Cover Story

'Darkest moment'

"'Darkest moment'" Continued...

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

It will come for other emergency workers as well, and Walker says she won't be surprised if the squad loses one or two members over the tragedy: "This kind of call is definitely make or break."

The tragedy may prove a make-or-break ordeal for many in the Virginia Tech community as well. In the 48 hours after the shootings, the campus was engulfed in thick grief: Students walked slowly down quiet sidewalks, wiping streaming tears from dazed faces. Others embraced in front of makeshift memorials covered with student signatures and photos of the dead.

They sat on steps and benches, reading profiles of victims in the school newspaper. Profiles like Brian Bluhm's, a post-graduate student in water resources who was ready to defend his thesis and had accepted a job in Baltimore. Friends say Bluhm was a devoted Virginia Tech Hokies fan, but a devoted Christian first.

Mary Read, a freshman from Annandale, Va., played lacrosse, served pizza in the dining hall, and aspired to become an elementary-school teacher. She was also active in Campus Crusade for Christ and attended a Bible study on heaven one week before she died, according to friends.

Daniel Perez Cueva, a junior from Peru, emigrated to the United States in 2000 with his mother and sister, and majored in international studies.

G.V. Loganathan, an engineering professor from India, was so dedicated to his students he sometimes pulled all-nighters with them. (See the full list of victims below.)

Less than 24 hours after these and dozens more were dead, some 18,000 students and community members formed two half-mile lines around the Cassell Coliseum basketball arena on the south end of campus, waiting for hours in a driving wind for an afternoon convocation attended by President Bush.

Nearly 10,000 quickly filled the arena, and some 8,000 more overflowed onto a nearby football field where a wide-screen television broadcast the event. A hush fell over the huge crowd as family members of the slain filed into the first two rows on the arena floor, many wearing sunglasses and looking down as they walked.

Students held hands and shed tears, and school officials grappled with how to address the monumental grief of thousands: The director of the school's mental health center said licensed grief counselors were standing by. A student leader talked about restoring faith in the "inherent good" of mankind. English professor Nikki Giovanni compared the tragedy's "unfairness" to the unfairness of children dying of AIDS and baby elephants losing their habitats because of man-made development.

Giovanni also led the crowd in a spontaneous school chant: "Let's go, Hokies!" When the cheers died down, the cadet band somberly played the hymn, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," while President Bush and victims' family members filed out.

The jarring array of coping mechanisms continued Tuesday night at a candlelight vigil where thousands filled the large drill field on the north side of campus, holding long, white candles in paper cups. The cadet band played "Taps" as thousands held their candles high in the chilly night air. When the sober tune ended, the crowd stood still and silent for nearly 10 minutes. Only pockets of muffled sobs punctuated the hush.

Unsure of what to do next, a student started singing the national anthem. Another student started a round of school cheers. Others started a candle wave, and some jiggled their car keys.

In a chapel on the east end of the drill field, J.R. Foster was determined to offer the 175 students packed into wooden pews something largely missing from the grief-filled events of the day: meaning. Foster, the campus minister for Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), led students through a somber, biblical reflection on suffering and redemption while hundreds remained on the drill field outside. The message was simple: "We live in a broken world. We groan in a broken world. We hope in a broken world."

Foster read Psalms full of raw honesty, like Psalm 88: "I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead." Students sang songs of hope, like Psalm 73: "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."

Foster told students that Monday's terrible events displayed "the depth of human sin," and that Christ alone is the remedy for a fallen world.

Outside after the service, Mary Grace Giles said that is what she is clinging to. The junior from Charlottesville, Va., took into her off-campus home two freshman girls who live in the dorm where Cho killed his first two victims: "Right now, we're just literally crying out to God."

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