Hokie Nation Spirit Pierces Fog of Tragedy in Blacksburg

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 17 -- The emerald quads of Virginia Tech stood empty. The swimming pool at McComas Hall was still, the basketball courts silent. Signs were taped on buildings across campus: "CLOSED DUE TO TRAGEDY."

But the 10,000-seat Cassell Coliseum was jampacked midday Tuesday with mourners, young ones wearing spirited garb unusual for a memorial: orange and maroon T-shirts, school colors in honor of their lost fellow students, the sense of peace lost from this idyllic valley.

And when the coliseum doors closed an hour before the convocation began, the river of orange and maroon winding down Washington Street flowed into Lane Stadium next door, filling the football field and a third of one side of the stands. Thousands sat in brilliant sunshine to watch on the big screen. The turnout showed the solidarity of students resolved to overcome campus tragedy.

Citing the biblical Job and his struggle to understand suffering, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) told the crowd that violence-weary people around the world are watching Blacksburg.

"As you wrestle with despair, do not lose hold of that spirit of community you have," he said, asking mourners to help the victims' families and react in a way that will benefit people watching. "The world needs you to."

Less than an hour later, after tears and citations of Scripture, the spirit people here call Hokie Nation surfaced in an unexpected and moving fashion. A familiar sound rose from a lower section in the basketball arena of this sports-crazed school:

"Let's go, Hokies!"


"Let's go, Hokies!"


Attended by Kaine, President Bush and rows of national and local dignitaries, as well as friends and family members of some victims, the event drew into one place a sad energy that had been eerily dissipated during the previous 24 hours as many students had left campus.

With national media and state police descending on the campus, classes canceled until Monday and worried parents -- including some who arrived unannounced -- in town, the most common scene Tuesday morning was of suitcases rolling along paths normally crowded with thousands of students going to and from class. Many students were leaving town.

But resources poured into Blacksburg. Religious denominations sent counselors from across the country who specialize in major tragedies. The university opened counseling centers for students and staff. Students at the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship house put out a makeshift sign: "Prayer and counseling."

Many said they were focused on one thing: the list.

"I'm just waiting, waiting" to see the remainder of names of the dead and wounded, said Steve Hardy, facility manager at the McComas Hall gymnasium, where the usual 2,000 students working out per day was down to about 12 at midday. "This is a tightknit community, and whether you know someone or if it's just someone you see walking around, you don't want to see their face flash on TV."

For everyone, the fog of shock seemed to rise a bit to let in questions: What would I have done if I had faced the shooter? Have I been changed? Has Tech?

"I'm more aware of not taking things for granted, living every day like it should be the best one of my life," said Cameron Brammer, 18, of Richmond.

Brammer and three of his Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers -- all freshmen -- had spent the previous morning and night watching the news. By Tuesday afternoon, they were among the few diners at the Hokie Grill and Co. cafeteria and would soon be headed to the convocation in blazers and ties.

Like many other students, they were debating whether to stay or go home. Their families want them home, some said.

"It's almost more important to stay here," said Judd Smith, 19, prompting nods from the others. "People here are like our family. We need to stay here and help out whoever needs it."

Yet an odd aimlessness pervaded the campus. The waiting area for student counseling was empty. The Hokie Grill cafeteria's big-screen TV showed "The Price Is Right" as state troopers leafed through a student newspaper with the headline "HEARTACHE." A single student trotted around the indoor track at McComas.

But for students, one purpose remained clear: simply being a Hokie. It seemed every other shirt bore a slogan: Tech Triumphs. Maroon Effect. Orange Effect.

Banter heard across campus ran the gamut -- on one subject.

"They're going to find someone to blame, no matter what."

"My dad started crying on the phone with me."

"I just don't think going home would help me right now."

"The press is awful."

At nightfall, thousands of people held candles in a vigil at the campus Drillfield, where cadets often drill in early morning and students play Frisbee in the afternoon. The event resembled a cocktail party as people held candles set in cups. Some people talked and laughed, others sobbed and still others held bunches of flowers and American flags.

Earlier in the day, Ashley Law, 18, was headed home to High Point, N.C.

"It's creepy quiet around here. We just sat around in our rooms. No one is even talking," she said outside West Ambler Johnston dorm. "The campus is usually poppin'. Everyone is happy to be here. But it's going to change. It's not going to be Virginia Tech -- for a while."

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