BLACKSBURG, Va.—The deadliest shooting massacre in American history savaged Virginia Tech on Monday, as an unidentified gunman killed 32 people and wounded perhaps dozens more, then killed himself, leaving his motive and his identity unknown as of early evening.
The shootings stunned the sprawling campus in southwest Virginia and shocked the country.
"Today the university was struck with a tragedy that we consider of monumental proportions," Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said. "The university is shocked and indeed horrified."
The shooter started at a coed dormitory, opening fire around 7:15 a.m. and killing a man and woman in a room there. Two and a half hours later, he appeared in a classroom building across campus, where he apparently had chained the front doors shut, then went from room to room killing 30 more people, then himself, police said.
Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum told a Monday evening news conference that a preliminary identification of the shooter had been made, but he refused to disclose it pending further investigation. He said that two weapons had been recovered, but he declined to say what kind they were. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was conducting ballistics tests on them.
Flinchum also disclosed that witnesses involved in the initial shooting had led police to find a "person of interest" whom they were interviewing off campus when reports of the later shootings arose. Flinchum said the "person of interest" was a male who knew one of the two initial victims but wasn't a student. Asked if police had erred in chasing that person while the real shooter was left free to resume his killing two hours later, Flinchum said that was possible, but that the investigation was continuing.
Tech students were badly shaken.
"Everybody's in complete shock," said freshman Rachel Wirth, 18, of Charlotte, N.C. "Everybody's wondering if they know anybody who was killed or wounded."
"It was about four or five shots pretty close together," said Justice Goracke, 21, a junior who was near the classroom building at the time.
"When I heard it, it kind of sounded like bullets, but there was construction going on nearby," Goracke said. "Then about 20 seconds later I heard another six shots. Then I knew: This wasn't right."
Students and onlookers across the campus were dazed, asking which of their friends had been shot, and why they were left uninformed and exposed to danger for hours.
Casey Burke, an 18-year-old freshman biology major who lives in Ambler Johnston Hall, where the initial shootings happened, said she wasn't aware that anything was amiss until she left her seventh-floor dorm room for class at about 8:50 a.m.
She saw a note from her residential adviser written on the dry-erase board mounted on her door: The police want everyone to stay in their rooms until further notice. Burke saw the RA talking to some other girls down the hall. She asked the RA what was happening. She didn't know, either.
"It was just confusion," she said. But the RA let her go to her 9:05 chemistry class.
Kyle Blasser, a 19-year-old freshman from Annandale, Va., stood on the drill field in the evening, wearing a VT hoodie sweatshirt and a VT baseball cap, staring at the classroom building where the shootings occurred. He said he still hasn't heard from a female high school friend who had a French class on the building's second floor when and where the shootings occurred. He was waiting for word of her fate.
He said nothing like this ever happens at Virginia Tech. "The worst thing that happens here is petty larceny," Blasser said.
Graduate student Darryl Price, 23, described seeing 20 ambulances lined up as he tried to leave the area. "At that point, you fully realize the scale of what just happened."
President Bush was said to be horrified when he heard the news.
"Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning," he said Monday afternoon at the White House. "When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community."
Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine cut short a trip to Japan and rushed home for a service Tuesday on the shaken campus. The U.S. House of Representatives marked the shootings with a moment of silence.
University officials and police faced persistent questioning from the news media about how they handled the first reports of gunfire and their delay in alerting students and locking down the campus.
Campus police received the first 911 emergency call from the West Ambler Johnston Hall—reporting multiple gunshot victims—at about 7:15 a.m., according to Steger. They sent the first e-mail alerting the campus of a homicide investigation at 9:26 a.m., but it didn't reach many of them until after the second eruption of gunfire.
Police were still at the first shooting site investigating when at around 9:45 a.m. they received reports of the shootings across campus at the Norris Hall classroom building, which houses the engineering school.
Police didn't secure the campus immediately after the first incident because they thought the first shootings were domestic in nature and that the gunman had left the building and fled the campus.
"We acted on the best information we had at the time," said a grim-faced Police Chief Flinchum. He added that students had been just arriving on campus and that made it difficult to lock them in place.
But some students felt they should have been notified sooner.
"I just feel like there was a lack of communication, the fact that they didn't shut down campus right away, which is what they should have done. I think it's absurd," said senior John Huddle, 22.
"I don't blame the university for how they acted," said junior Todd Atkins, 22. "But I feel as though it could have been a little more timely, in terms of the info being given the student body via e-mail."
The killings reignited the debate over access to guns.
"Mass shootings have come to define our nation," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based group that advocates gun control.
"These tragedies are the inevitable result of the ease with which the firepower necessary to slaughter dozens of innocents can be obtained. We allow virtually anyone the means to turn almost any venue into a battlefield."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino suggested that enforcing existing laws was adequate. "The president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed," she said.
Best known for its engineering school and its football program, Virginia Tech has more than 26,000 full-time students on a 2,600-acre campus in the Blue Ridge Mountains about 160 miles west of Richmond.
The school is ranked 34th among national public universities by U.S. News & World Report. Its engineering school is ranked 17th, and its civil engineering program 11th. Men make up 59 percent of undergraduates.
Steger, the college president, said that classes had been canceled through Tuesday. Counseling centers were being opened to help students deal with the shock. A convocation was planned for Tuesday.
On the edge of Virginia Tech's green drill field, small groups of students huddled against a chill wind and stared at Norris Hall. As the sun set after a full day of panicked phone calls from parents and text messages from friends, they couldn't believe what had happened.
"I'm still in shock," said Nick Boyer, a freshman from Cranford, N.J.
A fraternity brother's girlfriend had been shot in the back. She was recovering from a difficult surgery, but would probably be OK. Boyer said he didn't take the first e-mail from university officials on Monday morning seriously. It didn't seem urgent, he said.
The worst U.S. civilian shooting before Monday happened in 1991, when George Hennard killed 23 people, wounded more than 20 then killed himself in a Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas.
The worst previous college shooting was in 1966, when Charles Whitman killed 16 people with a rifle from the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin before police shot and killed him.
The worst lower-school shooting occurred eight years ago, when two teenagers killed 13 people, then themselves, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999.
(Jane Stancill of the Raleigh News & Observer and Weir, Lacour and Tommy Tomlinson of The Charlotte Observer reported from Blacksburg. Bruce Henderson, April Bethea and Jenny Song of the Observer reported from Charlotte. Steven Thomma of the Washington Bureau contributed to this article from Washington.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20070416 VATECH SHOOTINGS, 20070416 VATECH chrono, 20070416 VATECH deadliest, 20070416 VATECH campus, 20070416 VATECH timeline
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