April 16, 2007

'That Was the Desk I Chose to Die Under'

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

The roommates crossed paths near the bathroom door at 5 in the morning. In the Monday darkness, another school week at Virginia Tech was about to begin. Karan Grewal had pulled an all-nighter to finish his accounting paper. His eyes were bleary as he saw Cho Seung Hui, in boxer shorts and T-shirt, moving around him to get into the bathroom. No words were exchanged, but that is how it always was with Cho, the silent stranger among six guys in Suite 2121 of Harper Hall. Cho, or Seung as his suitemates called him, never looked you in the eye, rarely changed expression, would just walk right on by.

Grewal returned to his room and collapsed on his bed, falling into a deep sleep. He would not stir until mid-morning, awakened by an uncommon sound on campus, the wail of sirens.

Cho left the bathroom, got dressed, pulled a stocking cap over his head, and set out from the dorm on his way to kill 32 students and teachers and then himself in the bloodiest mass murder by a lone gunman in American history.

The malevolent force that emerged from Suite 2121 that morning set in motion a day of enormous tragedy. There was one murderous villain on the Blacksburg stage with all the familiar characteristics: lonely, angry, mentally unstable, desperate, uncommunicative. But with the world watching, scores of other people were drawn into the unfolding drama, from a brave old Holocaust survivor who tried valiantly to save his students and died in the trying, to the kid in German class who became an eloquent voice of the survivors, to the quick-thinking student in computer class who placed a heavy table to block the doorway just in time, to the young man in mechanical engineering who made it through by pretending that he was dead.

April 16, 2007 -- another date of death for people to absorb, if not fully comprehend. Another unthinkable worst in this violent world. This time it was on a college campus tucked away in southwestern Virginia, but the heartache was familiar and universal. Like a string of little jewels, one upon another, came the stories of priceless lives cut short: Alameddine, Bishop, Bluhm, Clark, Cloyd, Couture-Nowak, Granata, Gwaltney, Hammaren, Herbstritt, Hill, Hilscher, Lane, La Porte, Lee, Librescu, Loganathan, Lumbantoruan, McCain, O'Neil, Ortiz, Panchal, Perez Cueva, Peterson, Pohle, Pryde, Read, Samaha, Shaalan, Sherman, Turner, White.

* * *

The first call came into campus police at 7:15 that morning. A female resident assistant on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, a short walk from where Cho lived. She said there had been a shooting. She had heard screams, then more screams, then a pop, pop, and went down the hall to discover two bodies, a male and female, near Room 4040 in what was known as the "elevator" section, an area in the middle of the dorm between the men's side and the women's side.

Police later identified the female as Emily Hilscher, a freshman from Woodville, Va. The male was one of the dorm's resident assistants, Ryan Clark, from Georgia. The officers began interviewing other students. Aside from the resident assistant, most had not heard or seen anything, even though there was a trail of bloody footprints down the hallway.

Among the first medical responders were student leaders of the Virginia Tech rescue squad. Matthew Lewis was brushing his teeth at the squad office on the northwestern perimeter of the sprawling campus when the fire alarm went off. Moments later, another alarm sounded, and both EMT ambulances were on their way. One of the victims had been taken away by the time Lewis arrived. His group took the second victim. The dorm's fourth floor was nearly empty. All the students had been taken down to a common room a floor below, where resident assistants and counselors talked with them.

Rumors were flying about shootings and death. Most of the students on those floors were freshmen, and they were visibly distraught. They were ordered to stay put; the hall was under lockdown. After a year on campus, they had finally started to think of their hall as home, said Sarah Peet, a student from Columbus, Ohio. Now all they were talking about was getting out of there, going home.

Investigators, in their initial interviews with those who knew Hilscher, learned about her boyfriend, a student at nearby Radford University. Maybe it was a domestic incident, they concluded. Most are. Some officers were dispatched to go find the boyfriend, Karl D. Thornhill, operating under the assumption that they had the problem contained.

Two hours later, another 911 came in, this one from Norris Hall.

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