Campus minister J.R. Foster was on the drill field at Virginia Tech between 8 and 9 a.m. yesterday morning at a key midpoint on campus and directly amidst an unfolding tragedy. At 7:15 a.m. police received a 911 call saying a gunman had opened fire in a dormitory just south and moments away from where Foster entered the drill field chapel, and two hours later the shootings erupted in classrooms just a short walk north. The gunman, said Foster, "for all I know could have walked right past me."
Foster said that many regulars on campus, including himself, were at first unaffected by the gathering sirens and quickening police presence after two bomb threats one week earlier had set off similar-but false-alarms. "In the context of the bomb threats-you know, 'Oh yeah, it's just a bomb threat again.' We didn't take it so seriously," Foster told WORLD. Only later, meeting with a student at a coffee shop off campus, did he learn that a then-unidentified gunman had just committed the worst shooting rampage in U.S. history, killing at least 32 and wounding at least 15.
Recent vigilance to bomb threats that failed to materialize may have contributed, oddly enough, to what outside observers of this close-knit college community consider a halting response on the part of school officials and local law enforcement. Administrators did not issue campus-wide warnings to students or institute a lockdown procedure until over two hours after the initial shooting.
But for those caught up in the deadly rampage, instant reaction meant life or death. Teacher Haiyan Cheng, a doctoral candidate presiding over a classroom in Norris Hall where the second shooting spree took place, heard a "bang, bang," which at first she and her students thought was from nearby construction-until "we saw a guy came out of the classroom across the hall from our class, [and] he's holding a gun." At that point two young men ran down the hall and the gunman shot at them. "We came back in the classroom immediately and closed the door. Then my students pushed the table to block the door," Cheng explained in an email. The gunman tried to come into her classroom, shot at the door several times, with one bullet penetrating the podium where she had been standing moments before. "We were all on the floor and heard him change clips outside, we were really scared," she said. As shots continued to ring, police arrived to escort Cheng's class and others to safety in a nearby building.
"We were really lucky to be alive," Cheng said from lockdown in nearby Randolph Hall. "Please pray for the situation."
With little word on the dead, the injured, or the assailant, students took to the form of communication they know best: word of mouth, now traveling via the Internet. Facebook, the members-only social networking website first designed for university students, overran with posts requesting the whereabouts of friends or giving details on those missing or believed dead. To one plea for information about a student, another replied, "We have confirmed that [name withheld] was injured and taken to the hospital but did not make it." By compiling Facebook posts, one student had a list of 11 dead-one professor and 10 students in Norris Hall-hours before authorities were ready to release a tally. Tribute pages sprang up equally fast. One such memorial, begun by a Facebook member in Greece yesterday, in under two hours had 8,000 members. It encouraged mourners worldwide today to wear maroon and orange, Virginia Tech's school colors.