BLACKSBURG, Va. – The gunshots were so slow and steady that some students thought they came from a nearby construction site, until they saw the police officers with rifles pointed at Norris Hall, the engineering building at Virginia Tech.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
They went on and on, for what seemed like 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, an eternity with punctuation.
Bang. Bang. On the third floor of Norris Hall, Scott L. Hendricks, a professor, looked out the window of his office and saw students crawling away from the building.
Bang. Tiffany Otey’s accounting class crammed into an office and locked themselves in, crying in fright.
Every so often, the shots paused for a minute or so. That was the gunman, who was in the midst of the worst shooting rampage in American history, stopping to reload. When it was over, 33 people, including the gunman, were dead and at least 15 more were injured.
“I was terrified,” said Otey, a junior whose class met in the room above the one where much of the shooting took place.
One student finished the day’s assignment and tried to leave, but returned to tell the others that the hall was full of smoke and that there were police officers everywhere. The class decided to go into a room with a lock. Hendricks, an engineering and mechanics professor on the same floor, barricaded himself in his office, pushing a bookcase in front of the door. Some students on campus took refuge in the library, searching the Web to find out what was happening. No one knew.
“I was crying,” Otey said. “I was worried that the guy with the gun was going to come upstairs too.”
The violence began early in the morning at West Ambler Johnston, the school’s largest dormitory, where two people were killed, officials said. But when the first class started two hours later, many on campus remained unaware of any danger.
“I woke up and I didn’t know anything was wrong,” said Sarah Ulmer, a freshman who lives in East Ambler Johnston. “I went to my first class and my teacher was talking about how some people weren’t coming because there was a gun threat at West A.J. and they were blocking it off. It was like, ‘Oh.”‘
The school did not notify students by e-mail of the first shootings until 9:26 a.m., said Matt Dixon, who lives in the dorm. Dixon did not receive the e-mail message until he returned from his 9:05 class. When he left for that class, he said, a resident adviser told him not to use the central stairs, so he left another way.
On dry erase boards, advisers had written, “Stay in your rooms,” Dixon said.
Other students and faculty members said they had only a vague notion that there had been a shooting at the dorm. Several faculty members said they had reached campus during or just after the Norris Hall shooting and had gone unimpeded to their buildings.
Many were bewildered or angry that the campus had not been locked down earlier, after the first incident.
“I am outraged at what happened today on the Virginia Tech campus,” wrote Huy That Ton, a member of the chemical engineering faculty, in an e-mail message. “Countless lives could have been saved if they had informed the student body of the first shooting. What was the security department thinking?!”
Campus officials said they believed the first incident was confined to a single building and was essentially a domestic dispute, and had no idea that the violence would spread elsewhere.
The police said they still did not know if the two shootings were the work of the same gunman.
The gunman in Norris Hall was described as a young Asian man with two pistols who calmly entered classrooms and shot professors and students. He peeked into the German class in Room 207, witnesses said, then pushed his way in.
Gene Cole, who works in Virginia Tech’s housekeeping services, was on the second floor of Norris Hall yesterday morning and saw a person lying on a hallway floor, he told The Roanoke Times. As Cole went up to the body, a man wearing a hat and holding a gun stepped into the hallway. “Someone stepped out of a classroom and started shooting at me,” he said. Cole fled down the corridor, then down a flight of steps to safety. “All I saw was blood in the hallways,” Cole said.
The gunman was described as methodical, squeezing the trigger almost rhythmically. “Sometimes there would be like a minute or so break in between them, but for the most part it was one right after another,” Otey said.
Elaine Goss of Waynesboro, Va., said she first spoke to her son, Alec Calhoun, a student, at about 9:30 a.m., after he had leapt from a second-story classroom window as the gunman entered. “I couldn’t understand him. It was like gibberish,” Goss said. “It took a while to figure out shootings, lots of shootings, and that his whole class had jumped out the window.” He landed on his back, and “we made him go to the emergency room,” she said.