BLACKSBURG, Va. – Chemistry professor Joe Merola tried to give a lecture Monday, but looking out at 100 Virginia Tech students’ faces – and the sweat shirt he’d placed on the seat of a wounded student – he couldn’t do it.
“I lost it halfway through class,” he said. “I burst into tears and had to turn it over to the counselors.”
Students and staff paused twice Monday, at the moments when a week earlier gunman Seung-Hui Cho opened fire in two campus buildings, killing 32 people and himself. Then they returned to class for the first time since the shootings to seek solace in what used to be routine.
They found little as they had left it.
Talking about the tragedy took precedence over classwork, with some 200 volunteer counselors on campus sporting purple armbands, and a counselor in every class where a slain or injured student had been enrolled. Students and professors shared personal stories.
“We kind of talked and hugged. There were tears and stuff,” said Paul Deyerle, 20, a sophomore from Roanoke who attended three classes. “It was good closure.”
Deyerle, who was close friends with one of the slain students, said he took comfort in the fact that one of his teachers, a graduate student, kept choking up during class.
“Ordinarily, professors are so stoic,” he said. “It was nice to see someone sharing what I was feeling.”
Monday was the first time since the shootings that Andrea Falletti had been near the memorial to the victims in front of Burruss Hall, which became a triage center for those shot at nearby Norris Hall. Faint, brownish bloodstains still marred the sidewalk.
“Every day, you wake up and you don’t know what you should do. Everyone’s like, ‘Should we do something? Should we try to have fun?'” said Falletti, a 21-year-old senior. “You almost feel guilty smiling in Blacksburg.”
Emotions spanned the spectrum of solemnity.
“We are seeing the resolute, the angry, the confused, and the numb,” said Ed Spencer, the associate vice president of student affairs.
As many as 90 percent of Virginia Tech students returned to campus, and school officials said class attendance Monday hovered around 75 percent. Many said the only way to cope was to get back to school.
“You could choose to either be sad, or cheer up a little and continue the regular routine,” said student Juan Carlos Ugarte, 22. “Right now, I think all of us need to cheer up.”
The day began in silence, a trickle of students emerging slowly from their dorms and forming a crowd of about 100 to remember the moment Cho began the rampage by killing two students in a dorm.
Afterward, a group of students and campus ministers brought 33 white prayer flags from the dorm to the school’s War Memorial Chapel. They placed the flags in front of the campus landmark and adorned them with pastel-colored ribbons as the Beatles’ song “The Long and Winding Road” played through loudspeakers.
By 9:45 a.m., a crowd of thousands had gathered on the main campus lawn to mark the time of the second wave of killings, staring toward the heavens as a man in a Virginia Tech cap rang an antique bell 33 times and students and staff released balloons.