Cover Story

'Darkest moment'

The deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history leaves a grief-stricken campus searching for answers, hope, and meaning

Issue: "'Darkest moment'," April 28, 2007

Haiyan Cheng remembers the black gun. In the split second the Virginia Tech doctoral student glimpsed Cho Seung-Hui coming out of a classroom in Norris Hall on April 16, one thing stood out: the black-clad young man's long, black gun, clutched in his right hand.

Cheng wasn't supposed to be in Norris Hall that day. The 36-year-old research assistant rarely teaches, but agreed to fill in for an out-of-town professor. On her way to class, she saw Liviu Librescu, a 76-year-old engineering professor, rummaging through his briefcase in the classroom across the hall. Less than an hour later, Librescu, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor who taught for 20 years at this 135-year-old university in the rolling green hills of the Blue Ridge, was dead. And Cheng was praying for her life.

Two days later, Cheng told WORLD the feeling was surreal: She survived the deadliest shooting spree in U.S. history. The horrific Virginia Tech rampage ended with 23-year-old gunman Cho's suicide, leaving 33 dead, at least 20 wounded, and some 26,000 students grappling with a gut-wrenching grief that is unlikely to end as soon as the international focus on this town of 40,000 recedes.

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Cheng is still grappling with her experience: At first she thought she heard construction sounds as she wrote on a blackboard in room 205 of Norris Hall Monday morning. But the loud bangs grew closer-and stranger. When she popped her head out of the classroom's open door, Cho emerged from a nearby classroom, brandishing the gun Cheng can't forget.

Cheng quickly closed the door, telling the 10 students in her classroom to get on the floor. As the sound of gunfire grew louder and more frequent, four male students pushed a long table sideways in front of the door. The four men lay on their stomachs, gripping the table's legs, and hoping the gunman couldn't move the blockade.

He couldn't. Cho rattled the doorknob and rammed the door, but it wouldn't budge. The gunman improvised, firing off two shots through the classroom door. The first shot hit the podium, raining down wood chips and bits of metal on Cheng, who was hunkered below. The second shot went through the window. Then it grew quiet.

Cheng heard a series of clicks, and quickly realized what was happening: Cho was re-loading. A clip hit the floor. The students braced for another round of shooting, but the gunman suddenly left.

Cheng and her students remained on the floor, listening to the gunman fire off rounds elsewhere in the building. "All I hear is the gunshots keep coming," says Cheng. "The gun keeps firing all the time."

Some students with cell phones called 911. Others called their parents. Cheng, who was baptized one year ago (along with her husband and daughter) and is now a member of nearby Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA), called on God: "Oh God, please make him stop."

Suddenly, the building grew quiet. A few minutes later, a policeman arrived at the door, instructing Cheng's students to put their hands over their heads and run behind him. In the hall, Cheng kept her eyes down, avoiding the carnage in classrooms. But the floor told a grisly story: Cheng tried to avoid wide trails of smeared blood. Now she can't avoid the thought that keeps running through her mind: "If he had come to our room first, we'd all be dead."

Sarah Walker wasn't supposed to be working that day, either. The 28-year-old paramedic works full-time in nearby Radford, but volunteers some 100 hours a month to Blacksburg's volunteer rescue squad. (Like many small towns, Blacksburg's emergency medical officials are all volunteers.)

Walker wasn't scheduled for a volunteer shift on April 16, but came in anyway, hoping to do paperwork. Less than a half hour later, she was in an ambulance, rushing to Norris Hall where she spent the rest of the day caring for patients at the scene.

Walker said more than 11 other emergency medical agencies from three counties rushed to campus to assist with the wounded victims in Norris Hall. Nearly a year ago, the agencies had conducted an annual training drill to prepare for mass injuries in an accident or crime scene. The training paid off, according to Walker: "It ran like it was supposed to run."

Two days later, Walker, who manages PR for the squad, was still running, handling a flood of media inquiries and helping with follow-up work. As for her own grief, she says she hasn't had time to reflect on what happened: "But I know it will come."

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