BLACKSBURG, Va. – A gunman massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech in the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history Monday, cutting down his victims in two attacks two hours and a half-mile apart before the university could figure out what was going on and get the warning out to students.
The bloodbath ended with the gunman committing suicide, bringing the death toll to 33 and stamping the campus in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains with tragedy, perhaps forever.
“I’m really at a loss for words to explain or understand the carnage that has visited our campus,” Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said.
He was also faced with difficult questions about the university’s handling of the emergency and whether it did enough to warn students and protect them after the first burst of gunfire.
Investigators offered no motive for the attack. The gunman’s name was not immediately released, and it was not known if he was a student.
Wielding two pistols, the gunman opened fire about 7:15 a.m. at West Ambler Johnston, a coed dormitory, then stormed Norris Hall, a classroom building on the other side of the 2,600-acre campus, chaining the doors behind him to keep anyone from escaping.
Two people died in a dorm room, and 31 others were killed in Norris Hall, including the gunman, who put a bullet in his head. At least 26 people were hurt, some seriously.
Students jumped from windows in panic. Young people and faculty members carried out some of the wounded themselves, without waiting for ambulances to arrive. Many found themselves trapped behind the chained and padlocked doors. SWAT team members with helmets, flak jackets and assault rifles swarmed over the campus. A student used his cell-phone camera to record the sound of bullets echoing through a stone building.
Trey Perkins, who was sitting in a German class in Norris Hall, told The Washington Post that the gunman barged into the room at about 9:50 a.m. and opened fire for about a minute and a half, squeezing off 30 shots in all.
The gunman, Perkins said, first shot the professor in the head and then fired on the students. Perkins said the gunman was about 19 years old and had a “very serious but very calm look on his face.”
“Everyone hit the floor at that moment,” said Perkins, 20, of Yorktown, Va., a sophomore studying mechanical engineering. “And the shots seemed like it lasted forever.”
Students bitterly complained that there were no public-address announcements on campus after the first shots. Many said the first word from the university was an e-mail more than two hours into the rampage – around the time the gunman struck again.
“I think the university has blood on their hands because of their lack of action after the first incident,” said Billy Bason, 18, who lives on the seventh floor of the dorm.
“If you had apprehended a suspect, I could understand having classes even after two of your students have perished. But when you don’t have a suspect in a college environment and to put the students in a situation where they’re congregated in large numbers in open buildings, that’s unacceptable to me.”
Steger defended the university’s handling of the tragedy, saying authorities believed that the shooting at the dorm was a domestic dispute and mistakenly thought the gunman had fled the campus.
“We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur,” he said.
Steger emphasized that the university closed off the dorm after the first attack and decided to rely on e-mail and other electronic means to notify members of the university, but with 11,000 people driving onto campus first thing in the morning, it was difficult to get the word out. He said that before the e-mail went out, the university began telephoning resident advisers in the dorms to notify them and sent people to knock on doors to spread the word. Students were warned to stay inside and away from the windows.
“We can only make decisions based on the information you had at the time. You don’t have hours to reflect on it,” Steger said. He called the massacre a tragedy of “monumental proportions.”
A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was incomplete, said that the gunman had two pistols and multiple clips of ammunition.
Some students and Laura Wedin, a student programs manager at Virginia Tech, said the first notification they got of the shootings came in an e-mail at 9:26 a.m., more than two hours after the first shooting.
The e-mail had few details. It read: “A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating.” The message warned students to be cautious and contact police about anything suspicious.
Everett Good, junior, said of the lack of warning: “Someone’s head is definitely going to roll over that.”
Edmund Henneke, associate dean of engineering, said he was in the classroom building and he and colleagues had just read the e-mail advisory regarding the first shooting and were discussing it when he heard gunfire. He said moments later SWAT team members rushed them downstairs, but the doors were chained and padlocked from the inside. They left the building through a construction area that had not been locked.
Until Monday, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history was in Killeen, Texas, in 1991, when George Hennard plowed his pickup truck into a Luby’s Cafeteria and shot 23 people to death, then himself.
The massacre Monday took place almost eight years to the day after the Columbine High bloodbath near Littleton, Colo. On April 20, 1999, two teenagers killed 12 fellow students and a teacher before taking their own lives.
Previously, the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history was a rampage that took place in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin, where Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower and opened fire with a rifle from the 28th-floor observation deck. He killed 16 people before he was shot to death by police.
Founded in 1872, Virginia Tech is nestled in southwestern Virginia, about 160 miles west of Richmond. With more than 25,000 full-time students, it has the state’s largest full-time student population. The school is best known for its engineering school and its powerhouse Hokies football team.
The rampage took place on a brisk spring day, with snow flurries swirling around the campus. The campus is centered around the Drill Field, a grassy field where military cadets – who now represent a fraction of the student body – practice. The dorm and the classroom building are on opposites sides of the Drill Field.
A White House spokesman said President Bush was horrified by the rampage and offered his prayers to the victims and the people of Virginia. “The president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed,” spokeswoman Dana Perino said
After the shootings, all entrances to the campus were closed, and classes were canceled through Tuesday. The university set up a meeting place for families to reunite with their children. It also made counselors available and planned an assembly for Tuesday at the basketball arena.
It was second time in less than a year that the campus was closed because of a shooting.
Last August, the opening day of classes was canceled and the campus closed when an escaped jail inmate allegedly killed a hospital guard off campus and fled to the Tech area. A sheriff’s deputy involved in the manhunt was killed on a trail just off campus. The accused gunman, William Morva, faces capital murder charges