At Virginia Tech: Gunfire ‘seemed like it lasted forever’

Tuesday, April 17, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:28 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

BLACKSBURG, Va. — An outburst of gunfire at a Virginia Tech dormitory, followed two hours later by a ruthless rampage at a classroom building,

killed 32 students, faculty and staff and injured about 30 others Monday in the deadliest shooting attack in the nation’s history.

The shooter, whose name was not released Monday night, carried two 9mm semiautomatic handguns and wore blue jeans, a blue jacket and a vest that carried additional ammunition, law enforcement officials and witnesses said. Witnesses described the shooter as a young man — a silent killer who was calm and showed no expression as he pursued and shot his victims.

He killed himself as police closed in.

He had left two dead at the dormitory and 30 more at a science and engineering building, where he executed people taking and teaching classes and even shot at a custodian who was helping a victim. Witnesses described scenes of chaos and grief, with students jumping from windows to escape gunfire and others blocking their classroom doors to keep the gunman away.

Even before anyone knew who the gunman was or why he did what he did, the campus community in Southwest Virginia began questioning whether most of the deaths could have been prevented. They wondered why the campus was not shut down after the first shooting, in which two people were killed.

The enormity of the event brought almost immediate expressions of condolences from President Bush, both houses of Congress and across the world.

“I’m really at a loss for words to explain or to understand the carnage that has visited our campus,” said Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech’s president.

The rampage began as much of the campus was just waking up. A man walked into a freshman coed dorm at 7:15 a.m. and fatally shot a young woman and a resident adviser.

Based on witness interviews, police believed it was an isolated domestic case and chose not to take any drastic security measures, university officials said. But about 9:45 a.m., a man entered a classroom building, chained some of the doors shut behind him, then started walking into classrooms and shooting faculty and students with the two handguns, causing some to leap out of second-story windows and others to lie on the floor and bar their doors to keep the shooter from entering.

Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said investigators were still not certain that the same man committed both shootings. But several law enforcement sources said it was the same person.

As police entered Norris Hall, an engineering and science building, shortly before 10 a.m., the man shot and killed himself before officers could confront him. He had killed 30 people in that building. One witness said the gunman was “around 19” and was “very serious but (with) a very calm look on his face.”

The university canceled classes Monday and Tuesday and set up counseling for the grief-stricken campus. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who had just arrived in Japan on a trade mission, immediately flew back to Virginia. He was expected to attend a vigil Tuesday.

None of the victims’ names was released Monday, pending notification of their families.

Initial reports from the campus raised the specter of “another Columbine,” in which two teenagers in Littleton, Colo., killed 13 people inside a high school in 1999 before killing themselves. But soon the Virginia Tech rampage dwarfed Columbine, becoming the biggest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The shootings prompted intense questioning of Steger and Flinchum from a community still reeling from the fatal shootings of a security guard and a sheriff’s deputy near campus in August and the arrest of the suspect on the edge of campus on the first day of classes.

Although the gunman in the dormitory was at large, no warning was issued to the tens of thousands of students and staff at Virginia Tech until 9:26 a.m., more than two hours later.

“We concluded it was domestic in nature,” Flinchum said. “We had reason to believe the shooter had left campus and may have left the state.” He declined to elaborate. Students who lived in the dorm said they received knocks on the door telling them to stay in their rooms but nothing else. He said 9,000 students live on campus and 14,000 live off-campus, and “it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to get the word out spontaneously.”

Students on campus and parents were angry. Monday, as officials began to sort out the shootings, tales of the horror began to emerge.

About 9:50 a.m., Jamal Albarghouti was walking toward Norris Hall for a meeting with his adviser in civil engineering “to review my thesis. As I was walking, about 300 feet away, I started hearing people shouting, telling me to run or clear.”

He started to move away, but he also pulled out his cellphone, which has videorecording capability, and he began filming. His video, which he later shipped to CNN, captures officers running toward the brown three-story building, a couple of flashes from the second floor and 27 gunshots.

In a German class in Room 207, Perkins was seated in the back with about 15 fellow students.

The gunman barged in with two guns, shot the professor in the head, then started shooting students, Perkins said.

“Everyone hit the floor at that moment,” Perkins said. “And the shots seemed like it lasted forever.”

The gunman left Room 207 and tried to return several minutes later, but Perkins and two other students had blocked the door with their feet. He shot through the door.

The last time anyone spoke with Kristina Heeger, she was headed for a 9 a.m. French class in Norris. Within an hour, the sophomore from Vienna had been shot in the back. But she survived.

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