Tech officials told their families before campus of killings

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009

On the morning of April 16, 2007, the day of what would go down in history as the largest mass murder at an American college, Kim O'Rourke, a Virginia Tech official, called her son and told him that there had been a shooting on campus. Lisa Wilkes, another university official, warned her family, according to a school spokesman.

A corrected report about the massacre, released Friday, says those calls went out at 8:05 a.m., one hour and 21 minutes before university officials sent out the first e-mail warning students, faculty and staff members about the shootings.

On Friday, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) described as "inexcusable" the gap between the calls by members of a policy group that convened to manage the situation that morning and the official all-campus warning that was sent by e-mail at 9:26 a.m.

Col. Gerald Massengill, the former head of the Virginia State Police who was chairman of Kaine's investigative panel on the shootings, said he did not know of the calls while writing the report but learned of them later from relatives of some of shooter Seung Hui Cho's victims.

"I had heard from family members early on that they were very disappointed that university officials chose to notify their own families before the campus family was notified," Massengill said. "I'm not sure what happened, but the priority certainly should have been the students and the community."

O'Rourke, chief of staff to Tech President Charles Steger, said the corrected report misconstrues her actions. She said she called her son, then a Tech student, that morning to make sure he was awake, as she often did. "I did tell him what had been happening, and I told him to go to class," she said. "He was in class at the time of the shooting in Norris Hall."

Wilkes, who is now assistant vice president for finance, could not be reached to comment. Massengill said the corrected report strengthens the original panel's tough criticism of the university for failing to give students timely warning, which Virginia Tech officials say they have since corrected with new policies and a multimillion-dollar alert system.

Cho began his larger rampage at 9:40 a.m. April 16 -- 14 minutes after the first campuswide alert about his other shootings. At 9:51 a.m., Cho shot and killed himself, and the massacre was over. In addition to Cho, 32 died, and 17 were injured.

The original report on the shootings criticized university officials for the delay in the alert, saying it "cost lives." The corrected report, the result of more than a year of lobbying by victims' families, publicly confirmed for the first time what families had discovered privately: that university officials alerted their children to the shootings and that some offices were locked down well in advance of the general warnings.

"They were locking doors. They were calling their children," said Suzanne Grimes, whose son, Kevin Sterne, was shot and nearly killed. "The vet school was locked down at 9 a.m. The governor's office knew at 8:40 a.m. And my son was on his way to Norris Hall. How does that make me feel? Angry as hell."

According to the revised report, veterinary college officials decided to lock down at 9 a.m., just moments before the school's government affairs director "ordered the university president's office to be locked."

Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said Wilkes was dropping her children off at her mother's house when she got a call telling her that there had been a shooting and to come to work right away. Wilkes, in turn, told her family, Owczarski said.

Grimes and other relatives of victims said they first found out about the lockdowns and phone calls a year ago in private meetings with Tech officials. Later, the university opened a vast archive of reports and e-mail exchanges as part of an $11 million settlement most of the families signed with Tech. Two families are suing the university over the deaths of their children.

"The family members convinced me . . . it was important to make corrections for the record," Kaine said. The corrected report also criticized the university for failing to notify Emily Hilscher's family that she had been shot. Hilscher, one of Cho's first victims, survived for three hours before dying. Her family was notified only after her death.

Staff writer Anita Kumar in Richmond contributed to this report.

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