A gunman's violent spree through the Virginia Tech campus on Monday morning ended in the killing of 32 -- many of them students, some in classrooms, others in a dormitory -- setting a new gruesome bar as the worst mass shooting in American history.
The events unfolded amid a spectacle of confusion, contradictory directives and frenzied rumors. The initial shooting, at the West Ambler Johnston dorm after 7 a.m., resulted in two deaths. Over two hours later, a gunman entered Norris Hall, an academic building, and killed 30 more people, many of whom were in a single German class. Whether the two incidents are related is still being investigated, but some outlets have reported that police consider a single gunman, who also apparently killed himself, to be the perpetrator of both.
Witnesses have described the shooter as an man in his 20s wearing a "Boy Scout type outfit." "I saw bullets hit people's body," one student in the German class told the campus newspaper, The Collegiate Times. "There was blood everywhere. People in the class were passed out, I don't know, maybe from shock from the pain. But I was one of only four that made it out of that classroom. The rest were dead or injured." Newspapers in the state have posted terrifying photos and video of the day's events.
The gunman -- who this morning was described as an Asian male who lived in a Virginia Tech dormitory -- reportedly took pains to ensure that no one could escape Norris Hall by chaining the entrance doors shut, according to the student paper. Witnesses also said that it looked like the shooter was looking for someone specific before opening fire. Names of victims have not been released. But some family members of victims have started to talk to reporters and so some of the killed are known, among them Virginia Tech students and faculty members. According to various newspaper reports, the latter group included Christopher J. Bishop, who was teaching that ill fated German class and who is described as a popular and caring professor; Liviu Librescu, an Israeli engineering lecturer whose students e-mailed his family members that he had blocked the gunman's way and likely saved their lives; and G.V. Loganathan, an engineering lecturer who has won several teaching awards and whose apparent death has attracted wide coverage in his native India.
"The university is shocked and horrified that this would befall our campus. I want to extend my deepest, sincerest and most profound sympathies to the families of these victims which include students," President Charles Steger said in a statement. With classes tomorrow canceled, the university will hold a convocation at 2 p.m. at the Cassell Coliseum and an 8 p.m. candlelight vigil. Other universities have expressed sympathy and offered support, with the University of Virginia organizing a vigil in Charlottesville for tonight, and the College of William and Mary having held one Monday night.
What happened between the two shooting incidents has already become the focus of serious scrutiny. Administrators from the university did not lock down the campus after the initial killings because they did not consider the possibility of a second attack, said Steger. At a news conference, he was repeatedly questioned about that decision as well as the delay in canceling classes.
"It's pretty obvious when a crisis begins; it's not so obvious when a crisis ends, because there are so many variables," noted Ann H. Franke, a lawyer and president of Wise Results, which advises colleges on risk management.
The Associated Press quoted Steger as saying that "we had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur.... We can only make decisions based on the information you had on the time. You don't have hours to reflect on it."
The early hour of the first killings, combined with uncertainty over the suitable course of action, meant that a warning wasn't sent out to students until many had already left for morning classes. The likelihood of a lone gunman also raises questions about how he was able to move from one end of the campus to the other once police already knew a killer might be on the loose.
"It's ridiculous ... that he was able to get a mile without being noticed or apprehended," said Jessica Tubbs of Security on Campus, a nonprofit organization that advocates for increased crime reporting and security awareness on college campuses.
No campus could ever be fully prepared for the sort of full-scale assault suffered by students and faculty on Monday. But Virginia Tech hasn't been a stranger to dangerous on-campus situations -- just last August, an escaped inmate ignited fears of a gunman on the premises -- and that has invited more criticism for the current response. "They should have been better prepared," Tubbs said. "The bottom line is that the first e-mail didn't go out until two hours after the first shooting."
But others cautioned that it would be wise to be skeptical of any overly critical evaluations of the university's response at this point.
"Everyone would like there to be an answer: 'If we did a, b and c, this would never happen,' but that's impossible," said Kelly McCann, president of Kroll Security Group, which works with educational institutions, corporations, military and the government on risk mitigation. By their nature, college campuses are open environments, for cultural reasons and even safety reasons, McCann said, citing, for instance, fire code stipulations requiring easy exit paths.
"Was the ball dropped from the first shooting to the second? I think that's an unfair leap," McCann said. He pointed out that if there were no witnesses to the first shooting, and if the assailant then concealed the weapon before walking to the second shooting location, it would have been hard for authorities to pinpoint him as the suspect.
In the end, the responders face a tricky question with no easy answer, said Franke, of Wise Results: "How much can you immediately infer from what you know already?"
And on that score, institutions of higher learning have relatively little on which to base their responses. Until now, the most visible such incidents on a college campus were the infamous tower shootings at the University of Texas in 1966, which left 16 dead.
"Obviously, I think that it's a tragedy and it comes as a bit of a surprise because there really hasn't been a school shooting of this magnitude in many years," said Joseph Gasper, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Johns Hopkins University who teaches a course on school violence to undergraduates. "We really haven't had very many serious school shootings on college campuses."
School shootings are far more common at middle and high schools, despite the fact that they're more closed environments, Gasper said -- a fact he attributed to social dynamics.
"Campuses are safer than society at large, but they're not immunized from potential violent activity," said Sheldon E. Steinbach, a lawyer in the higher education practice at the Washington firm Dow Lohnes. "The vulnerability of a university, which is an open environment, to violent acts of any kind is high," he said -- pointing out, for example, that after Sept. 11, American and British government officials identified universities as potential targets.
"This is certainly an event that will change the way campus security and campus safety are looked at throughout the country," Tubbs said.