By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Two students were dead in a dormitory when Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger and his two top lieutenants gathered to assess the shootings and the university's response in Burruss Hall at 8:25 a.m. Monday.
Campus Police Chief Wendell Flinchum soon called in from the dorm: The police were on top of it and were already looking for the dead girl's boyfriend, he told Virginia Tech's executive vice president, its provost and Steger. The West Ambler Johnston Residence Hall was secure, he said, with officers surrounding it. The situation was contained.
That assumption could not have been more wrong. But was it avoidable? That is among the questions that an independent commission will be investigating to determine whether campus officials might have averted a catastrophe had they acted differently between Seung Hui Cho's first victim and his last.
For almost 2 1/2 hours after the initial alert at 7:15 a.m., a rapidly swelling team of law enforcement officers took steps that Flinchum and other top police officials say were appropriate to investigate a double murder. But in fact, they were witnessing only the first act of the most deadly mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history. While police pursued what they expected to turn out to be a crime of passion, Cho mailed his violent manifesto and headed for Norris Hall.
The commission, appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), will examine the university's crisis management and its failure to inform the college community of the dorm shooting until 19 minutes before Cho started killing 30 more people at Norris. Its goal is to elucidate any lessons that might help other schools or institutions prevent similar attacks.
"There are assumptions that obviously drove some conclusions," said former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge, a member of the governor's commission.
The chiefs of the campus police, Blacksburg force and state police portrayed a routine, if tragic, crime scene at the dorm that gave no hint of the trouble to come. They said they never considered shutting down the campus and argued that doing so might have resulted in even more bloodshed.
In in-depth interviews Thursday and Friday, the three chiefs said they followed what they described as proper police procedure in investigating the double murder and securing West AJ, as the dorm is known. In the vast majority of cases, finding a man and a woman dead in a room leads to a domestic triangle, they said. And they noted that in a dorm with almost 900 students, the killings were limited to two, giving them no reason to fear a mass murderer.
"There are two separate incidents," Flinchum said. "We had a double homicide in a dormitory. None of that information gave us any thought to believe that this other thing, this other incident, was going to happen two hours later."
Angry parents, despondent students and some security advocates have said the campus should have been shut down immediately, students waved off and professors sent home before Cho could kill so many more in his second shooting at Norris, an academic building across campus.
"We can't know what was going on in their heads, but they needed to be more timely in their warning to their students," said Katherine Andriole, assistant program director for Security on Campus, a national advocacy group.
"They said this was a domestic disturbance, but it was a shooting in a dorm," said Susan Russell of Newport News, whose son attends Virginia Tech. Even before the shooting, Russell was pushing a bill in the state legislature to require state or local police to assume jurisdiction over felonies from campus police.
"I really do in my heart believe that if they had done something differently, this wouldn't have occurred," she said.
Steger and other top administrators declined to be interviewed. The chiefs said the criticism benefits from information police did not have at the time.
Shutting down the campus -- keeping everyone in place -- was not a legitimate option, they said. By the time police had secured the dorm, the school day was well underway. Thousands of students had slung backpacks on their shoulders and were on their way to school. There was no way to contact them all. In a briefing to the school's Board of Visitors last week, police also said a lockdown could have trapped an angry Cho inside his dorm, making things worse.
"This is a huge, huge campus," Flinchum said. "It's not like you're locking down one building to do this. You have over 200 buildings. Just because you call it a lockdown doesn't keep people from still moving about the campus and doing what they want to do."
The chief is not alone in that view. "Trying to lock down a college campus with over 25,000 people in over a dozen buildings spread across acres and acres presents monumental challenges. It is like trying to lock down an entire city," said Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm.
The chiefs say such challenges may not be obvious to outside observers.
"When the public sees it, they see it from the end back to the beginning," said State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty. "They have the benefit of knowing everything. No one knew Cho existed until he started shooting people."A Quick Conclusion
Flinchum arrived at West AJ a few minutes after a single officer responded to a 7:15 a.m. rescue call. Blacksburg Police Chief Kimberley S. Crannis showed up a few minutes later, having learned of the situation on her radio.
Within minutes, the fourth floor was evacuated and detectives were searching for evidence. Two SWAT teams, one from each of their small departments, were headed for the sprawling campus. Officers were stationed at exits, and others began searching the building.
"We considered a lot of possibilities," Flinchum said. "Could it be a murder-suicide? Could it be a domestic situation? We had to find people that were the last people to see these two individuals alive."
Officers believed that the girl, freshman Emily Hilscher, was probably killed by someone she knew, maybe a boyfriend who came to the dorm and became enraged to find her with the young man whom he also killed, Ryan Clark.
They began interviewing the shaken and frightened students in the dorm about Hilscher and Clark, a resident adviser who, it was later learned, came to the room only when he heard gunshots.
Before long, police had discovered that Hilscher's boyfriend, Karl D. Thornhill, had dropped her off at the dorm and that he owned guns -- and knew how to use them. He had, in fact, recently been to a shooting range, one of the girl's friends told police.
With students starting to talk about the shooting and the scene seemingly under control, at 9:26 a.m., Steger's group sent the first e-mail to students and faculty that a shooting had occurred at West AJ. "Police are on the scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious," the e-mail said.
Whether that was the right action at the right time will be a key focus of the commission appointed by Kaine, according to Ridge.
"There's a legitimate area of deep inquiry," he said. "That is a question on the mind of everyone who knows just a little bit about what transpired."
Flaherty said he welcomes the inquiry. But he said: "It's too soon right now to jump to knee-jerk conclusions. If we had 50 troopers out on the parade grounds or sidewalks or wherever we thought Cho was going, would we have recognized him as being any different?"A Gunman Is Loose
It was the sound of gunfire, reported in a wave of 911 calls, that shattered the officers' confidence at 9:45 a.m.
Word of an "active shooter" came over Flinchum's radio as he was standing outside the dorm, directing the investigation. It was heard in Burruss Hall, where Steger's team was monitoring the situation. And it was heard on Route 460, where police were questioning Thornhill, Hilscher's boyfriend. He was released and has not been charged.
Officers swarmed. A second e-mail was sent at 9:50 a.m., so quickly that it contained a misplaced capital letter: "PLease stay put," it commanded. "A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows."
Flinchum and Crannis got in their cars and drove across campus, arriving at the east entrance to Norris Hall just moments after SWAT teams had broken through the building's main entrance, which had been chained shut.
Cho had killed himself, the shooting had stopped, and the chiefs ran to the second floor, where the carnage was.
"It was a total disbelief of what I was seeing," Crannis said. "Horrific."
Flinchum described it as "heart-wrenching."
In his office outside Richmond, Flaherty also got word of the escalating crisis. He quickly assembled his executive staff and called his boss, Secretary of Public Safety John W. Marshall. By 11 a.m., both men were in Flaherty's black 2006 Chevy Impala.
Flaherty drove -- blue light blazing the entire 200 miles -- as Marshall juggled two cellphones and two BlackBerrys.
They were in Blacksburg before 2 p.m.
"The carnage," Flaherty said. "The humanity that lie there in those four classrooms and stairwell. The evidence strewn all about, which gives you some sense of the chaos and panic."
Flinchum says he cannot remember the passage of time clearly after that. "I wasn't looking at my watch. It was ongoing; it was chaotic," he said. "Our focus was saving people at the time."
At some point, he recalls helping "a young lady out to the police vehicle. I remember doing that."
Flinchum's police department has 55 people to cover the 2,600-acre campus, which has about 7,000 staff and faculty members in addition to its 26,000 students. It is a fully accredited force with full police powers. Its members are trained in ways similar to departments across the state. But its officers rarely confront serious violence.
"I want to continue to work on programs such as the Adopt-a-Hall program, the Park, Walk, Talk program, and the Student Police Academy," Flinchum told a college newspaper when he became acting chief in July.
By late morning, help for the Tech force began arriving from everywhere. State troopers, blocked by high winds from using helicopters,
raced along the highways. Police officers and sheriff's deputies from other jurisdictions arrived without being asked.
"We're a small community up here," Flinchum said. "Because of the magnitude of this crime, I needed more resources."The Right Way
Immediately after Tuesday's memorial convocation, attended by Kaine and President Bush among others, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors met privately, grilling Flinchum, Steger, Crannis and Flaherty, according to two participants.
Could security cameras have helped, they asked? Perhaps, the group concluded, but several openly worried about the "Big Brother" concerns and asked where cameras would be put. In parking lots? In all dorms?
Would searching the campus have helped? Officials said they doubted anyone would have noticed Cho as he crossed campus.
They talked about the school's siren system, which sounded just after 9:45 a.m. School officials explained that the system is intended to warn people who are outside during a weather-related threat such as a tornado and would not have been an effective communication tool after the first dorm killings.
Someone asked about the state's emergency plan, which was updated after an escaped inmate killed two people, including one near Virginia Tech, and was captured on campus during a manhunt in August. The plan on the university's Web site is dated May 2005, or 15 months before the incident last summer. A university spokesman, Mark Owcsarski, was not able to provide a copy of the updated plan.
After more than an hour, the group appeared satisfied but stopped short of issuing a statement of support.
Said one member, who declined to be identified because the group had agreed to keep the meeting private: "We all concluded, at least initially, that everything kind of went the right way."
But outside of the board room, others have expressed doubt about whether the administration's priorities were in order. "Regardless of your image, it is your duty when this occurs to keep your students informed," Andriole said.
Staff writers David S. Fallis and Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.