Live for 32

Every Hokie has his/her story on April 16, 2007.  This is mine.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve rewritten this; for me, the events of that Monday morning are indescribable. Thank you for taking a moment out of your day to read this; it’s cathartic for me to share this experience with you, and I believe that it’s an important story to share.

Update, 4/16/14: I’ve been asked to place a trigger warning on this post, so I recommend that you take caution in reading this post.

* * *
“Did you check your e-mail?”
“No.  I probably should’ve.  Why?” 
“There was a shooting in West AJ this morning.”
“… What?”
I stared at my hall mate, Allison, in utter disbelief. She explained that Virginia Tech had recently distributed a brief email alerting everyone that a shooting had occurred in West Ambler Johnson, the largest dormitory on campus, around 7:15 that morning.  It was now a little past 9:00 a.m.
“Was anyone seriously injured?”
“They didn’t say.  They haven’t even caught the guy yet.”
I finished locking my dorm room door and headed for the staircase at the other end of the long hallway.
“You’re still going to class?” Allison called after me.
“Yeah.  I’ve gotta go fail an exam.”
“Be safe.”

It was flurrying when I embarked on my trek toward Pamplin Hall.  Listening to Cake on my iPod, my mind was preoccupied with remembering who the cinematographers were for William Friedkin’s The Exorcist while the other half was wondering why I was still with my boyfriend, Sean.  Ever since we left for college, our phone conversations consisted of argument after argument.  It was easy to become irritated over the most trivial matters when he was six and a half hours away at Christopher Newport University.  He didn’t deserve to deal with that.

My walk to class.

I was halfway across the Drill Field when I first heard the gunshots.  After pausing my iPod, I was almost certain that the “cracks” were emanating from the construction site on Stanger Street.  They continued, echoing off of West Eggleston and War Memorial Gym behind me.  Crack.  Crack-crack.  Crack.  Crack.

West Eggleston and War Memorial Gym
Something didn’t seem right.  My insides screamed at me to turn around.  But I had to get to Pamplin Hall early to study for my Literature and Film exam; I pushed onward.
Drill Field Drive
The shrieking sirens of two police cars and an ambulance soon replaced the cracks; the trio raced past Torgersen Bridge and disappeared behind McBryde Hall.  I tentatively crossed Drill Field Drive and, planning to cut through the Burruss Hall tunnel, I climbed the steps leading to Norris Hall.

Norris Hall
Five men in black uniforms appeared seemingly out of nowhere, walking briskly to crouch around the front doors of Norris.  They carried assault rifles the size of baseball bats and used rapid hand gestures to signal to one another.  The man in front cautiously reached for the door handle, but there was a jingling sound, and the door wouldn’t open.

Norris Hall
That’s when the screams sounded, and the thuds of students as they wrenched themselves through Norris’s second story windows.  Blood was smeared across their faces, their hands, their clothes.  Some stumbled through the overgrown bushes and away from the building while others crawled through the yellowed grass.  
I stood frozen in my tracks.  A dozen other Virginia Tech students gathered around me, like helpless sheep.
Crack-crack.  Crack.  Crack.  Louder now, coming directly from Norris.  It suddenly occurred to me what these sounds were.

A police-marked Ford Explorer crashed onto the sidewalk in front of Burruss Hall.  The doors flung open and four policemen emerged with their handguns out of their holsters. 
One policeman grabbed a boy nearest to him and yelled, “DON’T go to class!  RUN!” 
We ran.  Like hell.
The cold wind bit my face; tears and tiny snowflakes stung my cheeks as I slowed down to a panicked walk on the Drill Field midway between Slusher Tower and Pamplin Hall.

Slusher Tower to the right

I couldn’t think.  I couldn’t function.  Yanking out my cell phone from the pocket of my hoodie, my thumbs were too frozen to dial my mom’s work number.

“Hi sweetie,” she cheerfully answered.  It was an ordinary Monday for her.
“Mom.  Is there anything about Tech on the news?”
“Why?  What’s going on?” she demanded.
“I think William Morva’s back.” (William Morva was an escaped convict who killed two Blacksburg police officers on Tech’s first day of classes in August 2006.)
It was impossible to phrase what exactly was going on.  Somewhere between my hysterics of gunshots, policemen, and blood, my mom interrupted by directing me to go straight to my dorm room and lock the door.  As she was telling me this, I spotted Mikey, a boy who was in my high school graduating class.  Without saying a word, I grabbed his coat sleeve and dragged him to the residential side of campus with me.

West Eggleston Wind Tunnel

My mom, in a panic, hung up to call my brother, Cory.  As Mikey and I entered the West Eggleston wind tunnel, we looked back at massive group of students, who, by this time, had congregated at the intersection of the Drill Field. Suddenly, every single one of them took off running straight for us.  Their screams pierced through the morning air.

O’Shag Hall

By the time I reached O’Shaughnessy Hall, my dorm, I had barely regained my senses. My sixth floor hall buzzed with several girls who had returned from campus, just as I had; others stood in their doorways, still dressed in pajamas.  Some were crying, a few were frantically calling their friends, and a couple were yelling hysterically.

No one knew what was going on.  Tech had sent another email telling us little more about the original shooting in West AJ, but besides that, we knew nothing.

What is going on out there?” my roommate, Tameka, mumbled half-asleep from her loft bed when I keyed into our room.

“There’s been a shooting.”

“What?  No.  You serious?  Where?” Tameka was already climbing out of her bed.  I didn’t have time to answer.  My cell phone started ringing; it was my brother, who was a senior at Virginia Tech.

“Kirsten, what’s going on?” Cory demanded, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I reassured, watching Tameka as she turned on the TV to check the local news station.  “I don’t know what’s happening.  Where are you?”

“At my apartment.  I slept through my alarm — I’m supposed to be in class,” Cory continued, “Mom said you saw police in front of a building.  Which building?”

“I don’t know what it’s called — I haven’t had a class there yet.”

“I need to know which building.  Casey’s in class right now,” Cory’s voice cracked, referring to his girlfriend.

“Hold on, I’ve got a campus map,” I began, fumbling blindly through my desk drawers.  My eyes could barely focus on the handwritten labels of each academic building.  “It was next to Burruss.”

“Burruss?” Cory demanded, “Casey’s in Williams Hall — to the left of Burruss.”

“No, no, no — this building was to the right of Burruss,” I reassured, spotting it on the map.  “Norris Hall.  It was Norris.”

I could hear the relief in Cory’s voice, “Oh, okay, thank God.  Thanks.  I’m going to try to call her — maybe she’s out of class by now.”

Around 10:30, we received an email saying that classes were cancelled for the remainder of the day and mandated that all on-campus residents remain in their rooms with their doors locked, and stay away from windows.

The local news station covered what little was known about the situation first.  Then it was broadcasted on CNN, MSNBC, NBC, everywhere.  Locked in our room armed with my baseball bat and hockey stick, Tameka and I didn’t have time to watch the news because we began to receive dozens upon dozens of phone calls from frantic friends and family.

My mom, who worked in public relations, called, saying that she knew a New York Times reporter who wished to talk to me. I consented.

“Kristen, tell me… what… you saw… as going… class,” the reporter shouted into his cell phone. Our phone connection was spotty, and I heard blips of rapid talking, cursing, car honking, and the sounds of passing semi-trucks on the other line — the male reporter was en route to Blacksburg to cover the story. “Anything… would… great.”

“I…” I began, hesitantly glancing at Tameka, who was eyeing me suspiciously, “I was walking to class, listening to my iPod. I heard these cracks — thought they were construction. As I was heading into Burruss, I looked up and saw… at least 10 guards — looked almost like SWAT team members with assault rifles aiming at the main entrance of Norris.”

“Did… know… happening?”

“No, I… had no idea what was happening.”

Verizon customers soon lost cell phone service, so we used AOL Instant Messenger and Facebook to get in touch with everyone. My inbox became flooded with messages from classmates who I barely talked to from high school. I, too, desperately messaged everyone I knew at Tech; I was relieved to hear that my good friend, Evan, was okay, as were John and Michael, my two closest high school friends.

Pandemonium ensued during the lockdown. Rumors, spread through Facebook and AIM, claimed that there were bomb threats in dorms and a shooter loose in nearby Lee Hall and Cassell Coliseum. My RA warned us to ignore the fire alarm if it went off; the police thought that it would be a ploy for the gunman to open fire against a group on unsuspecting students. Armed policemen were everywhere: guarding the dorms, blockading Washington Street, and camped in the basketball courts between O’Shag and Pritchard. I didn’t realize there were so many policemen in Montgomery County.

O’Shag, Lee, and Pritchard Hall Basketball Courts

“What is that?” Tameka whispered at one point, hastily turning off the television.

I listened, and heard footsteps in our hallway — heavy footsteps made by someone wearing oversized work boots. They crept down the long corridor toward our room, pausing at each doorway. The amount of panic and fear that we heard as the footsteps approached us was unimaginable. I wanted to believe that it was a policeman, a RA, or someone harmless patrolling the dorms, but we didn’t know what to think, to feel, to do. An ominous shadow cast underneath our door when he had reached us, and we held our breaths for what felt like an eternity before he started his trek back down the hallway.

We didn’t know who the shooter was, what he/she looked like, or even how many there were. All we knew was that there was a shooting in West AJ at 7:15, and two hours later at 9:20, there was another in Norris. For that reason, we trusted no one.

Despite all of this, it never occurred to me how severe the situation was until the news anchors began numbering the casualties.  First it was two from the incident in West AJ.  Then it was eight to 10 from Norris. Suddenly, it jumped to 20.

President Steger’s 12:00 p.m. Press Conference
Source

President Steger held a press conference with the Montgomery County police chief at noon.  There, they officially declared that the shooter had committed suicide and that there were 32 confirmed causalities.

Thirty-two.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in silence in my dorm room.  Even with the lockdown lifted, I didn’t feel safe venturing outside.  I watched the news and spoke with friends over AIM.  There were no jokes, no laughter, no smiles.  I threw up a bowl’s worth of chicken ramen noodles when a friend mentioned that she saw me quoted in a New York Times article.  I Googled my name to find out that I was also quoted on countless other websites and articles.  Had I known a better sense of what was going on that day, I would have chosen my words more carefully to that reporter.

Pritchard Hall

At 6:00 p.m., Evan sent me a message asking if I wanted to hang out and talk.  I needed to talk.  Badly.  He escorted me from O’Shag to Pritchard because I was scared to walk by myself.  We sat in his dorm room and talked for a while about a bunch of things I don’t remember.  Evan was a RA, so at one point, there was a knock on the door. One of his residents stood in the hallway, his dark cheeks stained with tears.

“Jon.  You ok, man?” Evan asked.

“Yeah, I was hoping they gave you a list.  Of names,” Jon stammered.  His shoulders were bent low.  His left hand dug into his pocket and the other hang in the air, his fingers quivering.  He looked completely vulnerable.  Helpless.

“Names?”

“She hasn’t answered my calls.  My texts,” Jon’s choked words were almost indecipherable.  “Her roommate hasn’t seen her since she left for class…”

I bit my lip and turned to stare out the window.  My eyes burned from their fight against tears.

“I’m sorry, man.  I don’t have a list.  I don’t know if anyone does,” I heard Evan murmur.  Jon merely nodded his head, thanked Evan, and walked out the door.

Evan slumped into his desk chair.  Shortly thereafter, he received an email from one of his fraternity brothers asking if he wanted to go to Macado’s for a late dinner.  Evan invited me along, but I politely declined.  As Evan was locking his door, I noticed that Jon’s door was open; I knocked on Jon’s doorframe.  Jon turned away from his computer and I walked over to him and gave him a long hug.  His shoulders were still trembling.  It was all I could do.

Tameka was packing her bookbag to spend the night at the rugby house once I arrived back to our room.  I didn’t blame her — everyone I knew was getting picked up by their parents and friends and it felt eerie to be one of the few left on campus.  Cory later invited me to stay at his place, but I didn’t feel comfortable waiting on Washington Street alone that night, waiting for him to pick me up.

Sean called.  It was nice to hear his voice (and to finally have cell phone service).  I began spewing everything about the day’s events and cried for the first time.  Sean tried being helpful and reassuring, but he couldn’t quite understand why I was so upset about it.  Now, thinking back on it, I understand that he was used to this sort of thing; he and his family used to live in Abuja and Cote de I’voire where schools had “coups days” instead of snow days.  What resulted in a slight misunderstanding escalated into yet another fight and I hung up on him during a time in which all I needed was someone to talk to.

I was grateful when Evan messaged me a few hours later after he got back from Macado’s.  We agreed to meet outside O’Shag for a second time.  Evan was more somber than he was before.  When he returned to his dorm room, he described how his fraternity brother, Nik, was hounded by the media during dinner — somehow they knew that he survived unscathed from Norris that morning.

“Nik told them, ‘I’m eating with my friends right now, but I’ll be happy to talk to you after we’re done.’ The reporters and cameras gave him some time, but then kept returning, like vultures, to our table,” Evan recalled, shaking his head in disgust, “Finally they just wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Nik’s story was more important to them than for Nik to spend time with his friends.”

Evan left for a bathroom break, and I overheard him talking in the hallway to his residents on his way back.  A short while later, he returned to his room and collapsed onto his bed in one heap.  Staring at the ceiling, he told me that he had known someone who had died, a RA.

Evan told me a story about when he first met Ryan Christopher “Stack” Clark.  He encountered Chandler and Stack near West End Dining Hall, who were debating where McBryde Hall was in relation to where they were standing.  Apparently Chandler pointed toward Chem-Physics and Stack was certain that it was in the exact opposite direction toward Cassell Coliseum.  Both of them were way off.

While he was telling me this simple story, Evan burst into tears.  Stack was not only a RA, but played the baritone for the Marching Virginians and triple majored in English, Psychology, and Biology — all the while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.  He was a senior and only had three weeks left before he could’ve graduated.

Stack
Source

I decided to spend the night at Evan’s because it was almost 3:00 in the morning and I did not feel comfortable sleeping by myself in my empty dorm.  We split his bed, him curled in a fetal position on one side of the bed and me on the other side.

Hours crawled by.  The morning light cascaded through Evan’s broken blinds.  I hadn’t slept.  My eyes burned from tears, from the lack of sleep, from staring too long at televisions and computer screens.  Evan lay on the opposite end of his twin bed.  He stirred his feet slightly, brushing a toe against mine.  I doubt that he had been able to sleep either.

“Evan,” I eventually croaked, “I keep having nightmares.”

Evan immediately climbed to my side of his bed and enveloped me with his arms.  My tear ducts erupted.  I thought of the plague of silence that swept across my hall during President Steger’s news conference.  I thought of the hundreds of emails I received from frantic friends and family.  I thought of Jon’s tears when he knew that he had lost a friend.  I thought of how much our lives had been altered in just 24 hours.

I didn’t think of Sean.

In the early morning hours of April 17, Evan kissed me.  Just once.  I left his room shortly thereafter, completely and utterly confused.  I had previously thought of him as nothing more than a good friend, probably my best friend at Tech.  We had met in our British Literature Class in January, and in that short amount of time, I grew to trust him and love him as a friend.  After that morning, however, I was in such a whirlwind of emotions that I didn’t know what to think.

Tameka returned to our room shortly after I did and we reluctantly turned on the news; they had finally released the names of the 32 victims.  Ryan Christopher “Stack” Clark (22).  Emily Hilscher (19).  Professor Liviu Librescu (76). Minal Panchal (26).  Professor G. V. Loganathan (53).  Jarrett Lane (22).  Brian Bluhm (25).  Matthew Gwaltney (24).  Jeremy Herbstritt (27).  Partahi Lumbantoruan (34).  Daniel O’Neil (22).  Juan Ortiz-Ortiz (25).  Julia Pryde (23).  Waleed Shaalan (32).  Professor Christopher James “Jamie” Bishop (35). Lauren McCain (20).  Michael Pohle, Jr. (23).  Maxine “Max” Turner (22).  Nichole White (20).  Madame Jocelyne Couture-Nowak (49).  Ross Alameddine (20).  Austin Cloyd (18).  Daniel Perez Cueva (21).  Caitlin Hammaren (19).  Rachael Hill (18).  Matthew La Porte (20).  Henry Lee (20).  Erin Peterson (18).  Mary Karen Read (19).  Reema Samaha (18).  Leslie Sherman (20).  Kevin Granata (45).

All of these undergraduates, graduate students, and professors died because of the actions of one troubled and disturbed young man.  That man, Seung-Hui Cho, was someone I knew, someone who shared classes with me, someone who was an English major, just like me.  Though his short stories and plays were disconcerting, I had never imagined that he was a threat to our school.  His quiet nature was not portrayed in the menacing pictures and videos he had sent to NBC Studios.

I went on Facebook and saw that I had a message from Sarah, a friend from my Literature and Film class.  She told me that Maxine Turner, one of the 32 victims, had been in that class with us.  Shocked, I looked Maxine up on Facebook because I didn’t recognize her name.  Oh my God.  Max!  When I saw her Facebook page, and saw that she had more than 150 wall postings from her friends and family asking her if she was safe, I froze.

Max
Source

I needed to get out of there.  Staggering out of my room with my towels and shower caddy, I stumbled into the bathroom, turned on a shower, and stepped fully-clothed into the frigid water.  I lost it.  I had never cried that hard or that long in my entire life.  Max was the girl I never made an effort to talk to.  She sat two rows in front of me every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  I often saw her in the hallways between classes.  Did I ever say hi?  Did I ever ask her how her day was going?  Did I ever wish her to have a good weekend?  No.  I have regretted not saying anything to Maxine every single day for the past five years.

Later that morning, my RA walked room-to-room to let us know that Tech was hosting a memorial convocation at noon in Cassell Coliseum, our basketball arena.  President Bush, the first lady, and Governor Tim Kaine were flying in by helicopter to be there.  She warned us that it was going to be a media storm and that we weren’t obligated to answer any reporters unless we wanted to.

I made arrangements to go to the convocation with my friend Kimberly.  Evan texted me to ask if he could meet me there.  As I was texting back and forth with Evan, I thought of Jon.  According to Evan, Jon hadn’t left his room, but perked up at my invitation to go with us to the convocation.

Kimberly and I met Jon outside of West End dining hall.  I gave him another long hug, and he seemed to be in better spirits.  He even cracked a smile or two.  The three of us passed by row after row of media trucks and vans on our route to Cassell.  There was a much larger turnout than expected; once Cassell was full, the police directed the rest of the public into Lane Stadium to watch the convocation on the jumbo tron.

Source

We met Evan and his fraternity brothers on the 40 yard line.  Lane Stadium was packed with students, parents, Blacksburg residents, and the media.  We sat in the withered grass and watched the president’s helicopter land on the football practice field.  Evan kept glancing nervously at me, unsure of how I felt about that morning’s events.  I untied his shoelaces in a playful manner — it was the only thing I could do to let him know that everything was okay.

President Steger, President Bush, and Governor Tim Kaine spoke at the convocation.  Hushed whispers and muffled cries were heard throughout the stadium.  But it wasn’t until Nikki Giovanni, an English professor at Virginia Tech, went up to the podium to speak when there was any sense of closure to the massacre.

Listening to Nikki’s speech was singlehandedly the most emotional moment of my life.

Source

Writing this, the events of April 16, 2007 are so vivid in my mind that it feels as though it happened only last week.  I remember that day even more so than my own wedding day.

I grew up in the DC metropolitan area, desensitized by the constant reports of needless violence.  After this ill-fated day, I witnessed something that I had never seen before:  a mass gathering of students, teachers, and townspeople, holding their candles high and crying into the shoulders of complete strangers.  The community’s strength, resilience, and endurance from those days onward were truly admirable.  

April 17, 2007 Candlelight Vigil
Source

The outreach we received from around the world was humbling. For weeks afterward, the Drill Field was decorated with gifts, posters, flowers, and cards expressing “We are all Hokies” from mourners in other towns, at other universities, in other states, and other countries.

April 16 lifted the blindfold from my eyes, reminded me that the daily stresses of life are insignificant, and taught me that every single day and every single person in our lives are precious. If you really, honestly love someone, then go to them. Be with them. Cherish every moment you have together. If you don’t, you’ll only regret it, and you may not be privileged with a second chance.

I just wish that it didn’t take 32 lives for me to realize this.

April 16 Memorial

So, for now, God bless our fallen Hokies and each one of the survivors. Live, laugh, love, and lament for our beloved 32. I know I always will.

A bench next to the April 16 Memorial.

Hugs to each and every one of you, and thank you for reading this.

51 thoughts on “Live for 32”

  1. Hi Kirsten,

    My son shared a link to this post today and I came over to read it. Thank you for sharing your story!

    I honestly don't remember a lot from that day, but I do remember going out to buy my kids Tech shirts to wear to their middle school the following day and not being able to find anything. We ended up buying maroon shirts in the Men's department and that's what they wore.
    Fast forward to today… My son is a sophomore in the Corps of Cadets at Tech and he had the honor today to guard Matthew LaPorte's memorial. I was at Tech over the weekend with my parents (first visit for them since they live overseas) and we went to show them the memorial. My son told us stories about some of the 32 and I could barely keep the tears at bay.

    I am glad that something so good came out of that day and you married Evan!

    Carmen

    Like

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