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Virginia Tech tragedy

Pop, pop, then panic

From classroom to classroom, teachers and students in Norris Hall heard odd noises and barricaded doors. A few played dead, surviving to tell of the horrors inside.

By DAVID MARANISS Washington Post
Published April 19, 2007


The roommates crossed paths near the bathroom door at 5 in the morning. In the Monday darkness, another school week at Virginia Tech was about to begin. Karan Grewal had pulled an all-nighter to finish his accounting paper. His eyes were bleary as he saw Cho Seung-Hui, in boxer shorts and T-shirt, moving around him to get into the bathroom. No words were exchanged, but that is how it always was with Cho, the silent stranger among six guys inside Suite 2121 of Harper Hall. Cho, or Seung as his suitemates called him, never looked you in the eye, rarely changed expression, would just walk right on by. Grewal returned to his room and collapsed on his bed, falling into a deep sleep. He would not stir until midmorning, awakened by an uncommon sound on campus, the wail of sirens. Cho left the bathroom, got dressed, pulled a stocking cap over his head and set out from the dorm on his way to kill 32 students and teachers and then himself in the bloodiest mass murder by a lone gunman in American history. The malevolent force that emerged from Suite 2121 that morning set in motion a day of enormous tragedy. There was one murderous villain on the Blacksburg stage with all the familiar characteristics: lonely, angry, mentally unstable, desperate, uncommunicative.

But with the world watching, scores of other people were drawn into the unfolding drama, from a brave old Holocaust survivor who tried valiantly to save his students and died in the trying, to the kid in German class who became an eloquent voice of the survivors, to the quick-thinking student in computer class who placed a heavy table to block the doorway just in time, to the young man in mechanical engineering who made it through by pretending that he was dead.

A 7:15 a.m. call

The first call came into the campus police at 7:15 that morning. A female resident assistant on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, a short walk from where Cho lived. She said there had been a shooting.

She had heard screams, then more screams, then a pop, pop, and went down the hall to discover two bodies, a male and female, near Room 4040.

Police later identified the female as Emily Hilscher, a freshman from Woodville, Va. The male was one of the dorm's resident assistants, Ryan Clark, from Georgia. The officers began interviewing other students. Aside from the resident assistant, most had not heard or seen anything, even though there was a trail of bloody footprints down the hallway.

Two hours later, another 911 came in, this one from Norris Hall.

Popping sounds

The first Norris Hall attack came in Room 206, Advanced Hydrology taught by G.V. Loganathan. Thirteen graduate engineering students were in the class.

There was no warning, no foreboding sounds down the hallway. The gunman entered wordlessly and began shooting. Students scattered to get as far away from the door as possible.

One bullet hit Partahi "Mora" Lumbantoruan, an Indonesian doctoral student. His body fell on top of fellow graduate student Guillermo Colman. Then the shooter aimed his two guns around the room, picking off people one by one before leaving.

Colman, protected by his classmate's prone body, was one of only four in the room to survive. The professor and so many of his disciples, most of them international students, were dead.

Along with Colman, the three who survived were Nathanial Krause, Lee Hixon and Chang-Min Park. Two other members of the class lived because they didn't make it in that morning.

In Jamie Bishop's German class, they could hear the popping sounds. What was that? Some kind of joke? Construction noises? More pops. Someone suggested that Bishop should place something in front of the classroom door, just in case.

The words were no sooner uttered than the door opened and a shooter stepped in. He was holding guns in both hands. Bishop was hit first, a bullet slicing into the side of his head. All the students saw it. The gunman had a serious but calm look on his face. Almost no expression. He stood in the front and kept firing, barely moving.

People scrambled out of the line of fire. Trey Perkins knocked over desks trying to take cover. No way I can survive this, he thought. His mind raced to his mother and what she would go through when she heard he was dead. Shouts, cries, sobs, more shots, maybe 30 in all. There was blood everywhere. It took about a minute and a half, and then the gunman left the room.

Perkins and two classmates, Derek O'Dell and Katelyn Carney, ran up to the door and put their feet against it to make sure he could not get back in. They would have used a heavy table, but there wasn't one.

Soon the gunman tried to get back in. The three students pressed against the door with their arms and legs, straining with their lives at stake. Unable to budge the door, the gunman shot through it four times. Splinters flew from the thick wood. The gunman turned away, again. There were more pops, but each one a bit farther away as he moved down the hall.

The scene in the classroom "was brutal," Perkins recalled. Most of the students were dead. He saw a few who were bleeding but conscious and tried to save them. He took off his gray hoodie sweatshirt and wrapped it around a male student's leg.

The French class next door was also devastated by then. Instructor Jocelyne Couture-Nowak was dead. Most of Kristina Heeger's classmates were dead. Reema Samaha, a contemporary dancer from Northern Virginia, was dead. And Ross Alameddine from Massachusetts and Daniel Perez Cueva from Peru and Caitlin Hammaren from Upstate New York.

Heeger was among the few lucky ones; she and Hillary Strollo were wounded. Heeger was hit in the stomach. A bullet sliced through Strollo's abdomen and frayed her liver. Clay Violand, a 20-year-old junior from Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, Md., also survived.

Like those in other classes, the French students had heard the banging, or pops. "That's not what I think it is?" asked Couture-Nowak.

Violand, feeling panicky, pointed at her and said, "Put that desk in front of the door, now!" She did, and then someone called 911. The desk could not hold back the push from outside. The first thing Violand saw was a gun, then the gunman. "I quickly dove under a desk," he recalled. "That was the desk I chose to die under."

He listened as the gunman began "methodically and calmly" shooting people. "It sounded rhythmic-like. He took his time between each shot and kept up the pace, moving from person to person." After every shot, Violand thought, "Okay, the next one is me." But shot after shot, and he felt nothing. He played dead.

The gunman circled again and seemed to be unloading a second round into the wounded. Violand thought he heard the gunman reload three times.

He could not hold back odd thoughts: "I wonder what a gun wound feels like. I hope it doesn't hurt. I wonder if I'll die slow or fast." He made eye contact with a girl, also still alive. They stared at each other until the gunman left.

The small group of 10 in Haiyan Cheng's computer class heard the loud banging outside. She thought it was construction noise at first, but it distracted her. Cheng and a female student went to the door and peered out. They saw a man emerge from a room across the hall. He was holding a gun, but it was pointed down. They quickly shut the door. More popping sounds, getting closer. The class was in a panic.

One student, Zach Petkowicz, was near the lectern "cowering behind it," he would later say, when he realized that the door was vulnerable. There was a heavy rectangular table in the class, and he and two other students pushed it against the door. No sooner had they fixed it in place than someone pushed hard from the outside. It was the gunman. He forced it open about 6 inches, but no farther.

Petkowicz and his classmates pushed back, not letting up. The gunman fired two shots through the door. One hit the lectern and sent wood scraps and metal flying. Neither hit any of the students. They could hear a clip dropping, the distinct sound of reloading. And, again, the gunman moved on.

Coming to help

There was more carnage in the hallway. Kevin Granata had heard the commotion in his third-floor office and ran downstairs. He was a military veteran, protective of his students. He was gunned down trying to confront the shooter.

Room 204, Professor Liviu Librescu's class, seems to have been the gunman's last stop on the second floor. The teacher and his dozen students had heard too much, though they had not seen anything yet. They had heard a girl's piercing scream in the hallway. They had heard the pops.

By the time the gunman reached the room, many of the students were on the window ledge. There was grass below, and even some shrubs. The old professor was at the door, which would not lock, pushing against it, when the gunman pushed from the other side. Some of the students jumped. Others prepared to jump until Librescu could hold the door no longer and the gunman forced his way in.

Matt Webster, a 23-year-old engineering student from Smithfield, Va., was one of four students inside when the gunman appeared. "He was decked out like he was going to war," Webster recalled.

The first shot hit Librescu in the head, killing him. Webster ducked to the floor and tucked himself into a ball. He shut his eyes and listened as the gunman walked to the back of the classroom. Two other students were huddled by the wall. He shot a girl, and she cried out. Now the shooter was 3 feet away, pointing his gun right at Webster.

"I felt something hit my head, but I was still conscious," Webster recalled. The bullet had grazed his hairline, then ricocheted through his right arm. He played dead. The gunman left the room as suddenly as he had come in.

When Webster opened his eyes, he saw blood everywhere. Some of it was his, though he didn't realize it until he saw blood pouring out the sleeve of his sweatshirt. The girl nearby was unable to speak, only moaning. Blood seeped from her mouth.

A realization

At 9:45 a.m., the Virginia Tech police received the first 911 call from inside Norris Hall.

It was not until 9:06 that night - when Virginia State Police investigators knocked on the door at Suite 2121 in Harper Hall - that Karan Grewal realized that the roommate he had last seen in boxers and T-shirt 16 hours earlier was the cause of all the horror.

Trey Perkins had been one of the primary student voices all day, talking coolly and calmly about the horror that visited his German class. He had seen the worst that man can do to man, and now he was in a daze.

It helped him to talk, to respond to questions, to go over the details in rote fashion, because when he spoke aloud they seemed somewhat removed. When he was alone and silent, something deeper washed over him that made him shudder.

It was a simple image that looped again and again in his mind's eye. The first moment, the classroom door opening, the gunman coming in.

The narrative

About this story

This narrative is based on scores of interviews with shooting victims, witnesses and other participants in the events at Virginia Tech on Monday. All thoughts expressed by people in the narrative are taken directly from the interviews.

[Last modified April 19, 2007, 01:22:42]

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