Even before Monday's horrific events, the students and faculty at Virginia Tech were living in a state of fear, according to campus officials. University administrators had scheduled a 9 a.m. meeting that day, in fact, to discuss "security for dealing with threats in the future," Edmund Henneke, the associate dean of Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, told NEWSWEEK in a phone interview. The meeting had been planned after two unsolved bomb threats in the previous two weeks-the latest of which was made just last Friday.
The 9 a.m. meeting was canceled after the first reports of a single shooting at West Ambler Johnston, a co-ed dorm at the opposite side of the 2,600 acre campus from Norris Hall, where the College of Engineering is headquartered.
Suddenly, at about a quarter to 10, Henneke said, "The secretaries came into my office crying, saying there was shooting going on outside the building. We looked out the window and saw policemen standing out in the quadrangle… We later found out the main shooting was in two classrooms in the opposite end of the building from me. We went back into the dean's suite, got everyone in there, locked the door and turned off the lights. They were glass doors, but we weren't looking out. We stayed there about 10 minutes until a police SWAT team came in and demanded we leave," Henneke said.
The police told the fleeing faculty, administrators and students that all three doors to Norris Hall had been shut with "dead man's bars" and padlocked with chains-apparently by the shooter, whose identity was not immediately known. "So the police told us to go down to the basement. At that end of the building there was construction work going on in an adjoining building, so we were able to walk out through where the construction was going on. I guess the shooter didn't know about that construction [which had left an opening in the wall]," he said.
Henneke said he talked to a student who had been in one of the classrooms where the shootings took place, the "200-series." She said "the shooter walked into one of the classrooms and started shooting indiscriminately, and then walked across the hall to another one," Henneke recounted. Students who were in the classrooms said the young man never said a word, simply started firing, as students scrambled under their desks and tilted them on their sides to protect themselves. As of Monday afternoon, at least 33 people had been killed in the massacre, including the guman, making it the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. It was nearly twice as deadly as the notorious killings at the University of Texas in 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed to the 28th-floor observation deck of a clock tower and murdered 16 people before being gunned down himself.
For many, the slaughter evoked mournful memories of the 13 killings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, when two disaffected students gunned down dozens of their fellow students. While there hadn't been many such incidents in the last several years, the Virginia Tech killings immediately provoked fears of a new spate of "copycat" shootings like the ones that occurred after Columbine.
Henneke and other witnesses said rumors were flying that the culprit was an Asian-American engineering student—he said there were a large number of Asian-Americans at the College of Engineering—but that no one knew who he was. According to initial police accounts, the gunman apparently killed himself. He was said to have been armed with a 9mm pistol and a .22 caliber gun. Henneke said he did not think he heard automatic gunfire, but he did hear a fast series of shots in succession. "It was 'bang, bang, bang bang,'" he said.
Alex Semonite, a 21-year-old political science major, told NEWSWEEK he was just leaving nearby Shepherd health center around 9:45 a.m. when "I saw cop cars in front of Ambler Johnston. I overhead someone say there had been shooting. Then the cop cars sped down Washington Street and then to West Campus Drive. I started heading back to my dorm, which is right near Norris Hall. Then I heard the [second series of] shots.
"I saw people running across the drill field. Everyone started running," he said. "There were about a couple hundred kids, it was between classes. Everyone was confused, some people were shouting to 'get down, get down.' There's a lot of construction in the area, a lot of people though the sounds might have been that at first."
Semonite said he "went back to my dorm and we started counting who was there from my floor and who was missing. There were some people missing, but we found them later and they were safe. I can't really think about myself, I can only think about how hard this is going to be for the families. I'm sitting here watching the death count rise, the number keeps going up. I'm in shock. I'm not afraid to walk out the door. This isn't some militia campus full of guns or gangs. This is a nice place to be. This was an isolated incident."
Another student, 21-year-old Saira Haider, a junior, and communications and history major, is also a news editor at the Collegiate Times and said her first instinct was to get out and cover the story, after she heard about the first shooting at the dorm at 7:15--which, according to police, left a female and a male tstudent dead. "I was on my way to cover the shooting but I was taken into Johnson Hall by police , they told us they had to keep everyone safe and in lockdown," said Haider. "The students were all silent inside. They told us to turn all the lights off, to stay down and to stay away from the windows. Students were looking at each other's laptops, looking for information on what was going on and calling their parents on their cell phones."
One question is how the gunman could have resumed his rampage some two full hours after the initial dorm shooting. Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said authorities believed that the shooting at the dorm was a domestic dispute and mistakenly thought the gunman had fled the campus. "We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur," he said. Dabney Blanton, a 26-year-old botany student, said the dorm was evacuated and that people think the shooter might have just walked out with everyone else.
Both Semonite and Haider said they were mystified by the outbreak of violence in quiet Blacksburg, Va. "I don't think Virginia Tech is a dangerous campus. We just don't understand this," says Haider. Semonite says: "I'd really like to know what was going through the head of the shooter. No matter how bad it is at college it's not worth more than 30 lives. I heard it was an engineering student. They have a difficult course load, maybe this person was unable to cope with that type of work….Virginia Tech has a really hard Engineering department. It's hard to get into and you need to be really dedicated and committed. I imagine there was a lot of pressure on him."