Centreville's Center of Attention

Reporters, including some from South Korea, were at the scene in Centreville.
Reporters, including some from South Korea, were at the scene in Centreville. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In the middle of the day yesterday, the media swarm moved -- for a few hours --from Blacksburg to Centreville as news emerged that the Virginia Tech shooter, Cho Seung Hui, had grown up in the Sully Station II neighborhood. There was something in the chilly winds that seemed unsettling.

"They live in that third house on the left," one cameraman shouted, pointing to a yellow-front townhouse -- in a row of eight -- on a small U-shaped drive. It was just an everyday kind of rowhouse, the mirror image of several others within sight, the kind that pizza delivery drivers like because the tips are big.

"It's a circus," said Officer C.K. Thibault of the Fairfax County Police Department as she herded media people behind a line of orange cones.

Large TV trucks topped with satellite dishes and smaller panel vans sporting 58-foot masts with terrestrial microwave transmitters lined Sully Park Drive just off Braddock Road. Notebook-toting print reporters mingled with recorder-bearing radio correspondents and microphone-gripping TV people.

There was a coldness cutting through the gray day. And the media scrum and the trickling of facts about the shooter (his purchase of a gun; his love of violent video games) and his family (they owned a dry-cleaning shop; a sister attended Princeton) transformed the little circle of townhomes into a Northern Virginia dystopia. Designed to be peaceful and safe, the area -- all of a sudden -- took on a sinister cast.

Everything looked suspect. A fat black garbage bag down by the creek. A cellphone on the sidewalk. A man in sunglasses walking his dogs.

Friendly conversations seemed ugly.

"You're dressed to kill," one TV guy said to a magazine reporter.

Or silly. "Now we can run wild," another TV reporter said as a motorcycle cop varoomed away.

When the wind shifted, it carried the oddly uplifting laughter and cries of glee from children playing soccer at nearby Stone Middle School.

Yanghee Kim, a reporter for the Korean Broadcasting Network, was especially upset. "We are shocked," she said, about the news that Cho was a South Korean immigrant. "We can't do our work." But she did interview people about Americans' feelings toward immigration in general and Koreans in particular.

Other Korean journalists, including Do Woon Lee of the Seoul Shinmun and Yongbom Heo of the Chosun Ilbo, stood on the sidewalk and waited for the Cho family to come or go.

There were a few dozen newspeople there, including recognizables, such as Bob Franken of CNN and Pierre Thomas of ABC. In a long brown coat, Thomas was especially focused, speaking into the camera. "How are we pronouncing the man's name?" he asked people back in the studio. He said he had knocked on the Chos' door, but nobody answered.

The atmosphere was somewhat subdued in Centreville, but back in Blacksburg the media menagerie was assembled. Camera wielders aimed lenses at dormitory windows and, using booms, lifted microphones up to kids on higher floors. Students, hanging out windows, talked to reporters on the ground. Media celebs such as Katie Couric and Greta Van Susteren moved among the scores of other reporters. The news operation of NBC (which also includes MSNBC) had nearly 100 people there. Fox News Channel had 70-plus and CNN more than 100.

On the campus, the media chaos may have represented the first baby step back to normalcy. But when the convocation began just after 2 p.m. there was quiet in Blacksburg and in Centreville. The camera lights went dim. The blow-dried talent grew quiet. Flags at the college and at the middle school in the Sully Station II neighborhood flapped at half-staff.

Staff writers John Maynard, Amy Gardner and Ian Shapira contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company