The Return to Norris Hall, Where Everything Changed

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."

Other students came to pray. Seniors Kelly Luhrman and Rachel Fee, both 21, knew one of the victims from their time spent with Campus Crusade for Christ. "I feel really at peace," Fee said, "but it would be too weird to have to come here for classes. You don't want to think, 'Oh, Lauren sat there.' You want to focus on your work," she said, referring to her friend Lauren McCain, who was in German class when she was killed.

"I don't know. It's still sinking in," Luhrman said.

Parents of victims and survivors padded along the floors, their hands clasping the door handles gingerly. Some were escorted by school officials and law enforcement authorities. Others, such as Linda Walsh of Binghamton, N.Y., seethed. Her daughter, Theresa Walsh, had seen Cho in the hallway and ran back to warn classmates, who barricaded the door so Cho could not enter. "I wish they'd burn this building down. I'm the lucky one, though. My baby is still alive," Walsh said, glancing out of one of the room's windows.

When Walsh found the room where her daughter had been taking a class that day, she discovered a coin-shaped hole in a window screen. "I'm pretty sure that's it -- a bullet hole," Theresa Walsh said, looking at her mother.

"Look -- there is another one," Linda Walsh said, pointing to a tear in a different window screen. As she glanced back, her daughter was quickly exiting the room.

As the department head inside Norris, Puri had to navigate unspoken emotions between him and his colleagues in his pursuit to retain the building, he said. With an engineering professor's precision, Puri said that reclaiming the building, in one way, is about cold numbers. "This is about a $35 million building. If we were to raze it, that would cost 2 to 5 million dollars. Then you have to rebuild it for $35 million, so the total cost would be $75 million," he said while looking out the windows of the room formerly occupied by his good friend Liviu Librescu, who was killed. "To point it out can look disrespectful. It was a subtext."

Puri said he greatly admires those colleagues who differed with him on the vision for Norris but sees the revitalization of the hall as the continuation of the educational mission he shared with Librescu. Puri's wife, Beth Levinson, a local middle school teacher, is Jewish, and the couple felt a kinship with Librescu, a Holocaust survivor. The Puri-Levinson home still has a flower arrangement that was a gift from Librescu in 2004.

As Puri paced around his friend's old classroom -- now a biomechanics lab -- he gravitated toward the windows and saw a large bush beneath them. "He held the door shut and told students to jump out. Many had their fall cushioned by this bush. You find some peace in the humanity of sacrifice," Puri said.

Surrounded by newly painted peach and green walls, Puri said he doesn't enter his colleague's old classroom thinking about what he would have done had he been under attack.

"The question should be, 'If I had been in this room as a professor, should I have been in Liviu's place?' I would like to know if I had the same caliber and same sense of responsibility. I would hope so."

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