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First two dead, then chaos takes hold

Published April 17, 2007

Two students embrace on the campus of Virginia Tech one day after 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui, inset, carried out a massacre that left 33 dead.
[AP photos]

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- The gunman peeked into Erin Sheehan's German class two times, "like he was looking for someone, somebody, before he started shooting."

She saw the bullets hit her classmates, according to the Collegiate Times student newspaper at Virginia Tech, where a gunman murdered 32 people Monday. It was the worst mass shooting in American history.

At least 15 people were injured from gunshots or jumping out windows at Norris Hall, a classroom building with labs and offices where all but two of the victims died.

The gunman also shot and killed himself. Police did not identify him late Monday. But the Chicago Sun-Times, quoting unnamed sources, said authorities were investigating whether he was a 24-year-old Chinese man in the United States on a visa.

The tragedy unfolded in two bursts more than two hours apart and in different parts of the campus. The time lapse between the shootings led many to criticize university officials and police for not acting sooner and more decisively to alert students of the danger.

Virginia Tech president Charles W. Steger described Norris Hall as "a tragic and sorrowful crime scene." Classes are canceled today.

The bodies of the dead, many of them students, remained in the building late Monday as investigators tried to retrace what happened, identify the victims and learn more about the gunman, who carried no ID but left two handguns near his side.

"We are asking our students to contact their parents and let them know their status," Steger said at a news conference.

The bloodshed began shortly after 7 a.m. when a gunman entered West Ambler Johnston Hall, a coed dorm near the center of the 2,600-acre campus. Authorities said the man shot and killed two students -- a man and a woman -- but was gone by the time law enforcement officers began to descend on the building.

CNN identified the dead man as Ryan Clark, a Virginia Tech student.

Police investigated the killings in the dorm as "an isolated incident, domestic in nature," said Virginia Tech police Chief Wendell Flinchum. Meanwhile, students there were told to stay in their rooms and officers surrounded the building, he said.

Some people on campus were notified of the killings through a "phone tree" and by "knocking on doors." But officials did not disseminate news of the shooting more broadly until after 9 a.m., using an e-mail that went to 36,000 accounts.

The second round of shootings began in Norris Hall shortly before 9:45 a.m.

Responding to a 911 call, law enforcement officers arrived to doors that had been chained shut from the inside. When they finally broke in, they heard gunshots.

"Just as officers reached the second floor, the gunshots stopped," said Flinchum, who called the scenes "probably one of the worst things I've seen in my life."

In the second-floor German class, teacher Christopher Bishop was among those shot.

"I don't know if he's dead or if he's injured, but I hope he's all right," said Mike Shaffer, 21, of Pittsburgh, who took Bishop's German class last semester. He was watching CNN Monday night, hoping to learn more about Bishop's condition. "He was amazing. He was one of those teachers that cared about everybody in the classroom."

After the shootings at Norris, officials locked down the campus.

According to Flinchum, investigators were not able to say whether the same gunman committed both shootings. He said ballistics tests would help answer that question.

He also said investigators had preliminarily identified the gunman in the Norris Hall shootings but declined to release a name.

Sheehan, the student in the Norris Hall German class, described the gunman to the Collegiate Times as "just a normal looking kid, Asian, but he had on a Boy Scout type outfit." She said he also wore a tan vest.

The Chicago Sun-Times said the man under investigation arrived in San Francisco on United Airlines on Aug. 7 on a visa issued in Shanghai. According to the newspaper report, police believe three bomb threats on the Virginia Tech campus last week may have been attempts by the man to test the campus' security response.

Flinchum said his officers also had identified a "person of interest" in the dorm shooting and were interviewing him off-campus when the first 911 calls arrived about the second shooting.

That person was not a Virginia Tech student and had not been charged, Flinchum said.

The account of Robert Denton, a professor of political communications, illustrates how slowly both attacks and the ensuing official response played out.

Denton told Washington Post Radio that his department head told him of the first shooting at 8:15 a.m., an hour after it happened.

"That's all?" he asked her.

"That's all," came the answer.

He said he convened a class of graduate students at 9 a.m., but was interrupted about 10 a.m. by the department head, who reported a second set of shootings, at Norris Hall. The department head said only that he should call the department office before releasing students at 11:45 a.m.

His building is a few buildings away from Norris Hall.

The graduate students began using cell phones and laptops to monitor events online, Denton said.

The call to evacuate the building did not come until nearly noon, more than 2 1/2 hours after the second shooting. He noted that his building is not locked.

"Being secure is kind of a misnomer in a way," Denton said. "That is certainly an issue that I want to be addressed henceforth. Because you're not really secure even though you think you're in a lockdown situation."

He added: "Even in Blacksburg, Va., we're going to have to start addressing security and safety in a very different way."

Several news outlets carried comments from students harshly criticizing what they saw as a slow response by authorities.

But Steger and Flinchum argued that the university did the best it could under the circumstances.

The first killing, Steger said, occurred as an estimated 14,000 students were commuting to the school from off-campus. The university's leadership team determined that the best way to let them know about it would be once they arrived on campus and were situated in classes.

At the time, he said, there was no reason to believe there was any danger of a second shooting.

"We acted on the best information we had at the time," Flinchum said.

Virginia Tech student Brittney Cardillo, who grew up in Tampa, overslept for her first class Monday and woke to her cell phone. The text message was from a friend in Tampa.

Are you okay, the friend asked.

Why wouldn't I be, Cardillo wondered.

She went to her computer and found an instant message from another friend. That was how she found out what had happened.

"I've always felt really safe here," she said. "It's a small college town, right in the mountains. It's beautiful. We joke about how nothing ever happens here."

Kyle Reed, 32, a Virginia Tech doctoral candidate who is writing his dissertation in Tampa, saw the news in the morning and canceled his appointments for the day.

He spent the morning trying to contact friends at Virginia Tech and his dissertation adviser. But phone lines were busy and e-mail bounced.

So he watched television, appalled at the images of victims being carried out of school buildings.

"That's my school," he said. "The first shooting occurred a couple buildings away from where my department is. ... It's been very surreal."

Times staff writer Sara Rosenbaum contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 17, 2007, 00:07:11]

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