BLACKSBURG, Va.—The deadliest shooting massacre in American history savaged Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on Monday, as an unidentified gunman killed 32 people and wounded 15 more, then killed himself, his motive and 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 hours later he appeared in an engineering classroom building across campus, where he killed 30 more people and then himself, police said.
"It was about four or five shots pretty close together," said Justice Goracke, 21, of Lovettsville, 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.
"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."
Graduate student Darryl Price, 23, also of Charlotte, 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."
The U.S. House of Representatives marked the shootings with a moment of silence. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine cut short a trip to Japan and rushed home for a service Tuesday on the shaken campus.
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—about 7:15 a.m., according to Steger. Police were still there investigating more than two hours later when they received reports of the shootings 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 might be fleeing the state. They sent their first e-mail warning to students at 9:26 a.m., but it didn't reach many of them until after the second eruption of gunfire.
"We acted on the best information we had at the time," said a grim-faced Wendell Flinchum, the Virginia Tech police chief.
Steger added that students had been just arriving on campus and that made it difficult to lock them in place.
"We can only make decisions based on the information you had. ... You don't have hours to reflect on it," he said.
The killings reignited the debate over access to guns.
"Mass shootings have come to define our nation," said Josh Sugarmann, the 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.
Gun advocates went farther, saying the shootings underscore the need to allow students to arm themselves.
"It is irresponsibly dangerous to tell citizens that they may not have guns at schools," said Larry Pratt, the executive director of the group Gun Owners of America. "The Virginia Tech shooting shows that killers have no concern about a gun ban when murder is in their hearts," he added in reference to the campus's ban on guns.
Best known for its engineering school and its football program, Virginia Tech has nearly 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. The emphasis on engineering is a likely reason that the school is more male-dominated than many campuses; men make up 59 percent of undergraduates.
Steger, the college president, said classes had been canceled through Tuesday. Counseling centers were being opened to help students deal with the shock. A convocation was planned for Tuesday.
"I cannot begin to covey my own personal sense of loss over this senselessness of such an incomprehensible and heinous act," Steger 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 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 in Austin before police shot and killed him.
The worst lower-school shooting occurred almost exactly eight years ago, when two teenagers killed 13 people, then themselves, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999.
(Jenny Song in Blacksburg and Steven Thomma in Washington contributed to this report.)