2 Years After Va. Tech Massacre, Norris Hall Opens Door to Pain, Possibility

Virginia Tech campus stops to remember the students and faculty who were shot to death two years ago by Seung Hui Cho.
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 16 -- The hallway here at Virginia Tech where so much destruction and heroism occurred two years ago -- where a Holocaust survivor blocked the door and was killed, where police found cellphones ringing next to dead bodies -- has at long last reopened to the public.

But Thursday, as the university commemorated the second anniversary of senior Seung Hui Cho's massacre of 32 students and faculty members and many people returned to Norris Hall, it was clear that the community remains conflicted over whether things will ever really return to normal.

For faculty member Ishwar Puri, head of the engineering science and mechanics department, Norris Hall is a physical place that gives him pride -- but not easily. (Cho fatally shot 30 students and faculty members in Norris Hall and two other students at a dormitory before taking his own life.)

"Can I be very mundane? I want to get to that happy place where we need to be," said Puri, 50, who lobbied school officials to keep and refurbish Norris Hall. "What we deal with here in this building are people who work here and who are in pain and who suffer. In many ways, I feel culpable or responsible. We had an entire unit -- the dean of engineering's office -- that chose not to go back. But I have a responsibility to carry out the legacy of [my slain colleagues]. Otherwise, their sacrifices would have been in vain."

The renovation of the second floor of Norris Hall's west wing has infused the old institutional-looking space with an art gallery feel: The hallways are arched, the floor is paneled in light and dark shades of wood, labs have replaced classrooms and a curved frosted glass wall of one room carries the title "Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention." Even the steps leading to the wing have fresh rubber, and the landings have new linoleum tiles.

The walls are newly painted; gone are the bullet holes left by Cho's Glock 9mm and Walther .22-caliber pistol. And the room numbers are different.

Thursday's commemoration included a spirited 3.2-mile run, which was proceeded by the release of 32 balloons and a moment of silence. Families and students gathered on the Drillfield for a ceremony during which all the victims' names were read aloud and comments about each of them shared.

But the most intriguing part of the day's events occurred at Norris Hall, on the redesigned second floor. In the hallway, which opened to the public April 10, there was heavy foot traffic of students, professors and family members who wanted to be in the very atmosphere where Cho committed his killings. Many students -- dressed in clothes from the morning run -- marveled at the modern design, snapped photos and left in an upbeat mood. Others had blank expressions or teary eyes, or they held hands and muttered: Surreal. Just surreal.

"It's unreal. For the past two years, I have avoided Norris," said senior Samantha Kleckner, 22, standing inside one of the rooms.

Her friend Virginia Still, 23, also a senior, said she showed up out of curiosity. "It's hard. You try to keep imagining what happened at the time and what it looked like, which sounds pretty bad, but . . ."

"Literally," Kleckner said, pausing. "You can't look at the windows without imagining people jumping out."

Then the two women realized the time: It was 9:30 a.m., about the time Cho started firing shots inside Norris. Still shook her head: "This is when everything changed, when we went from a school with a great football team to this."

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