For many around the world, April 16th is just another day. For those members of the Hokie Nation, it is a dark reminder of a day when the unthinkable happened.
On April 16, 2007 a Virginia Tech student opened fire in West Ambler Johnston dormitory and two hours later in Norris Hall on the school's campus, killing 32 members of the Virginia Tech community.
The community was devastated by the actions of the gunman and emotions ranged from sorrow to anger, depression to helplessness. No one understood how this could happen or why anyone would want to do this. A campus normally overflowing with laughter and chatter was blanketed with sirens and mourning.
The small town of Blacksburg, Va. was in the international spotlight, but for reasons that none wanted.
I'm sitting here, four weeks away from graduating and I can't quite find the proper description for what impact this tragedy has had on my time at Virginia Tech. I recently had a current sophomore at Virginia Tech ask me what it was like being here during that and the only thing I could come up with was "It was horrible." I stopped after that trying to find the words to describe the feeling, but I think the silence that followed really hammered it home. Every time that someone asks me about it, my answer changes because it's really hard to encapsulate something as heartbreaking and devastating as this.
I remember going to breakfast that morning in Dietrick Hall before my 8:00 AM class. It was a cold and windy morning and I think it was even flurrying. In April. As I walked the short distance from Pritchard Hall to Dietrick, I heard a loud "bang" coming from the West Ambler Johnston area. The garbage trucks were always out early so it didn't cross my mind for a second that it could have been a gun shot. Looking back on it now it's horrifying to know that I heard the beginning of the worst day in the history of the school.
I went to my 8:00 AM class in the Chemistry-Physics building and then went to my lab upstairs in the same building at 10:00 AM. In the lab class is when I first heard about the shootings as a student in the same class had just come from a building near Norris and told everyone in the class, "there's some guy in Norris shooting" and the initial reaction from everyone was just disbelief. A few weeks earlier, there had been a few bomb threats at the school so not many were willing to accept this as true yet. More people came in reporting the same or similar stories and it quickly became clear that this was something very serious.
My lab partner and I decided to leave class and we ran to her car. By this time, the academic side of campus was in chaos. My friend dropped me off at my dorm at Pritchard and as I walked back to my room, I saw numerous police cars and ambulances flying down Washington Street. To this day that sound forces a minor flashback.
Back in the dorms, not many people had a clue that anything had even happened yet and rumors were running wild. "He's still on the loose on campus", "snipers are on the roofs", "he's in a shootout with the cops." No one knew what to believe, but as the hours passed while watching the news, the leaking details formed a grim outline . Like the waves in a stormy sea, the numbers kept rising and an uneasy sickness took hold.
5. 12. 18. 21. 32.
The numbers kept increasing and the feeling became more and more unreal. This was the type of thing you see on TV and think "it will never happen here". But it did, and none of us were ready to accept that. It's an odd thing seeing a national tragedy unfold on television being covered by the same local news anchors that you grew up watching.
It was impossible to get through on a cell phone and the dorm room phones were just the same, creating panic for students trying to get in touch with family members and friends and vice versa. Facebook updates became the way of communicating to those we wanted to get in touch with and at the same time was a reminder that this was in fact real. High school friends now at Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, JMU, and so on had updated their statuses, offering condolences and prayers to those who lost their life and the school as a whole. It was not a dream, the outside world's awareness of the shootings was an unwelcome reminder.
You started to go through the list of friends you had at Tech, seeing if they had posted anything about their safety or you'd ask mutual friends if they had heard from so-and-so. I consider myself lucky that those that I knew were okay, but my heart was broken for those that had lost someone. A few months later, a friend of mine told me that by the time he had woken up that day, his friend's life had already been taken. It's a thing you take for granted on a college campus, you think that you're completely safe in this bubble. You never think that when you say goodbye to someone after a class or at dinner, that it'll be for the last time.
I grew up in Roanoke and was a Hokie by birth. My dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, and brother all went here. I went to football games throughout my childhood and teenage years. Getting accepted to the school is still one of the proudest moments of my life. This place was a part of me, it was home. To have this much pain and suffering inflicted upon the school that I loved so much was incomprehensible.
I honestly couldn't tell you how or when I went back home to Roanoke, but looking back now, I wish I had stayed to hear Nikki Giovani's speech or President Bush declare that "we are all Hokies". I would have given anything to have been in Cassell Coliseum, joining in the chorus of "Let's Go Hokies". Giovanni's speech became a rallying cry for a community sucker-punched by grief and desperately searching for something to lift their heads up for.
I stayed at home in Roanoke for the next week, but returning to Blacksburg the following week was difficult. Maroon and orange ribbons hung from trees on the Drillfield, flowers piled up outside West Ambler-Johnston, law enforcement overran the small town, and the reminders were all too many.
News trucks poured in from all over the nation over the next few days and the parking lot at the Inn at Virginia Tech was a media circus. Over the next few weeks back at the school, anywhere and everywhere you went, you saw a reporter doing a stand-up or a photographer catching people going back to class. After a while, you wanted to just get away from that and back to your normal life.
I remember for about a solid month I would wake up in the morning with a gut-wrenching feeling that it wasn't some twisted nightmare and that it was in fact real. Even during the day sometimes I would get the feeling that I would snap out of it and it would magically disappear. But the fact that it never did made it harder and harder every time. It came in waves, too. One week you would feel better about things and then one minor thing would set off the chain of events in your head again. You didn't have to personally know anyone for it to take a toll on you, either. The enormous loss of life was enough to break even the toughest of spirits.
Shortly after, stories of heroism from professors and students surfaced. Most notably was the action taken by Holocaust survivor Livu Librescu as he barred entry from his classroom while his students escaped through the windows. Librescu gave his life for his students and his courageous act will never be forgotten. Though some gave their lives in the process, hearing these stories served as a reminder among all this sorrow that there are in fact good people who would sacrifice themselves for others.
In times of tragedy, we lean on others for support and the fact that the whole world was behind the community meant everything. Banners, cards and posters poured in from across the world from colleges, universities, high schools and elementary schools, showing support for the Hokies. Other symbols of support popped up all over: UVA students painted the Beta Bridge in Charlottesville, Penn State students formed a "VT" at the school's spring game, East Carolina University donated $100,000 to the school, the Washington Nationals wore Virginia Tech hats in a game, the New York Yankees donated $1,000,000 to the school's memorial fund. Just as it would be impossible for me to properly list all of the signs of support that the school received, so it is impossible for me to properly relay the sense of gratitude the community has for that support. The overwhelming support shown to our campus inspired hope and helped to bring out the best in each and every one of us.
In September of 2007, the school was back on the national stage as ESPN's College Gameday crew came to Blacksburg. This was an opportunity for the community to say that they were still here, that they were still strong and not going away. They would not be pulled down by the evil and hateful actions of another. This was the opportunity to show that they would prevail. The Virginia Tech community took that opportunity and showed with a roar that they were proud to be Hokies, no matter what the circumstances.
32 of our brothers and sisters were taken from us against our will, but who we are as a whole can never be taken. As Hokies we are not defined by this tragedy, we are defined by how we lifted our weary heads and continued on our chosen paths. The road has been tough along the way, but with every bump we can remind ourselves to live for the 32 that lost their lives. We can remind ourselves to live in the true spirit of the school motto Ut Prosim: that I may serve.
Let's Go Hokies.