“I’m safe. I’m not okay, but I’m safe.”
I couldn’t respond in any other way to the hundreds of phone calls, text messages, e-mails and Facebook posts asking me how I was doing. It was April 16, 2007, a day that Virginia Tech and the rest of the world will never forget, the day Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 fellow students and faculty during my first year in college. My friends and I were safe, but we were locked down, terrified, and bewildered. Our beloved campus, our safe haven, had been violated.
Last Thursday, December 8, Virginia Tech’s campus was once again shaken by a random and heartbreaking act of violence. A 22-year-old Radford University student named Ross Truett Ashley shot and killed Virginia Tech Police Officer Deriek Crouse, a 39-year-old father of five, before taking his own life in a parking lot nearby. Police still don’t know what motivated him.
|(Photo by Chris Keane/Newsvom)|
Brendon Burns, a 2008 Virginia Tech graduate from Virginia Beach, lives, works, and coaches in Blacksburg. He was in the middle of a busy lunch shift on Thursday when the restaurant started to buzz with news––something was happening on campus. When the television switched over, a hush fell over the restaurant.
“It started to unravel the same way April 16 did, as we were glued to the TV, waiting to hear how bad it was, who was hurt or killed,” Burns recalled. “But unlike April 16, my initial reaction was anger; it was happening again to Virginia Tech, to Blacksburg.”
“Our hearts are broken again,” said Virginia Tech President Charles Steger in reference to the 2007 shooting. Steger called the loss of any human life “a tremendous tragedy” and said Thursday’s killing “brings back some difficult memories from the past.”
But there’s another emotion on the Virginia Tech campus this time around: anger. Anger at how it could happen again. Anger at the negative attention it will inevitably bring. Anger at the way the media seems so quick to make a pattern out of unconnected events.
In 2009 a Chinese graduate student named Haiyang Zhu decapitated another graduate student Xin Yang, and while he was arrested within minutes of the 911 call, the national media spotlight came back to campus.
Anger is the most common feeling among students and alumni I’ve spoken with in the past few days. The shooter, Ross Truett Ashley, was a student at Radford University, a 30-minute drive from Virginia Tech, and he had no obvious connections to Blacksburg, Virginia Tech, or the campus police department. People around town are wondering what people around the world must be wondering: why Blacksburg? Why is this small, close-knit community, tucked away in the New River Valley, a target for random acts of violence?
Before Thursday, Rebecca Naramore, a junior from Springfield, Virginia, said she had never felt unsafe at Virginia Tech.
“This is my third year as a student here, and I have never felt in danger in any way,” Naramore said.
Naramore was on campus on Thursday amidst the emergency vehicles, sirens, and fear. She spent the afternoon worrying about a friend who had been heading toward the Cage, the site of the second shooting. It wasn’t until she found her friend, safe and sound and without a phone, that Naramore breathed a sigh of relief.
|A timeline of tragediesApril 16, 2007 – Virginia Tech stu-
dent Seung-Hui Cho kills 32 people before turning the gun on himself.January 12, 2009 – Chinese grad-
uate student Haiyang Zhu stabs and decapitates fellow graduate student Xin Yang in a restaurant in Virginia Tech’s Graduate Life Center. (He is later sentenced to life in prison).
December 8, 2011
Approximately 12:45pm – A Montgomery County Sheriff’s Deputy observes a man walking in the “Cage” parking lot, less than half a mile from officer Crouse’s location. The individual is later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
4:30pm - Lockdown is lifted and news conference held to update the public on the day’s events.
December 9, 2011 – Virginia State Police identify the shooter as Ross Truett Ashley, 22, of Partlow, Virginia. He was a part-time student at Radford University.
After the shootings in 2007, Virginia Tech was publicly criticized for its slow reaction time in responding and alerting the campus. Since the tragedy, the university has developed, tested, and improved an intricate system known as VT Alerts. The system warns students, faculty and alumni of emergencies on campus through a complex network of channels, including sirens, electronic classroom signs, text messages, and emails.
At 12:36pm on Thursday, while writing at my home in Farmville, I received the first text message. “Gun shots reported—Coliseum parking lot. Stay indoors. Secure doors. Emergency personnel responding.”
Suddenly I was a freshman again, locked down in the library for four hours, staring out the window as police cars zoomed across the hallowed ground of the Drillfield, fearfully wondering why my roommate wasn’t answering her phone.
Despite being hours away, my heart wrenched and went out to every student and faculty who had to go through the experience again. The agonizing pain, the confusion, and the fear were real again, and I yearned to be back in Blacksburg.
Emily Wilkinson, a senior from Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, and the student body vice president, summed up the mood: “Awful. Everyone’s heartbroken.”
For days following the 2007 tragedy, being on campus felt eerie, unreal. Volleyball courts, usually home to overzealous freshman boys and girls reading Cosmo, were empty. Dining halls were quiet. The Drillfield lacked its usual spark, no longer bustling with students high-fiving on the way to class, tossing footballs or passing out fliers for organizations and events. My beautiful, vibrant campus felt down-trodden, solemn.
But Tech came alive again. The Hokie Nation found the courage and the strength to grieve, support one another, and, eventually, move on.
On Friday, December 9, 2011, over 4,000 students, faculty, alumni, and community members gathered on the Drillfield to honor Crouse and his family with a candlelight vigil.
Blacksburg’s notorious December winds took the evening off, making it “cold and eerily still,” according to Burns. The Hokies that night were silent, solemn in the soft light of thousands of candles. When student body president Corbin DiMeglio and theater professor Susanna Rineheart finished speaking, “Taps” rang out over the Drillfield, played by Corps of Cadets members. After a moment of silence, a group of students started a round of the “Let’s Go Hokies!” chant.
On Saturday, Burns says that some normalcy was returning to the campus and Blacksburg as a whole; students haven’t forgotten what happened, but they’re still living their lives.
“It’s exam weekend here, but the memorials on the Drillfield are reminders of it,” Burns said.
On the Facebook pages of dozens of students and alumni was the same message, a message that says three random acts of violence will not define our community: “From the outside looking in, you can never understand it. From the inside looking out, you can never explain it. Virginia Tech is more than a school…it’s my home and family. Our campus does not deserve this heartbreak. neVer forgeT and pray for Virginia Tech. We will always prevail. Stay safe, Hokies.”