ARCHIVE: Massacre at Virginia Tech; 33 killed on campus

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Gunfire erupted on the Virginia Tech campus Monday in the Blue Ridge Mountains, killing at least 32 people in a dorm and an academic building, in attacks more than two hours apart. A gunman took his life after the second incident, police said.

The attacks -- the worst such incident in modern U.S. history -- raised questions about campus security officials’ response to the first shootings, in which two people were killed at the West Ambler Johnston dormitory at 7:15 a.m. Angry students asked why university officials failed to lock down the campus after that incident.

Thirty others were slaughtered at Norris Hall, an engineering building, by a lone assailant who methodically fired at students and teachers before turning a gun on himself. At least two dozen others were injured, authorities said. Witnesses said some panicked students leaped from second-floor windows to escape the killer.


It was widely assumed that the same gunman had committed both attacks, but campus Police Chief Wendell R. Flinchum would not confirm that. Flinchum said investigators were still questioning a “person of interest” in the first shooting. By late Monday, police had not identified the dead gunman -- who carried no identification -- nor uncovered a motive.

Erin Sheehan, who was in a German class when the gunman entered, said that she played dead while wounded students lay around her. Sheehan told the campus Collegiate Times newspaper that the assailant, whom she described as Asian wearing what appeared to be a black ammunition belt, peeked into the room after her class had started. Moments later, she said, he began shooting through the door.

She said that she and several students “forced ourselves against the door” to keep the gunman out, but the volley of bullets drove them back. When she scanned the room moments later, she said, “everyone was either dead or injured.”

Sheehan said she was one of five people to emerge unscathed from the classroom after the gunman moved on.

Although authorities did not identify any of the victims, colleagues confirmed that German instructor Christopher James Bishop, 35, was among the dead.

Authorities said the gunman apparently blockaded the front entrance of Norris Hall with chains. Heavily armed police surrounded the engineering hall and rushed in, reportedly using stun grenades. Flinchum said investigators recovered two guns.


“It was probably one of the worst things I’ve seen in my life,” Flinchum said, describing the carnage on the second floor of Norris Hall, on the northern end of the 26,000-student Virginia Tech campus, about 160 miles west of Richmond.

In addition to those killed, officials at several hospitals said that another 26 people were being treated for gunshots and other injuries. The majority were taken to Montgomery Regional Hospital, where emergency room doctors and nurses processed them so quickly that they identified them by numbers instead of names at first. At least three of Montgomery’s wounded remained in critical condition, officials said.

“I don’t know that you can ever fully prepare for this level of violence,” hospital CEO Scott Hill said.

During a news conference, a subdued Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech’s president, said he was “at a loss to explain and understand the carnage that has visited our campus.”

Steger said that investigators initially thought that the dorm shooting was a domestic incident and that the gunman had left campus. As a result, Steger said, a campuswide alert did not go out for about two hours.

“It’s one of those things no one could anticipate,” Steger said. “You can only make your decision based on the information on that moment in time.”

But students like Laura Spaventa, a sophomore media major, expressed dismay that classes had been allowed to continue.

“I don’t understand their logic behind that,” she said. “It does bother me. I feel like a lot of lives could have been saved and a lot fewer injuries.”

Spaventa described the horror of sitting in class in a nearby building and hearing the attack. “We were in class and got an e-mail about the first shootings, but classes kept going,” she said. “And then we got another e-mail saying to stay where we were, that there was a shooter on the loose. Then we heard five shots.

“My teacher shut the blinds and locked the door, and we all got away from the windows and under the desks. And we started calling our family and friends on our cellphones to tell them we were OK.”

“It was very scary,” Spaventa said. “I called my dad crying.”

Authorities said they first responded to a 911 call about a shooting at the residence hall. At that time of morning, students normally could only enter the residence by using electronic card keys. Inside, authorities found two victims, one male and one female, on the fourth floor. The victims were taken to a nearby hospital but were later pronounced dead, Flinchum said.

Steger said that after the dormitory shootings -- in which a male resident advisor and a female student were killed -- officials notified other dorm resident advisors to take precautions. The building was searched and secured by police, he said.

Authorities identified the “person of interest” and decided it was not necessary to shut down campus. In addition, Steger said, officials felt that commuter students headed for class would be more easily protected once they were on campus.

Asked whether police were pursuing the wrong person while the gunman was preparing to open fire at Norris, Flinchum replied: “We acted on the best information we had at the time.”

Added Steger: “We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur.”

But at 9:45 a.m., it did.

As campus officers were questioning witnesses in the dorm shooting, reports of a second attack poured in to 911.

An amateur video taken by a student from a cellphone showed several officers hesitating outside Norris Hall, then positioning themselves behind a tree before finally rushing inside.

“I was walking on campus and I saw police shooting,” the student, Jamal Azim Albarghouti, said. “They dropped a gas bomb, a tear gas bomb or something at the building, and I think they were shooting too.”

Michael O’Brien, a sophomore studying industrial engineering, said he received the e-mail about the first shooting but continued to class at Norris just as the second shooting began.

“I could tell something was wrong,” O’Brien said, when he saw people staring at the building as he approached. “But it didn’t really register with me with the earlier e-mail.

“Then I heard a gunshot. I saw students rushing out of Norris Hall, being directed by police officers where to go.”

He said he hurried back to his dorm, and could see Norris Hall from his window.

“I saw police cars from all different levels -- state, local, county -- rush by. Ambulances, SWAT vans. I could see police officers carrying what looked to be bodies out of the back of the hall and into ambulances.”

Tyler Benson, a student who lives at West Ambler Johnston, said he was asleep during the first shooting. Later, he saw police tape around the building and officers directing people down the stairs.

“I saw a bunch of people looking over toward the Norris area,” Benson said. “Then there was a cop who turned around and ran at us, told us to ‘run, run, run,’ get out of there. We all ran away from campus. And as I was running away, I could hear a couple of shots going off.”

Flinchum said authorities were exploring whether two recent bomb threats on campus were related to the shootings.

Virginia Atty. Gen. Bob McDonnell said late Monday that his office probably would launch a review of the case as well.

The killing spree at Virginia Tech was the deadliest such incident in modern U.S. history, outstripping the 1991 mass murder at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in which 23 people were gunned down.

It also surpassed the 1999 toll at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where two teenage gunmen killed 13 people and themselves.

In Washington, President Bush expressed his regrets to the families of the Virginia Tech victims. “Schools should be places of sanctuary and safety and learning,” he said. “When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom.”


Zucchino and Reynolds reported from Blacksburg and Braun from Washington. Times staff writers Molly Hennessey- Fiske and Adam Schreck in Blacksburg; Richard A. Serrano, Josh Meyer, Faye Fiore, David Willman and Greg Miller in Washington; and Times researchers John Beckham in Chicago and Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta contributed to this report.