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.
The university was aware of the challenges involved in reaching students during a crisis, even in an age when everyone seems to be wired. In August, a jail inmate escaped, fatally shot a hospital guard and a sheriff's deputy and then hid on campus on the first day of classes, setting off a manhunt that shut down campus.
The university posted updates on its Web site that day and sent out e-mails, but it took longer for the news to reach students who were commuting to school and were not online.
A campus spokesman said earlier this semester that the university was working with a company to provide a service that would send out text-message alerts to students' cellphones. The university was considering requiring students to give their cellphone numbers when they register for classes, he said.
Yesterday, Steger said that the university would review its emergency response policies again in light of the shootings but that only so much could be done to prepare for unforeseen disasters.
"It's very difficult. This is an open society and an open campus with 26,000 people, and we can't have armed guards in front of every classroom every day of the year," he said. "It was one of those things no one anticipated. . . . Honestly, every situation we face is different."
It was not until 9:50 a.m., after the Norris Hall shootings, that a stronger e-mail warning from the university reached students: "A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows."
A third e-mail went out at 10:16, canceling classes and asking students to stay put. And it was 10:52, more than an hour after the Norris Hall shootings, that an e-mail went out stating that the attack had occurred.
Justin Born, a junior from Centreville, had left for his 10:10 class after checking his e-mail and seeing the first 9:26 notice about being "cautious."
"I was like, 'All right.' I decided to go to class, because I didn't think it was that big of a deal," he said.
After parking on campus and walking to class, he saw people running to cars and running from the campus, shouting about the second shooting. It was only after he got home that he saw the e-mail about classes being canceled.
"I don't know how to describe it," he said. "It just seems, I don't know, immature. I don't if immature is the right word, but it doesn't seem like Virginia Tech did the right thing by not canceling class after a shooting. It was ridiculous."