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'That Was the Desk I Chose to Die Under'
Not a Hint Of a Problem
It was supposed to be an easy week for Trey Perkins, a sophomore from Yorkville, Va. -- "no tests or anything, kind of laid-back week." He had stayed up late Sunday night at his off-campus apartment with three friends, watching a National Hockey League playoff game between the Dallas Stars and the Vancouver Canucks. He got up at 7, plenty of time to make his 8 a.m. class in engineering dynamics at Randolph Hall. It was a lecture, going over material for a test, and the professor let them out a few minutes early. Randolph is right behind Norris Hall, where Perkins had a 9:05 in elementary German. He walked over and sat in the second-floor hallway outside Room 207.
When the previous class let out, Perkins was the first one in, greeting his instructor, Christopher James Bishop, known as Jamie to his friends, Herr Bishop to his students, a bespectacled 35-year-old with a long pony tail and perpetual smile. They enjoyed a comfortable relationship that revolved more around sports than German. Bishop, from Georgia, was an Atlanta Falcons fan, and Perkins, who had lived in New Orleans before his family moved to Virginia, rooted for the Saints. Just because the Falcons had the most famous Virginia Tech player ever, quarterback Michael Vick, didn't mean that Perkins could switch allegiances. As classmates slowly filtered into the class, Bishop and Perkins bantered about whom their two teams should pick in the NFL draft.
Next door in Room 211, Kristina Heeger had arrived from her off-campus apartment for her intermediate French class taught by Jocelyne Couture-Nowak. Heeger, a sophomore from Vienna, had spent much of the night before with a group of friends who had made a habit of gathering to watch "Planet Earth" on the Discovery Channel and then "Entourage" on HBO. Ten or 12 of them would meet at Ross Berger's place next to a frat house on Roanoke Street, then hang around and talk for a few hours after the television shows.
Monday morning, before leaving for French, Heeger had been on her computer, exchanging instant messages with Berger, up since 6 writing a paper for his Global Ethics class on what he called the totalitarianism of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Most of the messages were quick little contacts: hello, how you, good morning, how's your day, cold and crappy outside. The last IM from Berger read: Have a good day, be safe, and don't let the wind blow you away.
Up and down the hallways, things were getting underway. Haiyan Cheng was preparing to start her computer science class. She was filling in for the professor, who was away at a conference. Liviu Librescu, one of the renowned veterans of Tech's professorial academy, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor, was launching into his course on solid mechanics, and next door to him, G.V. Loganathan was getting into advanced hydrology. One floor above them, Kevin P. Granata, a professor of biomechanics, was working in his office, where he had developed some the country's most advanced thinking on movement dynamics and cerebral palsy. And down on the first floor, his brother-in-law, Michael Diersing, whose wife was the identical twin sister of Granata's wife, was chatting and checking e-mail alongside Granata's doctoral assistant, Gregory Slota.
At 9:26, the first e-mail alert went out to the Virginia Tech community, faculty and students, about the earlier incident at West Ambler Johnston. The university leadership team had been meeting for nearly an hour by then, going over what they knew and what they didn't know, and how they should handle the situation. The university police chief, Wendell Flinchum, had come in with the latest news on the investigation. It still looked to them like an isolated incident. The e-mail popped up on computers across the campus. John Ellerbe, a senior history major from Woodbridge, had just gotten out of the shower and was preparing for his 10 a.m. class when he read it: "A shooting occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case. . . . We will post as soon as we have more information."
Not long after that posting, the world of Virginia Tech changed forever. Life is mundane until it is not, and then the mundane can look serene.
Popping Sounds In the Hallway
The first attack came in Room 206, advanced hydrology taught by Loganathan. There were 13 graduate students in the class, all from the civil engineering department. There was no warning, no foreboding sounds down the hallway. The gunman entered wordlessly and began shooting. Students scattered to get as far away from the door as possible. One bullet hit Partahi "Mora" Lumbantoruan, an Indonesian doctoral student. His body fell on top of fellow graduate student Guillermo Colman. Then the shooter aimed his two guns around the room, picking off people one by one before leaving. Colman, protected by his classmate's prone body, was one of only four in the room to survive. The professor and so many of his disciples, most of them international students, were dead. Along with Colman, the three who survived were Nathanial Krause, Lee Hixon and Chang-Min Park. Two other members of the class lived because they didn't make it in that morning.
In Jamie Bishop's German class, they could hear the popping sounds. What was that? Some kind of joke? Construction noises? More pops. Someone suggested that Bishop should place something in front of the classroom door, just in case. The words were no sooner uttered than the door opened and a shooter stepped in. He was holding guns in both hands. Bishop was hit first, a bullet slicing into the side of his head. All the students saw it, an unbelievable horror. The gunman had a serious but calm look on his face. Almost no expression. He stood in the front and kept firing, barely moving. People scrambled out of the line of fire. Trey Perkins knocked over a couple of desks and tried to take cover. No way I can survive this, he thought. His mind raced to his mother and what she would go through when she heard he was dead. Shouts, cries, sobs, more shots, maybe 30 in all. Someone threw up. There was blood everywhere. It took about a minute and a half, and then the gunman left the room.
Perkins and two classmates, Derek O'Dell and Katelyn Carney, ran up to the door and put their feet against it to make sure he could not get back in. They would have used a heavy table, but there were none, and the desks weren't strong enough.
Soon the gunman tried to get back in. The three students pressed against the door with their arms and legs, straining with their lives at stake. Unable to budge the door, the gunman shot through it four times. Splinters flew from the thick wood. The gunman turned away, again. There were more pops, but each one a bit farther away as he moved down the hall. The scene in the classroom "was brutal," Perkins recalled. Most of the students were dead. He saw a few who were bleeding but conscious and tried to save them. He took off his gray hoodie sweat shirt and wrapped it around a male student's leg.
The French class next door was also devastated by then. Couture-Nowak, whose husband was a horticulture professor at Tech, was dead. Most of Kristina Heeger's classmates were dead. Reema Samaha, a contemporary dancer from Northern Virginia, was dead. And Ross Alameddine from Massachusetts and Daniel Perez Cueva from Peru and Caitlin Hammaren from Upstate New York. Heeger was among the few lucky ones; she and Hillary Strollo were wounded. Heeger was hit in the stomach. A bullet sliced through Strollo's abdomen and frayed her liver. Clay Violand, a 20-year-old junior from Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, also survived.