and the quarterback on the Hokies football team. "A lot of people are angry that campus wasn't evacuated a little earlier."

The university president and campus police chief said they decided not to cancel classes after the first shootings because the initial indication at the dorm, based on interviews with witnesses, was that the attack might have been a domestic-violence incident and that the shooter probably had fled the campus.

"We were acting on the best information we had at the time," said Wendell Flinchum, the campus police chief. "We felt that this incident was isolated to that dormitory."

University President Charles W. Steger said officials also were unsure what the alternative would be to allowing classes to proceed. More than 14,000 of the university's 26,000 full-time students live off campus, and, with some classes starting at 8 a.m., many of them were en route when officials were having to decide, he said. The university and police decided that students would be safer in their classrooms than milling around the campus or in their dorms, he said.

"The question is, [where] do you keep them that is more safe?" Steger said. He added: "We concluded that it was best, once they got in their classrooms . . . to lock them down" there.

Officials characterized the response as a "lockdown" in classrooms, but with the first e-mail alert not going out until 9:26, most students were oblivious to any trouble.

Dustin Lynch, 19, a sophomore from Churchville, Md., said that at the time of the Norris Hall shootings, he was out on the Drillfield, a large oval lawn on campus, raising money for charity with other members of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. It was only when he saw a swarm of police cruisers racing to Norris Hall that he knew something was amiss.

University officials said classroom buildings are open at all times except late at night. The university could have restricted access to the building using an electronic key-card system built into many doorways, according to a law enforcement source, but investigators thought the shooter might have been a student with a key card that would have given him access to the buildings despite the lockdown.

"The question everyone is asking is: How can you have two hours between the shootings and the place not be locked down?" said the source, who was given an intelligence briefing yesterday but was not authorized to speak publicly.

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