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A Year Later, Va. Tech Is Still Healing
Campus, Community Try to Find Balance in Tragedy's Aftermath

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech students have learned to talk about it in shorthand, if they talk about it at all.

They do not use the words massacre, or shootings, or rampage. They call it "April 16th," and sometimes not even that. To say "four-sixteen" is enough. Everyone knows.

One year ago today, on a cold, windy morning, Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people on this campus before turning his gun on himself. The damage from that day is still so raw and so extensive that many here can barely bring themselves to utter his name. They will say "the killer," or "the shooter," but rarely "Cho."

"When I talk to people about it, they choke before they say his name," said Julie Evans, 19, a sophomore from Woodbridge. "There are a lot of sensitive words people don't like to say out loud."

Then there are the names, in this same system of shorthand, that have grown more familiar in the past year. Say "Caitlin," and many will know the name means Caitlin Millar Hammaren, a sophomore from Westtown, N.Y., killed in her French class. Or that "Reema" refers to Reema Samaha, a bright, radiant young woman from Centreville who seemed to have friends from all over.

"Every community that has to heal is a little ambivalent about how it has to heal," said Jane Vance, a writing instructor who has become a close mentor to many of her students since the tragedy. "Talking about it is the open wound. But not talking about it is being repressed."

For the past year, these abbreviations have helped to ease this campus back to something that resembles normalcy and to negotiate the difficult balance between not forgetting and moving on. But today it is 4/16 again, bringing an unwanted milestone that is reopening the wounds that so many students, parents, faculty members and others have struggled to close. Although the public memorials and remembrance ceremonies planned for today are designed to reaffirm the resiliency and extraordinary unity that have come to define this campus, they will also be reminders that healing is difficult and time-consuming and that it is mostly done in private.

"We have struggled to equilibrium," said Vance, who will stand with her students this morning at a commemoration on the Drillfield and again tonight at a candlelight vigil. "But no matter how strong we are, how wise we are, it hurts."

Like any anniversary, it will be a day to gauge changes, large and small. The large differences are easy to list. Tighter gun access for those with a history of mental illness. New campus security measures that include e-mails and text messages from police. A new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention planned for the same place in Norris Hall where so much of the cruelty and killing occurred.

But the psychological toll remains scattered and difficult to pinpoint, surfacing occasionally in awkward ways, from taboo words to the eerie feeling some students get walking by Norris.

"It feels like just yesterday that it happened," said Wesley Yeager, 20, a junior from Stafford County. She was outside Norris a year ago when the gunshots began and police rushed her to safety in a nearby building. A week later, after classes resumed and Yeager saw flowers placed on a nearby desk in memory of a murdered classmate, she went home for the semester and did not return to campus until the fall.

"There was a period of time that I didn't know how to feel about anything," Yeager said. A numbness set in, and it stayed with her for months. "It was hard to say 'Hey, this affected me in a really bad way.' And I don't think it's gone away fully."

Tomorrow is Yeager's 21st birthday. Rather than leave campus to celebrate with friends at another school, she has decided to stay. "I want to be here," she said.

By all accounts, the attacks of a year ago have made what was already a friendly campus into a place of intense loyalty and community devotion. "We redouble and retriple our efforts to be kind to each other," Vance said. "That may prevent another accident."

A memorial with 32 engraved Hokie stones is now a centerpiece of the Drillfield. Students and others arrived yesterday to place roses, seashells, angel figurines and handwritten notes at the memorial.

Gabrielle Willis, 20, of Newport News came to lay flowers for two fallen friends, and the feelings came flooding back. "You feel emotions you thought you'd gotten rid of or that were embedded in your heart," she said.

Others said that they have been able to push back against the dread they have been feeling about the 4/16 anniversary by the anticipation of the same showing of community strength and support that followed the attacks.

"I think about September 11th," Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam said. "You remember the horror and devastation, but you also remember how New Yorkers all worked together and came together to support each other. That's how people think of us."

When the town held its annual volunteer day earlier this month to invite students to work with Blacksburg residents, 3,600 showed up to an event that drew 400 in the past, he said.

The same sense of unity is what strengthened the resolve of Mark Petersen, 19, a freshman from Fairfax County, to stick to his decision to attended Virginia Tech this school year despite the attacks. And yet, for him and other freshmen, the tragedy can seem like a dark family secret that is rarely talked about, and when it is, only in the company of other freshmen unburdened by the tragedy. It is not a safe subject to raise with anyone else.

"I don't know how to deal with people who have been in that situation," Petersen said. "I don't want to bring back memories."

Having completed nearly two semesters, Petersen said, Virginia Tech mostly seems like any other school, until "every once in a while, you get a glimpse of it." A friend in a German language club recently told to him that he had changed his major because his adviser, Christopher James Bishop, was one of the 32 killed a year ago.

And then there is Norris Hall. Petersen walks past it nearly every day. He is an engineering major, and he will probably attend classes in the building someday. He is not sure how he will handle it.

"Norris itself has this dark sense of what happened," Petersen said.

Today, the doors to the Norris classrooms are bolted shut. The second-floor corridor that links them has been repainted and scrubbed of any physical trace of the tragedy. Ishwar K. Puri's office is right down the hall, and a year ago he locked himself in there when Cho began shooting.

Puri is still picking up with the pieces from that day. As head of the university's vaunted engineering science and mechanics department, soon to celebrate its 100th anniversary, Puri said he faced a stark choice after 4/16: "either survive or become extinct." Puri said his program could not afford to walk away from its labs, offices and other facilities inside Norris.

"Shame on me to lead a department into extinction in its 99th year," he said.

Nor would it be possible to walk away from Liviu Librescu and Kevin Granata, engineering colleagues who gave their lives trying to defend their students. Puri is trying to fill their vacant positions on the faculty. "Both died in service of students," he said. "It's indelibly etched in blood in my department. That was the necessity of going back."

Puri and others at the university take comfort knowing that each anniversary will be a bit easier, especially as the campus accepts new students who do not carry the scars. This year, the campus admissions office received more applications than the year before the killings. And by this fall, when the new class of students arrives, it will mean that more than half the undergraduate population was not present during the massacre.

"We have the benefit of not having been here," said Samantha Simcik, 18, a freshman from Stafford. "We can bring something positive and help those others who were here to heal."

Last night, as students contemplated whether to attended the memorial events or leave campus, Vance's class "The Creative Process" met in a building not far from Norris. On a window in that building, the word "HELP" was still visible in large block letters, streaked into the glass a year ago by students trapped inside. No one had washed it off.

Vance said she could not let 4/16 go unnoticed. Her students had been reading the memoir of a Tibetan woman imprisoned for 30 years in a Chinese jail, and she drew parallels wherever she could. "Think of Cho as occupied," she told them.

When class ended, Vance reminded her students where she would be on the Drillfield in the morning, if they wanted to stand with her. She asked, "Will I see some of you tomorrow?"

All around the room, they nodded.

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