The crime-scene evidence from that day has been destroyed, the guns cut into unrecognizable pieces and everything else burned or shredded, Virginia State Police Capt. Rex Taylor said. But in attics and closets and draped across a bed in a now-too-empty house is evidence of another kind: the emotional keepsakes that serve as reminders of that April 16 morning a decade ago when student gunman Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people and then himself at Virginia Tech.
Some of the objects saved are small enough to fit in a pocket. Others take more than one person to lift. Some were gifts from strangers. Others belonged to loved ones who could no longer hold them. In the 10 years that have passed, much has changed for those who were on campus that day or were pulled there by the bloodshed. Students have graduated. Careers have blossomed. Families have expanded or shrunk. But the objects — a jacket, a quilt, a Christmas ornament, a cellphone, a drum, a collection of decorated eggs — still retain their power. They are tokens of grief. They are testaments of generosity. They are relics of heroism.
An EMT’s bloodstained jacket
Sydney Gay has never washed the Blacksburg Rescue Squad coat.
Normally, the dispatchers were calm, their voices delivering emergency information with a trained composure. That day, Sydney Gay, then a 20-year-old EMT with the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad, was in an ambulance returning from another call when she heard the panic in the dispatcher’s voice:
“Shots fired! Shots fired! Multiple people down!”
At the time, she was a student at Virginia Tech, her father was a Blacksburg police officer and her mother, also a member of the volunteer rescue squad, worked on campus. Gay’s thoughts rushed to them. Her classmates. Her dad. Her mom.
She started to cry in the ambulance as her crew drove to their station, a few blocks from the school’s campus, to pick up more members and another vehicle.
What happened next is blurry-edged and all too vivid.
Gay’s ambulance was one of the first on the scene. She recalls stepping out of the back and seeing people running and officers in tactical gear. She has a hazy memory of an officer in an unmarked Ford Explorer driving up and pulling several injured people from the back of his vehicle.
On a normal day, her crew would transport only one patient per ambulance. That day, they drove three gunshot victims at once to the hospital. Then, without stopping to fill out any paperwork, they turned around and returned to the campus.
The next moment is among the vivid ones. When they arrived, Gay walked up to a crew member who was managing triage at the scene.
“We just tagged 26 black,” Gay recalled her saying, knowing “black” meant dead. Gay later learned she knew two of the victims. “We both started hugging each other and started crying, and then it was, ‘Okay, get it together, get back to work.’ ”
A decade later, Gay works as a physician assistant in the same emergency room where she dropped off those patients. She also remains on the rescue squad, now as a paramedic.
After the shooting, Gay said, she would scan for an escape route or a place to hide anytime she walked into class.
“It messes with your trust,” she said. “You want to see the good in people, but it makes you expect the bad.”
She once asked her father how he coped with all he saw during the course of his job. “You have to find that place in the back of your mind to tuck it away and try not to think about it,” he told her. “Because it will ruin you.”
Gay kept the dark blue squad-issued jacket she wore that day and has never washed it, because she says she doesn’t believe it is healthy to forget. Emblazoned on the back with “Blacksburg Rescue,” it preserves “that memory, that pain, that loss,” she said. “I don’t want to lose that.”
The jacket is stained with blood that at one time resembled dried paint. It now has faded into the fabric.
She says the blood is probably from a survivor, because the three people she transported were not fatally injured. But if it is from someone who died that day, she said, there is “something still on this Earth from someone who is not.”
— Theresa VargasRead more
A mother’s quilt
Celeste Peterson stitched together her slain daughter’s T-shirts.
Celeste Peterson did the math. She needed at least 56 of her daughter’s T-shirts to make a quilt for her husband, Grafton.
After their daughter, Erin, was killed in the Virginia Tech shooting, he had taken the blanket from her bed and wrapped himself in it. She was their only child, and without her, their Centreville house felt too quiet, their future too uncertain. Her mother called her their “compass.” Her father described her as his “best friend.” The blanket was one way he kept her close.
Celeste knew this. She also knew that time and washings had worn it thin. Fearing it would fall apart, she started secretly working in October 2015 on a Christmas gift for her husband: a quilt made of their freshman daughter’s many T-shirts.
There was only one problem. First, she needed to pick them out, and to do so meant opening the boxes she had avoided for years.
After Erin’s death, Celeste couldn’t bring herself to pack up her daughter’s dorm room, so she gave her husband and niece explicit instructions. She wanted the boxes sealed, taped and labeled. And they did as told, each carton arriving neatly marked, “Erin’s clothes,” “Erin’s shoes,” “Erin’s toiletries.”
Celeste knew that’s where she would find most of the T-shirts. She opened two boxes, including one that held her daughter’s dirty clothes.
“That just tore my heart out.” she recalled. She cried and sorted and cried again. “These were the last things she wore.”
Friends offered to help, but Celeste insisted on doing it alone. She wanted to touch and smell Erin’s belongings by herself.
She also spoke to Erin at times, asking her at one point about a strange shimmer that covered the clothes. “What’s with the sparkles?” she recalled asking the teenager, a high school basketball player who was not one to embrace glitter. And then it occurred to her. The deodorant left on the clothing had broken down over time.
Celeste doesn’t talk about the life her daughter would have had, and she even paused to think whether Erin would have turned 28 or 29 this year.
“You don’t really say what they would have been because they’ll be 18 forever,” Celeste said. She likened the pain of her daughter’s loss to carrying a rock in her pocket. It was once heavy and sharp and constantly cut into her skin, she said. Now, only sometimes does she rub against an edge.
Celeste said it took her two weeks to find the right shirts to capture Erin’s personality. One pays tribute to blues legend B.B. King. Another tells of her years at Westfield High in Centreville. Several feature characters from “The Boondocks,” a cartoon that always made her and her mom laugh.
That Christmas when Grafton opened his gift, he grew quiet, and Celeste cried. At first, he didn’t want to use it for fear of getting it dirty, but soon he was sleeping with it every night. His health had worsened since his daughter’s death, and some nights his wife had to drape it over him.
For three months, he was able to enjoy the quilt, Celeste said. In March 2016, he died of a heart attack and was buried in a Virginia cemetery next to their daughter.
— Theresa VargasRead more
A Virginia Tech official’s ornament
Mark Owczarski and his wife hang it on their Christmas tree every year.
Mark Owczarski can’t remember if it was days or weeks after the shooting when he walked through Virginia Tech’s Squires Student Center and saw the angel.
She was made from yarn woven through plastic mesh, and like everything else on display at Squires, she was free.
After the shooting, people in town and across the world sent items to the university, hoping to offer a measure of comfort to a campus community they knew needed it. Squires became the official hub for free cookies, chocolates and crafts.
Owczarski slipped the angel into his pocket.
Eventually, it made its way home with him and onto the Christmas tree he and his wife put up that December. Every year since, it has found a place there, a quiet reminder of days that were harrowing and exhausting for both of them.
Owczarski worked for the University Relations office, which meant it fell to him to speak on behalf of the school after the shooting and to help guide the journalists that descended on campus. About 1,100 journalists from 600 media outlets arrived those first few days.
Owczarski’s wife, Dawn Jefferies Owczarski, was among them. She works for Roanoke station WSLS, an affiliate of NBC. The night of the shooting, she went on with Brian Williams live from the campus. Her husband watched from nearby but did not see the recording until years later.
“I didn’t have the time to watch anything or read anything for many, many months,” he recalled.
So many journalists were covering the story that hotels were booked for miles, and the Owczarski home was filled with his wife’s former colleagues. There was an understanding within the house that once inside those walls, everyone was off duty.
Owczarski said when he hangs the ornament each year, he thinks back on that time, when 33 people died and dozens were wounded, and about the person behind the angel.
“I think about the incredible act of kindness that somebody somewhere — I don’t know if it was a little old lady, I don’t know if it was a child, but somebody saw what was happening here, and somebody wanted to do something to show their support for the community,” he said. “I think about the journey of that object, how it started somewhere in this country . . . and it’s become a part of an annual tradition at Christmas, a season of hope, a season of love.”
Ten years later, Owczarski still works for the University Relations office, now as assistant vice president, and his wife still works for WSLS, anchoring the news each night. But their family has expanded by two.
On the day of the shooting, Owczarski’s wife was four months pregnant, and so while many people find it hard to believe a decade has passed, they have a visual reminder. Owczarski said he just has to look at their daughter McKinley to see how much time has gone by.
Owczarski said he knows that one day he and his wife will pass on their collection of ornaments to their children, and they will ask about the angel and its significance: “They’ll say, ‘What is April 16, 2007?’ ”
— Theresa VargasRead more
A survivor’s cellphone
Gil Colman’s flip phone was his lifeline to his family that day.
The commotion came from the right side of the classroom in Norris Hall.
Gil Colman was one of 14 Virginia Tech graduate students in G.V. Loganathan’s advanced hydrology class, where they were studying a stream-ranking system. Colman, then 38, was just a couple of months away from finishing his master’s degree in water resource engineering.
Now he watched as a young man entered Room 206 with handguns and opened fire.
Colman, the father of a 10-month-old baby, struggled to make sense of what was happening. Was it a practical joke? Colman said he thought briefly. A hyper-realistic disaster drill?
He stopped wondering when a bullet struck the student in front of him. Colman dove to the floor.
He ended up jammed against a radiator, with a classmate, Partahi “Mora” Lumbantoruan, bleeding to death on top of him. Colman felt a bullet graze his shoulder and head.
“When I realized I was shot, I thought ‘Lord Jesus, I have a wife and a baby,’ ” Colman said. “That was my prayer.”
He became one of just four students to leave the classroom alive. Paramedics found a bullet lodged in his skull, burrowed into his petrous bone, one of the hardest in the body. The doctor who removed the bullet called his survival a miracle.
His wounds healed, but he’d lost friends and the professor who served as his undergraduate adviser in the attack. The graduate students were close, eating meals together, playing table tennis every day and sharing class notes. Loganathan had been committed to their success.
“There is no exaggeration about his love for his students,” Colman said.
Colman eventually finished his master’s degree at Virginia Tech. He works as an engineer in Harrisonburg, Va. His son is now 10 years old. A daughter is 8.
“You want to forget, and yet you don’t want to forget and don’t want to forget because you don’t want to forget your friends,” Colman said. “That’s the most compelling aspect of not forgetting this. It’s easy to want to get away from this and live a normal life, yet I don’t want to forget my friends.”
He keeps a bin of objects from that day and the annual commemorations on campus, using them as “an emotional connection, and the reality that I was there,” Colman said. “This really happened.”
Inside is the 10-year-old cellphone he had in class that day: a Sprint flip phone that rang after he was rushed to the hospital. It was his wife calling.
“I said, ‘I’m fine, I was shot, but I’m okay,’ ” Colman remembered.
The phone became his lifeline to his family. Without it, Colman said, he wouldn’t have been able to reassure her with his own voice that he’d survived.
“I could have been dead also,” he said. “The phone was part of that event, so it’s more than just a phone.”
Colman said there’s one other item he wishes he still had: the bullet that was once lodged millimeters from his brain.
“I never got it back,” Colman said.
— T. Rees ShapiroRead more
A slain cadet’s drum
Matthew La Porte’s instrument was preserved by Bert Kinzey and others.
In the days after Matthew La Porte’s death, the band members who had marched beside him and the ones who had come before agreed: His drum needed to be saved.
The 20-year-old sophomore was an Air Force cadet at Virginia Tech and a member of the Corps of Cadets’ elite regimental band, the Highty-Tighties. In the band, his tenor drum was a part of him, and when he was gone, it was the drum that his classmates signed, one after another, filling the inside of it with their names and grief.
The drum now sits in a display case in the Corp of Cadets museum, along with his mallets, gloves, photo and the words “We Remember.”
“We promised his parents that he would never be forgotten,” said Bert Kinzey, a 1968 Highty-Tighties alumnus who served as board president for nine years.
And he hasn’t. The band has marched at times with a hole in its formation where La Porte would have stood, and every year its members honor him with a moment of silence.
Kinzey has also found himself many times in the last decade standing in front of the drum that La Porte held. He has even brought his grandsons to see it. La Porte, Kinzey said, epitomizes what the Highty-Tighties stand for — going above and beyond.
On that April day, La Porte was in his intermediate French class in Norris Hall when the shooting began. While his professor urged students to hide in the back of the room, La Porte went to the front to help classmates try to barricade the door.
When the gunman entered the room, La Porte is the only student known to have charged at Seung Hui Cho, an act that his classmates witnessed and that his wounds, seven at close range, testified to. In 2015, he was awarded the Airman’s Medal, and the citation credits him with helping “save lives by slowing down the shooter and by taking fire that would have been directed at his classmates.”
“He did what we all like to think we would have done,” Kinzey said. “Rather than run and cower, he tried to step up and make a difference.”
At La Porte’s viewing, many cadets mourned him by kneeling beside his coffin, Kinzey wrote in a tribute that captured the drummer’s high-top Converse-and-leather-jacket fashion sense. Kinzey recounted presenting the young man’s grieving mother with a Highty-Tighties alumni pin. They had just been made and not yet handed out, but Kinzey said he wanted her to know, “Matt will always be considered an alumnus.”
Barbara La Porte, he recalled, walked over to her son’s coffin and pinned it on his uniform. It remained there when La Porte was buried at a cemetery in Blacksburg, far from his home town of New Jersey but close to the band he loved.
Engraved on La Porte’s headstone were two words: “Ut Prosim,” the university’s motto, which means “That I may serve.”
— Theresa VargasRead more
An archivist’s delicate eggs
Tamara Kennelly catalogued condolence gifts that poured in from around the world.
They have faded over the years. Once stark black, the 32 Ukrainian-style eggs that were sent to Virginia Tech after the shooting, each featuring the name of someone killed, now lean more toward gray.
But they remain among longtime university archivist Tamara Kennelly’s favorite items.
She likes that they were made by a woman who doesn’t consider herself an artist, but who, like thousands of other people who sent gifts to the school in the shooting’s aftermath, needed to do something. She likes the note attached to them about how easily they can be broken. It begins, “Eggs symbolize the promise of new life but they are also so, so fragile.”
She likes that each egg, decorated in the art form known as Pysanky, required the artist to sit quietly with each victim’s story.
“When she was making them, she was thinking of the people,” Kennelly said. “And they’re beautiful.”
After the shooting, the overwhelming task of sifting through the tens of thousands of items sent to the university and deciding what to keep fell to Kennelly, whose son was attending Virginia Tech. Ten years later, she still cries when she talks about some of the objects.
“I love them all for different reasons,” she said.
There are the two handkerchiefs from a Florida inmate who, on one, drew a dove for each victim. The other features a poem and a brown stain that Kennelly said is a poignant reminder that he was using what few resources he had.
There is the quilt from a group of young Native American students who performed a “wiping of the tears” ceremony. “It’s like wrapping a person in your good wishes and helping them to join the world again,” Kennelly said.
There are prayer flags, a letterman jacket and thousands of tiny paper cranes made by hand. There is a letter from a group of women in Afghanistan and notes from students in Korea. There is a giant piece of wood carved with a chain saw into the shape of a knight chess piece. Time has left cracks in several places.
For much of the year, these condolence gifts remain tucked away, wrapped carefully in boxes and stored on metal shelves at Newman Library. But once a year, as the shooting’s anniversary nears, some of the items are put on exhibit. This year, for the first time, several of the large whiteboards that were on the Drillfield in the days after the deaths will be on display. They are filled with countless notes that run into one another so that, in some places, ones addressed to the victims sit inches away from ones that speak to the shooter, Seung Hui Cho.
“Thank you for explaining to all of heaven what a Hokie is,” reads one, referring to the school’s mascot.
Another: “Innocence has a power evil cannot imagine.”
And yet another: “Cho, God has forgiven you. So will we.”
Over the years, Kennelly has heard from other schools hit by mass shootings that suddenly need to know what she was forced to learn — how to archive grief. She said she wasn’t able to save everything but tried to keep what would later answer important questions.
“In the bigger sense, the 50-years-down-the-road sense,” she said, “it’s how do we grieve, how do we respond to tragedy, and how are we connected?”
— Theresa VargasRead more