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Unforgettable moments on a somber day

BLACKSBURG, Va.—They cheered at the end of the service like it was a basketball game, like they could holler away the sorrow.

It even worked for a minute or two.

But then the service ended, and the students at Virginia Tech walked back out into the world. And that's when Derek O'Dell broke down.

On Monday he told his story again and again. How he was sitting in German class in Norris Hall when a man with a gun walked in and opened fire. Cho Seung-Hui killed 33. Derek was shot in the right arm. You might have seen him on the news Monday night, his arm in a sling, calm and strong.

But now it was Tuesday afternoon, just after the memorial in Cassell Coliseum, and as Derek came out of the men's room, he could not hold back the tears. Everybody knew who he was. Two strangers walked up, laid their hands on him and started praying.

Bless you, Lord Jesus. Help make it right.

But there was no way to make it right. At least not the day after.

They came in multitudes, students and parents and faculty and staff and visitors from all over the world. So many came to the service that the coliseum filled and people filled the football field behind it.

President Bush and Laura Bush came, and the governor of Virginia flew back from Japan, and poet Nikki Giovanni—an English professor here—roused the crowd at the end.

"We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid!" she said. "We will prevail! We will prevail! We will prevail! We are Virginia Tech!"

The crowd rose and screamed and started a "Let's Go Hokies!" chant.

It was a brief moment of joy in another somber day.

"May God bless and keep the souls of the lost," the president said, and there were so many lost that you could not get your head around it.

We do not even have all the names yet. Some slipped out Tuesday, one or two at a time, confirmed by family members. But imagine 33 names. Imagine 33 families in agony. Imagine 33 funerals.

That is what is still to come at Virginia Tech.

On Tuesday the students lined up outside the coliseum three hours before the service. Some wore suits or Sunday dresses, but these are college kids, and most wore the school colors—maroon and orange on T-shirts and jackets and hoodies.

Many still worked their cell phones, trying to find friends they hadn't heard from. Every so often someone would spot a friend as the line wound around the corner. Every couple of minutes a quick reunion: shrieks, hugs, tears.

"I just don't know if it's ever going to be the same here," said Ashley Lawrence, a 20-year-old junior. "I've never thought twice about walking across campus alone. Now everything just looks different. You think about things you never thought of."

As she spoke, her boyfriend finished a phone call.

"How's your mom?" Lawrence said.

"She's fine. She's crying."

Not many had slept. Ashley Lawrence talked about watching the news all night, hoping for one more scrap of detail. A parent drove all night from Columbus, Ohio, and hugged his daughter at 4 in the morning.

The coliseum doors opened at noon, and the crowd had to wait more than two hours. Virginia Tech's regimental band—nicknamed the Highty Tighties—played quiet and slow. Later on, somebody played a jazz record over the loudspeakers.

The song was "What a Difference a Day Makes."

None of the speakers mentioned the names of the victims. No one spoke of Cho Seung-Hui, who killed 32 others and then himself. The speakers tried to lift up everybody. The religious messages were Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian.

But at some point everyone had to acknowledge why the crowd was there, and that is when they said words like tragedy and horror. Sobs bit into the silence. Students passed boxes of Kleenex up and down the rows.

They also took pictures and held up their cell phones to get video. It seemed weird at first, like football fans at kickoff of the Super Bowl. But as the day went on it made sense. There is too much to handle. There is too much to remember. Even now, with it all still raw and fresh, the moments slip away.

That is the worst thing for the living. The parents and colleagues and classmates and friends of those 33 people will remember a little less each day. That is one reason to stand in the line, and wear the school colors, and stand for the president, and cheer for the poet.

To fight forgetting.

Of course there are some moments you never forget. When the service was over, a dark-haired young woman walked through the concourse with friends, talking on a cell phone. All of a sudden she stopped to listen. Her face collapsed.

And as she put down the phone and shook with grief, her friends circled her.

They stood that way a long time, there in the hallway, young women in Virginia Tech sweats and flip-flops, now enrolled in the hardest class of all.


(Tommy Tomlinson is a columnist for The Charlotte Observer.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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