Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"A Cold and Blustery Morning" by Donna Alvis Banks and Anna Mallory

Roanoke Times, The (VA)-April 22, 2007

Gene Cole silenced the alarm Monday at 3 a.m., stumbled down the narrow hallway of his trailer in Belspring's Eagleview Mobile Home Park and fixed his coffee.

He likes it with a little cream.

In a couple of hours, he would start his workweek.

Now 52, Cole joined VirginiaTech 's housekeeping department 21 years ago. Before that, he pumped gas at a filling station.

On the thin walls of his tidy mobile home are framed certificates marking 10, 15, 20 years with the university. He has one noting his certification in portable fire extinguisher training. He has pictures of Jesus retrieved from his mother's home after she died. He has pictures of his mother.

Cole lives alone. He grew up with six brothers and a sister in McCoy, a rural community on the outskirts of Blacksburg.

"I didn't go very far in school," he says, noting that he attended Prices Fork Elementary School. "I couldn't learn that good."

But he enjoys being around some of the world's most brilliant minds in his daily grind, one that starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 1:30 p.m.

By 4:15 a.m. Monday, he was in his '89 Mazda pickup, driving in pre-dawn twilight to his custodial job at Tech 's Norris Hall.

A blustery day. The wind tried to push him back.

Outside Harper Hall, a Tech dormitory built in 1999, the same year 13 people were killed in Colorado's Columbine school shootings, it was the first day in three that rain hadn't poured. Cold, gusty winds were ushering in snow flurries. It was a cold that Seung-Hui Cho had seemingly carried in his heart for a long time.

It was nearly 5 a.m.

Cho, a 23-year-old senior English major, was awake about half an hour earlier on this morning than most in the past year. Usually, he'd go to bed early, about 9 p.m., save for the nights he watched wrestling. Sometimes late at night, he'd ride his bike around campus, always alone. He'd usually wake up about 5:30.

But lately he'd been lifting weights at the gym, sometimes twice a week. He'd tossed aside his thick, gold-rimmed glasses from the past, adopted a close-cropped haircut and even started dotting acne medication on his blemishes.

During downtime, he'd type on his computer. When his roommates vanished from the shared suite at the end of the corridor, he'd record videos.

On this morning, Cho climbed from his twin bed for the last time, surrounded by the blank walls that had encased him since August.

Clad in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, he walked into the bathroom the young men shared in Room 2121.

Karan Grewal, his roommate, was there. Cho went around him, saying nothing. No emotion.

That was the way it was with Cho, a man who liked to call himself "Question Mark."

Today, those secrets would surface.

April 16 was his day, time for the planned "revolution" to begin.

Before midday, his rage would stain the stately Hokie stone in what would be described as the deadliest shooting spree in modern U.S. history.

Five professors. Nine graduate students. Four seniors. Two juniors. Three sophomores. Nine freshman. Plus, 17 other people wounded.

The world would watch.

Three years ago, Rowan Webster was walking down the hallway of an unfamiliar school when a pretty girl with deep blue eyes came out of a nearby cooking class, saw him and handed him a cupcake.

"What's your name?" Emily Hilscher asked.

That was Webster's first contact with Hilscher, a fellow Rappahannock County resident who eventually became a close friend. The moment stuck with him.

Hilscher was part of a close-knit group of friends from the tiny county, which has a population of 7,000 and not a single stoplight. Together they would climb Old Rag Mountain or trek to hidden swimming holes on warm summer nights. Among that group was her boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, a slender, dark-haired 19-year-old Radford University student.

"The only love interest I knew in her life was Karl," Webster says. "She gave me advice on my own relationship, which was a long-distance relationship, and I told her: 'Karl will make the drive for you. He loves you and you love him.'

"As far as I know, they never had any troubles. Some minor quarrels, but they were completely in love with each other."

At Tech , Hilscher shared Room 4040 with Heather Haugh in West Ambler Johnston Hall, a seven-story coed dorm known as West AJ that houses 895 students. Their room was vacant last Sunday evening, as it often was on Sundays, when Hilscher and Haugh typically visited their boyfriends off campus. They had agreed to meet at their fourth-floor room Monday to walk together to their 9 a.m. chemistry class.

Hilscher, an animal and poultry sciences major, aspired to be a veterinarian. She had a particular love of horseback riding -- a popular pastime in Rappahannock County -- and was a member of the VirginiaTech "B" equestrian team.

She was next scheduled to ride at 3:30 Monday afternoon.

Before daybreak, Gene Cole was in Norris Hall, ready to start his cleaning. First, the dean's office. Then he headed for classrooms to tidy up before students began arriving for class.

One of the older campus buildings, made from the school's trademark Hokie stone, Norris houses the university's engineering science and mechanics offices, as well as the dean's office for the College of Engineering. There are laboratories in Norris, as well as classrooms for engineering, mechanics and foreign language studies.

A thin, wiry man with a face that becomes animated when he's excited, Cole likes his job here. He likes the people.

VirginiaTech 's professors, he says, are "real friendly. They talk to me all the time."

And the students?

"I get along with them real good. A lot of them is real nice."

That's why he tolerates their deficiencies. They're messy, he says, especially the engineering students who "cut paper and everything else up on the floor."

On Monday, Cole was expecting the usual mess.

But he was in good humor.

"I just went to work. I didn't know nothin' was going to happen."

It was on the fourth floor of West AJ, the world would soon learn, where the horror began.

Not in a room, but in a common area. A place where anyone could see the horror unfold. It happened just after 7 a.m., while most students remained snuggled in bed.



In an instant, bullets struck down Emily Hilscher, before she could meet up with her roommate for their walk to class. Before her planned afternoon horseback ride.

Also hit was Ryan "Stack" Clark, a resident adviser known for his academics and fun-loving nature.

Just as quickly, the shooting ended.

Or paused, as the world also would learn.

The shootings were the climax of a grueling few years for Cho.

Fifteen years ago, his mother and father had brought him and his older sister to America from South Korea.

His father had said he wanted to go to a place where no one knew their name.

After bouncing around, they landed in the affluent Northern Virginia suburb of Centreville.

As his parents toiled at a dry-cleaning business, money surrounded them. The teenager began using the Westernized version of his name, Seung-Hui Cho.

His sister had gone to the equally affluent world of Princeton, and later got a job with the U.S. government.

Throughout school, Cho also had performed well.

Straight A's in math, but less success at friendship. No one at Westfield High School -- which had a student body of some 3,000 -- was close to him when he graduated in 2003.

He applied and was accepted to VirginiaTech , an in-state school four hours from his family. He would major in English, despite his proficiency with numbers.

Cho's final two years in Blacksburg had been particularly intense.

In 2005, during renowned poet Nikki Giovanni's poetry class his junior year, students had protested his presence.

In that class, he regularly wore sunglasses and a hat that Giovanni repeatedly made him remove. He'd snap pictures of female classmates from under his desk with his cellphone. His writings disturbed her.

"It was the meanness that bothered me. It was a really mean streak," Giovanni said.

If he weren't removed, Giovanni told department head Lucinda Roy, she'd leave the university.

Although Cho insisted his writing was just satire, Giovanni's threat forced him into individual tutoring with Roy until the end of the fall semester that year.

Roy tried to counsel him. He confessed to her how lonely he was.

Outside of the class that semester, the troubles continued. He began following female students on campus, showing up at their doors and phoning incessantly. In November 2005, one of the women complained to campus police, but Cho avoided criminal repercussions because she filed no charges.

Instead, police warned him and sent a referral to the university's discipline department.

A second complaint of harassment came the following month. That same day, his roommates told police he was suicidal.

Cho was compelled to see a professional counselor. When he did, a Montgomery County judge signed off on a temporary detention order that landed Cho in a behavioral facility outside Radford.

In mid-December he spent one night at the center, where doctors determined that the college student was an imminent danger to himself or others.

But a psychologist decided that, although Cho was "flat" and his mood depressed, he had normal judgment.

Cho returned to Tech .

In August 2006, Cho moved into Harper, a suite-style dorm where he had five roommates. He didn't get to know them and ate meals alone.

The fall semester passed. The holiday break. January.

On Feb. 9, 2007, he visited JND Pawnbrokers, about a 15-minute walk from campus in downtown Blacksburg, and picked up a .22-caliber Walther P22 pistol he had bought online -- a gun that typically costs about $300 and can fire 10 bullets before being reloaded.

On March 12, he bought another gun at Roanoke Firearms on Cove Road. Cho presented his blue and white Virginia driver's license, checkbook, green card and a credit card. The transaction was for $571 and was captured on the store's video surveillance camera.

He left with a box of 50 cartridges and a 9 mm Glock 19 -- a gun that holds 15 rounds and one in the chamber.

Privately, he spent time in the following month making videos and video photos of himself with the guns.

The images showed off his new buzz haircut and some other weapons, including a knife and hammer.

He began compiling a scrapbook of sorts, with printed photos from the videos. Eleven images in all.

In some of the portraits, he pointed the guns and weapons at his head. In others, he aimed at the camera.

He lined up boxes of hollow-point ammunition purchased from Wal-Mart and Dick's Sporting Goods in nearby Christiansburg and attempted artistic close-ups.

"Don't you just wish you finished me off when you had the chance? Don't you just wish you killed me?" he wrote below the picture.

On the videos, he read from an 1,800-word rant against "hedonistic brats" and "sadistic snobs."

"I didn't have to do it. I could have left. I could have fled," he said into the camera. "But now I am no longer running. If not for me, for my children and my brothers and sisters that you [expletive]. I did it for them."

He refers to "martyrs like Eric and Dylan" -- a reference to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High School killers.

He saved it all to his computer.

"You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today. But you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off."

And a final written message on one of the 11 printed photos: "Let the revolution begin."

Professor Liviu Librescu was always smiling, always pleasant, always in a hurry.

For a 76-year-old aeronautics engineer, he seemed to be flying high.

His students loved and respected the Romanian-born Holocaust survivor, a man who had been imprisoned in a labor camp and then sent along with his family and thousands of other Jews to a ghetto in Focsani, Romania, during World War II. After immigrating to Israel, he left for Virginia in 1985 for a sabbatical year and then permanent residence.

On Monday morning, Librescu greeted his students in 204 Norris Hall. Then he started his class.

Solid mechanics. The theory of elasticity -- a branch of physics that governs the response of solid material to applied stress.

Fascinating stuff for budding engineers.

Police responded to the fourth floor of West AJ. Two victims, later identified as Emily Jane Hilscher and Ryan "Stack" Clark, had been shot.

Rooms were quickly cleared and students were taken down to the third floor as police performed their investigation. Hilscher's roommate, Heather Haugh, had not been with Hilscher when she was shot. She told police that Hilscher's boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, owned guns. Haugh had even been to a shooting range with Thornhill. Investigators suspected a lover's quarrel that turned deadly and set out to locate Thornhill, who lived in a Blacksburg town house.

By 9:30 a.m., word of the dormitory shooting had spread, even though many West AJ students were waking up with no knowledge of a crime scene inside their own hall. Police believed they had good leads. They already had a suspect.

Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum briefed university officials on the status of the investigation. At 9:26 a.m., the university sent out a campuswide e-mail alerting students and staff of the incident:

"A shooting occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact VirginiaTech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case."

Fourteen dollars and 40 cents.

That's the amount the clerk asked for at the small, brick post office on North Main Street, just off campus in downtown Blacksburg. The amount to mail a package to New York City -- overnight. The handwriting on the package was scrawled, maybe hurried.

The package was addressed to: NBC 30 Rockefeller Ave.

The ZIP code was wrong. 101102, instead of 10112.

As the return address: A. Ishmael, 88 Revol Dr., Blacksburg, Va. 24060


The time stamp on the package: 9:01 a.m.

Inside, the final compilation -- 27 video files on a DVD.

In one of the videos, these spoken words: "This is it. This is where it all ends. End of the road. What a life it was. Some life."

About 9:25 a.m., Cole slipped out the back of Norris Hall for his morning smoke.

He had just finished cleaning the men's bathroom on the third floor, even though that short professor with the foreign accent had interrupted him as soon as he had gotten his mop and bucket out.

It happened every day.

Cole didn't know professor Librescu's name -- only that he showed up each morning in an awful hurry.

"I gotta go! I gotta go!" the perky professor shouted cheerfully as he raced by the bucket. He always took time, though, to ask Cole how he was doing before he hustled back down to Norris 204 to teach his solid mechanics class.

"You better slow down," Cole hollered after him. He finished his cigarette and stepped back into Norris.

His supervisor, Johnny Long, was on the first floor looking for him.

Long fussed at him. Cole had left the door of the third-floor broom closet unlocked.

Long's warning: You're going to have to keep the door locked because of these bomb threats. You know, they can make bombs out of these chemicals we keep.

Cole knew about bomb threats that had closed part of the campus on April 2 and again on Friday, April 13. In his years on campus, he had come to expect such things. Student pranks, he reckoned.

He promised Long he would take care of the closet.

He didn't get the chance.

Suddenly, there was banging, popping, screaming on Norris Hall's second floor. Someone had a gun. Shots were being fired.

On the first floor, no one knew what was happening overhead. Long told Cole to get upstairs and look for Pam -- Pam Tickle, his co-worker, who was cleaning the second floor.

Cole jumped in the elevator and punched a button. When the doors slid open, he began hollering for Pam.

Something on the floor made him stop in his tracks.

He saw some sort of book bag. Beside it, a body.

He inched closer.

The person was quivering. He was sure it was Pam.

Before he could bend down to check, a motion at the corner of his eye caught his attention.

He looked up and spotted a figure standing far down the hallway.

The man had both hands wrapped around a gun, pointed right at him.

Cole had unknowingly walked into a methodical shooting spree.

Cho was going from room to room.

His killing spree had started in Room 206, professor G.V. Loganathan's small class of civil engineering students. Without speaking a word, he began firing his Glock and his Walther into his scattering victims.

Survivors say Cho's near-blank expression didn't change.

He left the dead and dying behind, moving on to Room 207, a German class taught by Jamie Bishop. Some students ducked under desks as Cho methodically fired and killed.

Then to Room 211, a French class where professor Jocelyne Couture-Nowak had heard the shots and shoved a desk in front of the door. Cho still managed to force his way in, and he delivered another deadly volley of gunfire.

Cho headed back to 207, where three students had pressed themselves against the door, anticipating the gunman's return. He fired four shots through the wooden door before giving up.

Tech President Charles Steger's crisis leadership team had assembled in his Burruss Hall office after the West AJ shootings. Campus police had informed the president that they had a suspect.

Just after 9:45 a.m., the meeting was interrupted by a report of another incident. This one was at Norris Hall. As the call sounded over the small radio clipped to Lt. Joey Albert's lapel, the sound of gunfire was unmistakable to Steger and everyone else in his office.

"I think I need to get out of here and get on the scene," Albert said.

Soon after, at 9:50 a.m., the university blasted another e-mail alert across campus.

"Subject: please stay put

A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows."

The police didn't have to go far. Norris is next door to Burruss, in the heart of Tech 's sprawling, 2,600-acre campus.

In Room 205, Haiyan Cheng, a doctoral student subbing for her adviser, stood at the lectern and talked. She'd been talking about the numerical solution of ordinary differential equations for more than half an hour.

When Cheng and the 10 seniors in attendance first heard the loud pops, they ignored them.

It was construction next door, they thought.

So Cheng prepared to launch into a new lesson.

But the popping continued, and it grew closer.

Cheng and a female student looked into the corridor.

From across the hall and to the left, Cho appeared from another classroom.

The women darted back into the room and closed the heavy, solid wood door.

An Indian student suggested blocking it.

Four male students pushed a rectangular table against the door as a barricade. Students dropped to the floor, cowered behind the lectern, tables and desks.

For a moment, the shooting outside stopped.

Cheng heard the clink of an empty gun magazine falling to the floor.

Cho pushed against the barricaded door. But the weight of the table and the strength of the students pushing back was too strong.

Cho fired into the door. Bullets smashed through the old wood and metal. One lodged in the lectern.

More shots.

But not into the door. They were echoing down the hallway.

Cole got away from the body on the hallway floor and started running.

"I felt bullets going by my head."

He ran toward the back stairwell.

"I was scared to death. I didn't think I could run that fast."

Down the steps and out the door. He joined in the crush of people fleeing and took refuge in nearby Randolph Hall.

"I just wanted out of there. I knew I was going to die."

Room 204 -- Librescu's class -- would be Cho's next stop in Norris.

The gunshots outside interrupted a slide show lesson.

At first they didn't know what they were hearing. Junior Alec Calhoun said it sounded "like an enormous hammer."

Then screams and more steady pounding.

The reality of danger hit.

Librescu's students dropped to the floor, turned over desks to shield themselves. Some began kicking out windows after deciding to risk a 10-foot leap.

Librescu blocked the door of his classroom with his body and shouted for his students to hurry.

Many of them began jumping.

Richard Mallalieu climbed out the window, hung from the ledge for a moment and let go. Caroline Merrey followed. Calhoun -- the last to jump -- looked over his shoulder and saw Librescu, still guarding the door.

"The two people behind me actually got shot, so it's really lucky that I got out to start with," Calhoun would later say.

The first shot Cho fired when he burst through the door hit Librescu in the head.

Matthew Webster and a few remaining students hit the floor. The 23-year-old Webster instinctively curled up and pretended to be dead as Cho stood over him with both guns. Cho fired at Webster's head, too.

The bullet grazed Webster's skull and ricocheted into his right arm.

When Cho left Room 204, Webster and two other students were the only survivors.

Aislynn Ribbe liked to get to Norris Hall early for her 10:10 a.m. Spanish class. The 20-year-old sophomore from Pearisburg was on her way there Monday when she decided to take a 10-minute detour to Squires Student Center for a cup of coffee.

She drove to the Drillfield, parked and walked toward the fortress of gray limestone buildings. She headed up the concrete steps next to Patton Hall, the building directly in front of Norris. Suddenly, a police officer came at her from the direction of Norris, yelling.

"Get out of here!"

She heard the sound of gunshots from Norris. She ran down the steps to her car and tore away, just as police cars came pouring into campus.

Officers from Tech , Blacksburg, Montgomery County and the Virginia State Police fanned across the Drillfield, clearing it in minutes.

The first 911 call had been received by Tech police at 9:45 a.m, followed by more calls. By the time the first officers arrived, gunshots were cracking and students were leaping out of the tall, narrow second-story windows onto the grass and into boxwoods.

Police discovered that the doors at the building's Gothic-looking main entrance had been chained shut.

Police burst through the chains as gunshots continued to explode upstairs.

EMTs quickly radioed fellow responders for help with the words: "mass casualty incident."

Outside Norris and the adjacent buildings, people were ordered indoors.

Students and staff had grown used to lockdowns. The school year began with a double homicide just off campus that forced students to remain locked in buildings for hours. In the past two weeks, two bomb threats had prompted evacuations and building closures. Now this. What a year.

It didn't take long to realize this was different.

Police with high-powered rifles encircled the buildings. Somewhere, a loudspeaker repeatedly blared the announcement, "This is an emergency ... clear the sidewalk." Over and over. "This is an emergency ... clear the sidewalk."

Then came the ambulances. They came from everywhere. The names on their doors read like a Southwest Virginia road map -- Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Longshop-McCoy, Newport and seemingly every town and community with a rescue squad. Tech 's own rescue squad, staffed mostly by students, rolled up from just down the street.

The upper floors of McBryde Hall provided a view of the police and rescue personnel. Martin Arvebro, a student visiting from Sweden, shot video with a small digital camera. He turned the camera toward his fellow Swede, Carl Nordin, and asked: "So, Carl, how do you like America on the second day? It's just like the movies."

Amid all this, Cho finished with the promise he had made. "End of the road."

He put one of his guns to his head and pulled the trigger. Moments later, police stormed over him and someone yelled, "Shooter down! Black tag!"

Over the police scanners, a voice soon after recited a spectrum of other color codes that indicated the conditions of Cho's victims. Greens, reds and yellows were enumerated, citing victims who needed medical assistance but were still alive. Another color sounded far grimmer.

"Twenty-nine black," the voice said.

In all, 32 students and faculty were killed.

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