Page 3 of 5   <       >

'That Was the Desk I Chose to Die Under'

Like those in other classes, the French students had heard the banging, or pops. "That's not what I think it is?" asked Couture-Nowak.

Violand, feeling panicky, pointed at her and said, "Put that desk in front of the door, now!" She did, and then someone called 911. The desk could not hold back the push from outside. The first thing Violand saw was a gun, then the gunman. "I quickly dove under a desk," he recalled. "That was the desk I chose to die under."

He listened as the gunman began "methodically and calmly" shooting people. "It sounded rhythmic-like. He took his time between each shot and kept up the pace, moving from person to person." After every shot, Violand thought, "Okay, the next one is me." But shot after shot, and he felt nothing. He played dead.

"The room was silent except for the haunting sound of moans, some quiet crying, and someone muttering: 'It's okay. It's going to be okay. They will be here soon,' " he recalled. The gunman circled again and seemed to be unloading a second round into the wounded. Violand thought he heard the gunman reload three times. He could not hold back odd thoughts: "I wonder what a gun wound feels like. I hope it doesn't hurt. I wonder if I'll die slow or fast." He made eye contact with a girl, also still alive. They stared at each other until the gunman left.

The small group of 10 in Haiyan Cheng's computer class heard the loud banging outside. She thought it was construction noise at first, but it distracted her. No, they were pops. Then silence, then more pops. Cheng and a female student went to the door and peered out. They saw a man emerge from a room across the hall. He was holding a gun, but it was pointed down. They quickly shut the door. More popping sounds, getting louder, closer. The class was in a panic. One student, Zach Petkowicz, was near the lectern "cowering behind it," he would later say, when he realized that the door was vulnerable. There was a heavy rectangular table in the class, and he and two other students pushed it against the door. No sooner had they fixed it in place than someone pushed hard from the outside. It was the gunman. He forced it open about six inches, but no farther. Petkowicz and his classmates pushed back, not letting up. The gunman fired two shots through the door. One hit the lectern and sent wood scraps and metal flying. Neither hit any of the students. They could hear a clip dropping, the distinct, awful sound of reloading. And, again, the gunman moved on.

There was more carnage in the hallway. Kevin Granata had heard the commotion in his third-floor office and ran downstairs. He was a military veteran, very protective of his students. He was gunned down trying to confront the shooter. His brother-in-law Michael Diersing, down on the first floor, heard the awful sounds and realized that the building was under attack. Diersing stepped out into the hallway with Greg Slota and noticed that the first-floor entry doors had been chained and padlocked. No way out. They shuddered to think that sometime earlier, as they were chatting or working or drinking coffee, the murderer must have walked right past their room on his way to chain the doors. Their room had a lock on it. Several students came rushing toward them, and they let them in and then locked up.

Room 204, Professor Librescu's class, seems to have been the gunman's last stop on the second floor. The teacher and his dozen students had heard too much, though they had not seen anything yet. They had heard a girl's piercing scream in the hallway. They had heard the pops and more pops. By the time the gunman reached the room, many of the students were on the window ledge. There was grass below, not concrete, and even some shrubs. The old professor was at the door, which would not lock, pushing against it, when the gunman pushed from the other side. Some of the students jumped, others prepared to jump until Librescu could hold the door no longer and the gunman forced his way inside.

Matt Webster, a 23-year-old engineering student from Smithfield, Va., was one of four students inside when the gunman appeared. "He was decked out like he was going to war," Webster recalled. "Black vest, extra ammunition clips, everything." Again, his look was blank, just a stare, no expression, as he started shooting. The first shot hit Librescu in the head, killing him. Webster ducked to the floor and tucked himself into a ball. He shut his eyes and listened as the gunman walked to the back of the classroom. Two other students were huddled by the wall. He shot a girl, and she cried out. Now the shooter was three feet away, pointing his gun right at Webster.

"I felt something hit my head, but I was still conscious," Webster recalled. The bullet had grazed his hairline, then ricocheted through his upper right arm. He played dead. "I lay there and let him think he had done his job. I wasn't moving at all, hoping he wouldn't come back." The gunman left the room as suddenly as he had come in.

When Webster opened his eyes, he saw blood everywhere. Some of it was his, though he didn't realize it until he saw blood pouring out the sleeve of his sweat shirt. The girl nearby was unable to speak, only moaning. Blood seeped from her mouth.

Jumping Students And Shocked Police

At 9:45, the Virginia Tech police received the first 911 call from inside Norris Hall. Then more calls started coming in to police and EMTs throughout the region, with reports of mass casualties. The first officers from the university and city police forces arrived in minutes to find a large crowd of students on the Drillfield, a vast expanse across from Norris. They ordered the students to leave the area, immediately.

Tucker Armstrong, a freshman from Stephens City, Va., had been walking by Norris when he heard the shots and saw several students jumping out the second-floor windows. They were landing in bushes and struggling to get up. He saw the police arrive, fully armed, yelling at everyone to get inside. Matthew Murray, a freshman from Herndon, was watching as he huddled nearby in a second-floor doorway at McBride Hall. "People were running out of Norris and screaming. Streams of people were running out constantly. It was controlled, but you could tell everyone was panicked and very upset." An older man came out grabbing his bloody head. Then the jumpers. At least three people leaping out of second-story windows. One missed the grass and "hit the pavement especially hard. He landed kind of crunched up over toward his face, and he didn't get up at all."


<          3           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company