Police Describe Struggle to Enter Hall at Va. Tech

Celeste Leizer sits in the rain at her friend Caitlin Hammaren's memorial stone in Blacksburg.
Celeste Leizer sits in the rain at her friend Caitlin Hammaren's memorial stone in Blacksburg. (By Jae C. Hong -- Associated Press)
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 26 -- Police officers desperately shot at the chains that Seung Hui Cho had used to lock the entrances to Norris Hall at Virginia Tech before they shot away a deadbolt on a side door and used bolt cutters to enter the building, authorities said Thursday.

State police released details of what officers did during the five minutes it took them to enter the building in which Cho killed 30 people April 16.

Arriving at Norris three minutes after a 911 call at 9:32 a.m., the first team of four to five officers found that the building's thick wooden doors had been chained shut. They shot at the chains but couldn't break them, so they ran to a locked side door. Shooting away the deadbolt, they entered the building through a laboratory, said Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.

The officers then paused for an unknown period to plan their strategy. "You can't just rush into a building. You have to have a game plan," Geller said. "They didn't know what they were up against, whether it was more than one gunman, part of an ambush, if there were hostages. They literally had to get into position."

As they ran to the second floor, the officers heard the final gunshot -- Cho's self-inflicted wound to the head. A second team, meanwhile, which included the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg police chiefs, was frantically trying to breach a second door. An officer ran to get bolt cutters, quickly returned with them, and the team was in. But it was too late.

The response by police and university officials will be among the focuses of an independent commission investigating the deadliest shooting by an individual in U.S. history. The Norris Hall attack came more than two hours after Cho, 23, had shot and killed his first two victims, freshman Emily Hilscher and resident adviser Ryan Clark, at the West Ambler Johnston dormitory. Thirty-three people died in all, including the gunman, and as many as 29 were injured. Cho's rampage at Norris took nine minutes.

Law enforcement officials reiterated Thursday that they have found no explanation for Cho's actions and no connections between him and either Hilscher or Clark that would explain his decision to start his attack at the dorm. Cho was standing outside when Hilscher returned to the dorm about 7:15 a.m. But he did not follow Hilscher upstairs and is believed to have entered the building through a different door, according to law enforcement sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.

"There is no evidence that he picked those first two victims, particularly the first female victim, for any particular reason other than that it was simply just random," said a person familiar with the investigation. That source believes the dorm shooting was an effort to divert law enforcement officers from Cho's attack at Norris Hall.

The police reaction to the chaos at Norris was "a remarkable response time," Geller said. "That's a lot of activity in five minutes, for them to try to breach one door, get to a second door, get inside and get into tactical position to move to the second floor."

The response won positive initial reviews Thursday from experts on police tactics, though they said they needed more details to fully assess the performance of the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg officers.

"It's pretty clear if they are shooting at the chains that this is a group of officers who desperately wanted to get in," said Maj. Steve Ijames of the Springfield, Mo., police, who teaches a class on rapid deployment to critical incidents for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

He said police are taught that "you want to move as quickly as you can to the threat, but you have to do that in as organized and structured a fashion as you possibly can in the middle of chaos. That does include a quick read of 'You go here, you watch behind us, you do this, you know the building.' "

Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles police captain who is now a consultant on police tactical issues, said it would have made no sense for officers to "run willy-nilly" into Norris, no matter how desperate the situation. "The last thing you want is police officers running around in a disorganized fashion," he said. "They'll end up shooting each other."

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