BLACKSBURG, Va.—Dazed and stricken, the Virginia Tech community struggled Tuesday to come to grips with the murders of 32 friends and colleagues, as details emerged about the loner who unleashed terror on the bucolic campus.
Students fought back tears, walked quietly around the sprawling campus and greeted one another with hugs. Their classes canceled for the week, many packed their things to head for the security of home.
They checked Facebook, the social-networking Web site, where they searched for news of who was safe and who was missing. They entered their names on group lists such as "I'm OK at VT."
Emotions were raw among the 10,000 who gathered in the basketball arena for a nationally televised midday memorial service. An overflow crowd packed the football stadium. "Today, the world shares our sorrow," said Zenobia Hikes, the vice president of student affairs.
Outside, faculty members described the gunman—whom authorities identified as 23-year-old senior Cho Seung-Hui—as troubled, and students said they barely knew him.
Inside the service, President Bush symbolized the nation's anguish.
"It's impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering," Bush said in nine-minute remarks. "Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they're gone, and they leave behind grieving families and grieving classmates and a grieving nation."
He told the students and families that "people who have never met you are praying for you. . . . In times like these, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God. As the Scriptures tell us, `Don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.' "
Listeners wiped away tears throughout the service, and many hugged each other.
Later, as religious leaders spoke, Bush reached back to comfort a grief-stricken young man behind him. Later the president met with about 15 families of shooting victims.
The service ended on an upbeat tone, as professor and poet Nikki Giovanni stirred her listeners' spirits with a poem.
"We are sad today and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on. We are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech. We are strong enough to stand tall fearlessly, we are brave enough to bend and cry, and sad enough to know we must laugh again," Giovanni told the audience.
"We will prevail! We will prevail! We will prevail! We are Virginia Tech!" Giovanni said, to thunderous applause.
At the football stadium, her words inspired a standing ovation. Students cheered and clapped, then started a football chant from better days. Fists rose into the air. In time the chant sounded in both the basketball arena and the stadium: "Let's go, Hokies! Let's go!"
But cheers and chants were exceptions on a day when shock gave way to grief.
School officials advised that counselors would be available as long as they were needed, and cautioned that deeper emotional reactions might not appear for days or weeks.
At noon, the university's Corps of Cadets marched across the drill field to a slow, haunting drumbeat.
"I'm shaken," said Ammar Poonawala, a junior industrial-engineering major. "When it first happened it didn't sink in, but it struck me later, and I just broke down from the enormity of the tragedy."
Tom and Cathy Ritter drove more than four hours to Virginia Tech from their home in Reisterstown, Md., to be with their sons, a senior and a freshman. Seeing their sons was important even after text messages and phone calls had assured the parents of their safety.
"It's a matter of being able to touch them and to put your arms around them," Cathy Ritter said.
She added that she'd hugged her son's friends, telling them it was from their own parents. "They didn't pull away," she said.
In one bit of good news, medical authorities said that all the wounded victims in area hospitals were recovering well and none remained in danger.
Cho, an English major and native of South Korea, came with his family to the United States in 1992 as a resident alien, according to Col. Steve Flaherty of the Virginia State Police.
He listed his home address as Centreville, Va., about 25 miles west of Washington.
Neighbor Marshall Main said he was taking out trash about 11 p.m. Monday when he saw six police cars, two unmarked, pull up in front of Cho's house. Two officers ran to the back of the home as others went to the front door. Shortly, he said, "a lot of people streamed out of the house in the dark."
Cho lived in Harper Hall, a campus dormitory near the site of Monday's first shooting.
"He was a loner, and we're having difficulty finding information about him," school spokesman Larry Hincker said.
Tim Johnson, 19, a business finance major from Annandale, Va., said he'd seen Cho in the hallways of Harper Hall but didn't know him.
Young-Hwan Kim, the president of the Korean Campus Crusade for Christ on campus, said his group had tried repeatedly to get Cho involved in its activities. Cho rebuffed the invitations and declined to provide contact information, said Kim, 24, a graduate student in civil engineering.
"No one knew him," Kim said. "We had no contact throughout four years. It's amazing. We could not reach out to him."
State police said Cho had legally purchased the two handguns found with his body, a Walther P22 and Glock 9 mm. One of the weapons was used in both the initial shooting of two people at a dorm and the murders of 30 others in a classroom building.
Cho paid $571 to buy the Glock and ammunition at Roanoke Firearms five weeks ago, storeowner John Markell said.
Cho had produced the required identification: a Virginia driver's license, a checkbook with matching address and his Immigration and Naturalization Service card. He also was cleared by an instant background check for criminal violations.
"He just didn't stand out. He looked like a regular college kid," Markell said as he left the store Tuesday. "I feel terrible that he did it, period, let alone that he bought it here."
Affidavits for search warrants filed with Montgomery County Circuit Court said police thought that Cho also had written a bomb threat against Virginia Tech's engineering school classes, which they found at the scene of the shootings. The school had been troubled in recent weeks by bomb threats, but police didn't say whether they thought Cho was behind them.
Throughout the day, students shuttled in and out of Harper Hall, a dorm reserved primarily for upperclassmen, trying to absorb the latest blow: the knowledge that the man responsible for the deaths of 33 on their campus had lived, literally in some cases, right down the hall.
"I saw his picture on TV and said, `I know that guy, I've seen him a couple of times,'" said Onyema Obaji, 19, a mechanical engineering junior from Nigeria. He was asleep in his room with the door unlocked when the massacre happened. "Personally, I was scared," he said, once he learned Cho had lived in Harper.
Mike Lee, whose parents are from South Korea, said he wonders whether the killings will spark anti-Korean sentiment in the area, just as 9/11 caused a rash of anti-Muslim sentiment.
"It shouldn't be like that, you know?" said the 19-year-old freshman from Fairfax, Va. "It's hard to believe. I can't really explain the feeling, knowing that he came from the same country."
Later Tuesday night, tens of thousands of students, staff and faculty stood on a grassy field for a vigil, lighting candles person to person until the field glowed with thousands of lights.
"I want America and the world to see this outpouring on the Virginia Tech drill field," said
Hikes, the university's vice president for student affairs. "This is love, and we appreciate it."
Behind them stood Norris Hall, the site of Monday's classroom rampage—still a crime scene cordoned off with yellow tape.
After a closing of "Taps" played on two trumpets, one echoing the other, the crowd was silent. A slow murmuring started, then a hushed "Star-Spangled Banner" caught on amid the thousands. When they finished, a few started to chant: "Let's go . . ." Others pumped their candles to the sky as they shouted the response: "Hokies!" It bounced around the crowd. "Let's go . . . Hokies!"
The chants finally wound down, and thousands of hands began jangling car keys and house keys and dorm keys into the air. It's an old school tradition at football games, normally done to hail key players. This time, they were saying farewell.
(Stancill Pugh reported from Blacksburg. Also contributing: Kytja Weir and Greg Lacour of The Charlotte Observer in Blacksburg; Jack Douglas of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Centreville, Va.; Barb Barrett of the McClatchy Washington Bureau in Washington; Lisa Zagaroli of the Washington Bureau in Blacksburg; and Steven Thomma of the Washington Bureau in Washington.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): VATECH SHOOTINGS
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