Massacre at Virginia Tech

Mar 26, 2015 - by Denise Noe - 0 Comments

Virginia Tech Shooting candlelight vigil

 The mass murder of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007 was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history. The death toll would have much higher if various students and professors had not been willing to die to save others.

by Denise Noe

On April 16, 2007, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (“Virginia Tech”) in Blacksburg, Virginia was the scene of the worst mass shooting by a single individual in U.S. history. One deranged student brutally slaughtered 32 people and wounded others, some of them severely, before finally turning a gun on himself.
 
Blacksburg is located in southwest Virginia between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. It is a town of 41,000 residents, more than half of them Virginia Tech students.  The town’s economy relies heavily on Virginia Tech, Blacksburg’s largest employer with 1,306 full-time instructional faculty. Other employment centers are the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, which has more than 140 high-tech companies with over 2,200 employees, and Blacksburg Industrial Park, home to manufacturing and research-and-development businesses.

 

Virginia Tech's roots trace back to 1872 when it opened as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. In the 1890s, the title changed to the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute. The lengthy name proved unwieldy so people started calling it the Virginia Polytechnic Institute or just VPI. Its name officially became the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1944. On June 20, 1960, it acquired its present name of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Some people still refer to it as VPI but Virginia Tech is its most popular designation.
 
Virginia Tech supporters refer to themselves as “Hokies.” The term originated with a spirit yell written by O. M. Stull of the class of 1896. The yell starts, “Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy/Techs, Techs, V.P.I.” The term eventually acquired an “e” at its end.
 
Today, 31,000 students attend Virginia Tech. The university offers more than 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. “Virginia Tech has approximately 136 campus buildings, a 2,600-acre main campus, off-campus educational facilities in six regions, a study-abroad site in Switzerland, and a 1,800-acre agriculture research farm near the main campus,” explains Factbook: About the University.
 
The First Shooting
 
The first shooting incident on April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech started shortly after 7 a.m. when Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old senior and English major, walked into West Ambler Johnston Hall (“West AJ”), a coed dormitory. Cho entered the room of animal sciences major Emily Hilscher, 19. Cho shot and fatally wounded Hilscher. Hearing gunshots, resident assistant Ryan C. Clark, 22, raced to help. He was in Hilscher’s room when Cho shot him to death. Later investigation would disclose that the targeting of Hilscher was random because she had no prior relationship with Cho. As far as can be known, Cho went to the dorm possibly because a woman who spurned him lived there, and when he didn't find her he murdered a woman who was a stranger to him.  
Cho left West AJ and returned to his room in nearby Harper Hall dormitory.
 
“Molly Donohue, 18, thought she had dreamt the scream,” wrote Annie Johnson and Nathan Thornburgh in Time. She arose and dressed. She heard another scream followed by loud thuds. Donohue speculated that someone had fallen from a loft bed." After Donohue left her room, she saw “a line of sopping sneaker prints, wet with blood, trailing away from room 4040 next door. She attempted to open the door to the room but something blocked it. She went to Clark’s room, not knowing that it had been his dead body that kept her out of room 4040.” Unable to find Clark, the confused student returned to her room to fetch a chemistry manual and then went to breakfast.
 
Donohue was not the only one who heard noises at West AJ. Another student told yet a third student about hearing a noise that could have been a student falling from a loft bed in room 4040 at West AJ.  “A Tech officer responding to a non-emergency rescue call about someone falling out of a bed discovered the victims shortly after 7:20 a.m., said Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum,” Reed Williams and Shawna Morrison reported in The Roanoke Times.
 
University police later admitted that they believed the killings were a one-off domestic dispute. As a result "they didn’t close campus or warn students,” Johnson and Thornburgh reported. Not even West AJ was completely locked down.
 
In Collegiate Times, Robert Bowman reports that Virginia Tech’s “Emergency Policy Group” met “after the first shooting in West Ambler-Johnston Hall.” The Emergency Policy Group convened at 8:30 a.m. to discuss measures to secure the college. “After sending an e-mail to students at 9:30 a.m., stating that there was a shooting in WAJ, the group broadcast a message over the telephone system on campus."
 
As police investigated the West AJ deaths, Cho changed out of his blood-drenched clothes and into clean apparel. At about 9 a.m., he mailed writings and video recordings to NBC News from a nearby post office. He then headed to Norris Hall, where classes were in session.
 
The Massacre Begins
 
Sometime between 9:15 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., Cho entered the building wearing a backpack that contained more than 400 rounds of ammunition, two semi-automatic handguns, a knife, hammer and several chains and locks. The chains he used to wrap around the main entrance doors of Norris Hall. On one chained door, he placed a note stating (falsely) that attempts to open the door would make a bomb explode.

Cho started opening classroom doors and briefly looking inside. Erin Sheehan, an engineering major, recalled how Cho “peeked in twice” to the classroom she occupied, room 207, in which German was being taught. She assumed he was “looking for a class” but thought it “strange that someone at this point in the semester would be lost.”
 
A faculty member found the bomb threat note Cho left and took it to Norris Hall’s third floor to notify administrators. At approximately this time, 9:40 a.m., Cho entered room 206 in which Professor G. V. Loganathan, 53, was teaching hydrology engineering. Cho fatally shot Loganathan and then shot 11 of the 13 students in the room, murdering nine and wounding two.

Cho walked back across the hall to room 207 in which Christopher Bishop, 35, was teaching German. Cho shot Bishop dead. Cho shot 10 students, killing four and injuring six. The aforementioned Erin Sheehan was in that class but escaped injury. She told ABC News that "She played dead to survive.”
 
Derek O’Dell, 20, was wounded but forced himself to get up when Cho left the room. In The New York Post, Andrea Peyser writes, “The door opened inward to the classroom, so [O’Dell] wedged his foot under it so the killer could not get back inside.”
 
Then Cho headed to room 204. The instructor there was engineering Professor Liviu Librescu, 76, a Holocaust survivor and Israeli citizen. Despite his advanced age, the courageous Librescu held the door closed so Cho could not get into the room. Cho shot several times through the door, killing Librescu and one student. However, thanks to Librescu’s barricading of the door with his body, most of his students escaped through windows.
 
When Cho went to room 211, he found the door again barricaded, this time with the bodies of two brave individuals: French teacher Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, 49, and student Henry Lee, 20, a computer engineering major. Cho shot through the door, killing Couture-Nowak and Lee. Cho then entered the room where he shot 16 students, killing 10 and wounding six others.
 
After the room 211 shootings, Cho reloaded. He then returned to room 207 but O’Dell’s foot successfully prevented Cho from entering. He shot several times through the door but, this time, did not hit anyone.
 
Cho returned to room 206. Waleed Shaalan, 32, a Ph.D. student in civil engineering from Egypt., lay wounded from Cho’s previous visit. The New York Times reports that Shaalan lay beside another student who “played dead” although not shot: “Just as the gunman noticed the student, Mr. Shaalan made a move to distract [Cho], at which point he was shot a second time and died.” The survivor who lay beside Shaalan believes Shaalan purposefully tried to save his fellow student’s life.
 
Cho went toward room 205 but could not get in because Haiyan Cheng, a graduate assistant who was substituting for the professor that day, and a student in the class had barricaded the classroom door with a heavy table. Cho shot through the door several times but was thwarted in his attempts to open the door. No one in room 205 was shot.
 
On the third floor, engineering Professor Kevin Granata, 45, was alarmed by the noises on the second floor below. He brought the students in his class into his office and locked the door. Granata left that locked office to investigate, walking downstairs to the second floor where Cho shot and killed him. All the students locked in Granata’s office escaped being shot.
 
At 9:41 a.m., a call was made to the Blacksburg Police Department. When learning that the campus was the scene of the reported incident, the dispatcher transferred it to the Virginia Tech Police Department. “Police received a 911 call at 9:42 a.m. reporting gunshots heard across campus in Norris Hall.

Officers reached the classroom building within three minutes but discovered that its three main doors had been chained shut, police said,” The Roanoke Times reported. An officer tried to shoot through one chain but was unsuccessful. Another officer, using a shotgun, shot the bolt lock out of a door and the police entered.
 
As officers were going up the stairs to the second floor, they heard Cho fire his final shot, killing himself with a bullet to his own head. Later on investigators would say they believed the shotgun blast alerted Cho to the arrival of the police.
 
Cho’s second shooting spree of the day lasted between 10 to 12 minutes. Despite all the cell phones available inside Norris Hall, it would be six to nine minutes after the shooting began that the first 911 call would be made.
 
Cho had used two handguns: a Glock 9 mm in both shootings and a Walther .22-caliber only at Norris Hall. He had murdered 32 people before taking his own life; 16 others had been injured by gunfire and six others injured jumping from second-story windows to escape his fusillade.
 
The injuries varied greatly but many were quite severe. For example, Kevin Sterne caught two bullets in a thigh. Doctors initially thought the leg would have to be amputated. However, they saved that leg and Sterne received his diploma on crutches. Another student, Kristina Anderson, was shot twice in the back. Her gallbladder and most of her left kidney had to be removed. Colin Goddard took four bullets in his left knee, both hips, and right shoulder. Amazingly, all of the injured went on to finish school and earn their degrees. Some, like Sterne, were on crutches when they got their diplomas and others were in wheelchairs.
 
Typical Profile: Angry Loner
 
Cho was a South Korean citizen with U.S. permanent resident status. His family had immigrated when he was a child. As is typical of school shooters, Cho had been a loner, bullied in junior and high school, and had long suffered severe mental issues. School Violence states, “He had been diagnosed with a form of social anxiety disorder and depression in the eighth grade and went on to receive treatment for the next few years from doctors, counselors and other professionals. He voluntarily stopped receiving treatment a few years later. Sadly, none of his history was shared with Virginia Tech due to privacy laws.”

In Cho’s junior year of college, instructors reported being disturbed by his writings and classroom behavior. The college investigated him for stalking two co-eds, one of whom lived in the co-ed dorm where he murdered Hilscher and  resident assistant Clark.

Virginia State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty said, “We know he had multiple contacts with mental-health facilities, some in person and some not.”
 
The package of materials Cho sent to NBC News contained material that msnbc.com reporter M. Alex Johnson describes as “deeply angry, crying out against unspecified wrongs done to Cho in a diatribe laced with profanity.” Although he rails again “hedonism” and, in Johnson’s words, “talks at length about his hatred of the wealthy,” there is no evidence Cho specifically targeted either wealthy or “hedonistic” individuals in his shooting rampages.
 
A Community In Crisis
 
After the shooting, Virginia Tech canceled classes for the rest of the week. Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said, “Today the university was struck with a tragedy that we consider of monumental proportions.” A BBC News article elaborated, “[Steger] said the university was in the process of informing the next of kin of those killed and that counselors were in place at the campus for students [and] families. The university urged students to call parents to let them know they were safe.”  The university provided counseling and the American Red Cross sent crisis counselors to Virginia Tech.
Supporters of Virginia Tech formed the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund (HSMF) to honor victims. Money gathered through the fund provided grief counseling to victims and their families and helped put up memorials. The Virginia Tech Foundation announced in June 2007 that $3.2 million from HSMF would be channeled into 32 separately named endowment funds to honor the people Cho murdered.  
 
Virginia Governor Tim Kaine declared a state of emergency in Virginia. Later, he put together a panel to examine the tragedy. The panel released a report in August 2007 that made recommendations to head off similar tragedies at Virginia Tech and elsewhere.

Among the panel's findings was that “Cho purchased two guns in violation of federal law. The fact that in 2005 Cho had been judged to be a danger to himself and ordered to outpatient treatment made him ineligible to purchase a gun under federal law.” In addition, the panel stated, “Virginia is one of only 22 states that report any information about mental health to a federal database used to conduct background checks on would-be gun purchasers. But Virginia law did not clearly require that persons such as Cho – who had been ordered into out-patient treatment but not committed to an institution – be reported to the database.”  
 
In the massacre’s aftermath, Virginia Tech instituted a website alert and text message system to warn students of a possibly dangerous situation.
 
Gun Debate Yet Again
 
America’s long-time debate on gun availability was reawakened by the Virginia Tech tragedy. Gun control proponents pointed out that a mentally ill person like Cho was able to buy semi-automatic guns despite Virginia laws that should have prevented those purchases. Gun control opponents argued that Virginia Tech’s policy prohibiting guns on campus meant that law-abiding students and faculty did not have guns that might have been used to literally stop Cho dead in his tracks. An organization calling itself Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, now called just Students for Concealed Carry or SCC, formed after the shootings. SCC is still active and has met with mixed results. It was successful in legalizing campus carry in Colorado in the case of the Regents of the University of Colorado v. Students for Concealed Carry. However, Virginia Tech has held fast to its policy against allowing guns on campus and SCC has not been able to overturn that policy.
 
By contrast, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence called for more stringent gun control measures. The massacre led to the passing of the strongest federal government gun control legislation in over 10 years. H. R. 2640 required improvements in state reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to head off gun buying from mentally ill individuals, convicts, and others deemed unfit to purchase guns. The National Rifle Association as well as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence supported this bill. President Bush signed it into law on January 5, 2008.
 
Honoring Heroes
 
Perhaps it is best to conclude this story by paying tribute to those who acted heroically. Ryan C. Clark, Waleed Shaalan, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, and Liviu Librescu all died saving others. Derek O’Dell risked his life to stop the carnage.
 
The website blackpeople.tribe.net notes, “Ryan C. Clark was one of the first students gunned down in the Virginia Tech shooting rampage. Clark, an African-American, was a stellar student and renowned for his community service work. He is regarded as a hero for rushing to try and save a student's life at Virginia Tech.” A Ryan C. Clark Community Service Scholarship has been founded for high school or college students who have distinguished themselves through youth or community service work.
 
A B’nai B’rith Youth Organization Virginia chapter took the name Liviu Librescu AZA to honor the heroism of the late professor.
 
Mass murderers are an all-too-frequent and depressing reminder of the depths to which the human species can sink. Brave people who risk their lives to preserve life are a welcome reminder of the heights to which human beings can rise.
 
 
Bibliography
 
Bowman, Rex. “Cho may have practiced attack.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. Aug. 11, 2007.
 
Bowman, Robert. “Panel receives details, roadblock.” Collegiate Times. May 21, 2007.
 
Cox, Clara B. “What is a Hokie?” Virginia Polytechnic and State University. 2015.
 
Cox, Clara B.; Robertson, Jenkins M. “History and Historical Data of Virginia Tech.” Virginia Polytechnic and State University. 2015.
 
Du Lac, J. Freedom. “A massacre’s survivors: Recovery and resilience at Va. Tech.” The Washington Post. Apr. 14. 2012.
 
“Factbook: About the University.” Virginia Polytechnic and State University. 2015.
 
“Fast Facts.” CNN Library. Apr. 6, 2014.
 
Harper, Tim. “Canadian’s class hardest hit.” Toronto Star. Apr. 19, 2007.
 
Herring, Chris. “Report Faults Virginia Tech in Shootings.” The Wall Street Journal. Dec. 5, 2009.
 
“Israeli lecturer died shielding Virginia Tech students from gunman.” Haaretz Service and Agencies. Apr. 16, 2007.
 
Johnson, Annie; Thornburgh, Nathan. “Witness: The Dormitory Murders.” Time. Apr. 20, 2007.
 
Johnson, M. Alex. “Gunman sent package to NBC.” http://www.nbcnews.com/id/18195423/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/gunman-.... 4/19/2007.
 
Kimberlin, Joanne. “For Virginia Tech’s wounded: Triumph after tragedy.” The Virginian-Pilot. Apr. 17, 2011.
 
Mallory, Anna L. “Investigators leave Tech Duck Pond empty-handed.” The Roanoke Times. June 30, 2007.
 
“Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech April 16, 2007.” Report of the Review Panel Presented to Governor Kaine Commonwealth of Virginia.” Virginia Tech Review Panel. August 2007.
 
Morrison, Shawna; Williams, Reed. “Officials added details of the shooting, but they offered no insight into what triggered the rampage.” The Roanoke Times. April 26, 2007.
 
Peyser, Andrea. “Out Of The Horror Emerges A Hero.” New York Post. Apr. 17, 2007.
 
“Ryan C. Clark Virginia Tech ‘Hero’ Challenge.” http://blackpeople.tribe.net/thread/37b8137f-c09b-4b29-ad09-86f6a0e4e62f.
 
“Student Survivors Recount Shooting.” ABC News. April 17, 2007.
 
“The Warning Signs that Could Have Prevented the Virginia Tech Shootings.” School Violence. http://www.nssc1.org/virginia-tech-shootings.html.
 
“US university shooting kills 33.” BBC News. Apr. 17, 2007.
 
“Virginia Tech Victims.” The Washington Post. April 24, 2007
 
“Waleed Shaalan.” The New York Times. Feb. 7, 2012.
 
“Witness: Gunman Didn’t Say A Word.” MSNBC.com. 4/16/2007.
 
“Witness survives by pretending to be dead.” CNN.com. Apr. 17, 2007.
 
Wong, Venessa. “Virginia Town is Best Place in the U.S. to Raise Kids.” Businessweek. Nov. 15, 2011.

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