Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles
Virginia Tech, the site of a 2007 shooting rampage that left 33 people dead, faced a scare Thursday as authorities ordered a campus lockdown after three youths reported seeing a man carrying what they believed to be a gun concealed by a cloth.
Alerts were issued. Classes were canceled. Students were urged to stay indoors. And for more than five hours, police from several law enforcement agencies scoured the campus, even releasing a composite sketch as they searched for the reported gunman.
No such man was discovered. Still, campus and police officials were pleased with the first major test of the university’s revamped security measures.
“Every one of our alert systems worked without a hitch,” said Larry Hincker, a university spokesman.
That was not the case on April 16, 2007, when the university was criticized for waiting two hours after the first bullets were fired to issue a campus-wide alert. Two students were killed in a dormitory shortly after 7 a.m., and a campus-wide alert was sent via email just before 9:30. Less than half an hour later, 30 others were slaughtered in an engineering building by the same gunman, Seung-hui Cho, who then killed himself.
It was the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in modern U.S. history. In March, the U.S. Department of Education fined Virginia Tech $55,000 for waiting too long to notify students during the 2007 attack.
On Thursday, university officials acted swiftly when three 14-year-olds visiting the campus for a summer camp said they saw a man they believed was holding a gun. They described a man 6 feet tall, with light brown hair, wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt, gray shorts and brown sandals.
“In this day and age, I don’t think we had any other choice but to issue a campus alert,” said Hincker at a news conference. More than 45,000 subscribers to campus security updates were flooded with emails, text messages and voicemails. “Stay inside. Secure doors,” one alert said.
Most of Virginia Tech’s nearly 30,000 students are on summer break, but several thousand people attend summer classes and camps on the Blacksburg campus, school officials said.
Officers from at least five law enforcement agencies, including the Virginia State Police, were dispatched to the campus shortly after 9 a.m. By 2:41 p.m., with no additional information or suspect discovered, the lockdown was lifted.
Across the nation, the reported sighting of a potential gunman at the school sparked memories of the 2007 attacks. Online, "#ViriginiaTech” rushed to the top of the most-mentioned terms on Twitter. At the White House, President Obama was briefed.
“We’re reminded of the horrible tragic event there in 2007,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
Goldmacher reported from Washington and Muskal from Los Angeles.