Hours after two people were fatally wounded by gunfire on the Virginia Tech campus Monday, students and faculty were still going to classes...
BLACKSBURG, Va. — Hours after two people were fatally wounded by gunfire on the Virginia Tech campus Monday, students and faculty were still going to classes without any warning, even as a second violent spree claimed another 30 victims and a gunman’s life.
A hundred yards from the dorm where police were called to the first shooting at 7:15 a.m., an early-morning soccer practice was held as scheduled.
Across campus, classes continued uninterrupted until nearly 10:30 a.m., at least 45 minutes after the second spree began.
“It took them three hours to shut this down when it should have been done immediately,” said Charlie Campbell, a Virginia Tech sophomore.
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With a fatal shooting and no killer in sight, “I just wish somehow they had canceled class,” Campbell said. “Kids still went to classes and some of them were unfortunate and didn’t make it through.”
After the confusing sequence of events unfolded Monday on the Blacksburg campus of about 26,000 students, angry questions mounted about the university’s response to the first shooting, which Virginia Tech officials said initially appeared to be an isolated case of domestic violence.
A 911 call to the Virginia Tech Police Department brought officers from the campus force and the Blacksburg police department to West Ambler Johnston Hall, home to 895 students. Though resident assistants warned dorm residents of the shooting as early as 8 a.m., students elsewhere said they went to 9 a.m. and even 10 a.m. classes as scheduled.
Many students learned of the first shooting from an e-mail alert at 9:26 a.m. Even after the second attack occurred in a Norris Hall classroom across campus sometime after 9:30, public-announcement warnings over campus loudspeakers didn’t ring out until nearly 10:30 a.m., students said. Although an urgent warning that a gunman was loose on campus went out at 9:50 a.m., just as the gunman was walking into a German classroom, specific notification of the second attack did not go out until 10:52 a.m.
“We finished our class period and went home like any normal day,” said 19-year-old Steven Mehr of Yorktown, Va., who calmly walked home an hour after his 9 a.m. music-theory class, only to find his campus the center of national attention.
“No one was aware,” he said. “No one had any idea.”
Later Monday, campus officials attributed the delay to a false sense of security from the first hours of their investigation into the dormitory shooting. At that point, they said, it looked like an isolated case of domestic violence. A witness at the dorm led police to a “person of interest” off-campus, university police chief Wendell Flinchum said.
They were interviewing that person when the second shooting occurred, taking university leaders by surprise, university President Charles Steger said.
Catherine Bush, executive director of Security on Campus, a nonprofit group that advocates for campus safety, criticized the university’s response to the shooting as flat-footed. She said students should have been told that no one was in custody after the first shooting.
“Virginia Tech did not properly warn their student body and their campus community,” Bush said. “The tragedy is much worse than it should have been.”
She said universities should have systems in place that alert students of an emergency through a cellphone voice mail or text message.
“Every student, every worker in that community should have had a message sent to their cellphone: ‘911 shooter on the loose. Do not leave your room, do not go to the bathroom,’ ” Bush said. “I don’t think that this tragedy would have seen as much bloodshed if they had a timely warning system in place.”
Exactly such a system has been considered by the university in recent weeks, though Steger noted that relying on cellphone systems runs a risk of having cell towers clog in similar emergencies. The university made other communications changes for campus safety officials after a fatal shooting on campus at the beginning of last semester, Steger said.
Evacuating the campus was out of the question, he said. In addition to its 26,000 students, Virginia Tech has 10,000 employees, thousands of visitors and hundreds of buildings. During morning hours, as many as 14,000 students may be commuting to campus, Steger said.
“Leaving the campus is a significant event,” he said. “It’s not something that can happen instantaneously.”
Student body President Adeel Khan, 19, of Springfield, Va., said the university had done all it reasonably could to react to the shooting, a view echoed by Sheldon Steinbach, a longtime higher-education attorney.
“The first concern of the administration was the security of their students,” said Steinbach, of Dow Lohnes in Washington, D.C. “The actions that they took — although now subject to Monday-morning quarterbacking — were effective, rational and reasonable at the time.”
What police chief Flinchum described as “a very trying day” began at 7:15 a.m. with a 911 call to university police. As campus police sealed off the dorm and Blacksburg officers closed nearby Washington Street, evidence was collected from a dorm-room crime scene where a man and a woman had been mortally shot.
“The information we had on the first incident led us to make the decision that it was an isolated event to that building, and the decision was made not to cancel classes at that time,” Flinchum said. By 7:30 a.m., police following a witness’ tip caught up with a “person of interest,” he said.
An hour later, the university’s top officials assembled to discuss how to notify students that a crime had occurred. The officials were updated on the investigation at 9 a.m. and an e-mail to students and faculty went out 26 minutes later.
At 9:45 a.m., officials were still meeting, and police were still interviewing the person of interest, when a second 911 call alerted them to a shooting at Norris Hall. The building contains faculty offices, classrooms and laboratories. Police who raced to the hall found the door chained from the inside.
A minute later, they had broken through the doors and followed the sound of gunfire inside to the second floor. As they got upstairs, Steger said, the shooting stopped. The unidentified gunman had taken his own life in a classroom, Flinchum said.
“I can’t express how much sorrow I feel for the families and everyone involved in this incident. But we’re doing everything we can to bring this investigation to a successful conclusion, find out all the facts, and go from there,” Flinchum said. “You can second-guess all day. We acted on the best information we had at the time.”
Chicago Tribune staff reporters Jodi S. Cohen and Tim Jones in Chicago and Andrew Zajac in Washington contributed to this report. Madhani reported from Blacksburg, Janega from Chicago.