Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A New Normal: Blacksburg's Darkest Week

From Interstate-81, a five-mile-stretch of new-looking divided highway leads travelers through the small town of Christianburg to Blacksburg, Virginia, and the sprawling Virginia Tech campus. While it’s often misreported that Blacksburg is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s actually in the New River Valley on a vast stretch of gently-sloping farmland, framed only on the distant horizon by the soft ridges of the Appalachian Mountains.

In the larger community, the tragedy that befell Virginia Tech on April 16 is evident only at second glance. As the sun shines bright, things click along as usual in Christianburg and Blacksburg - traffic seems normal, stores are full – but area business signs serve as constant reminders of the methodical killing that occurred here only a few days ago. Treading closer to the university changes that. Since last Monday, the Virginia Tech campus has been trying to come to terms with an unspeakable tragedy while enshrouded in a palpable cloud of grief.

It is the Friday after the shooting, Virginia’s official day of mourning, and supporters everywhere have been asked to wear Tech’s school colors; there probably isn’t as much agreement on what to wear at a Hokie football game. Almost everyone is outfitted in some shade of maroon, orange and black. Vehicles full of supporters file past clusters of media vans and press tents and through busy intersections on the edge of campus to large, untended parking lots. From there they walk somberly toward the ten-acre drillfield in the center of campus that serves as Tech’s public place of mourning. Many carry flowers; some hold only each other.

Thousands have come to Virginia Tech to participate in the day of mourning. Scattered in and around the large green space, they are here to pay their respects, show solidarity, weep and simply try and digest it all. The drillfield is dotted with a number of different memorials - some unorganized, others the work of specific student organizations. Naturally, most at the drillfield are students. Also present is a huge contingent of Tech alumni, here to rejoin their college community in its quiet suffering. Others are here from around the region with no affiliation with the university at all - Hokies one and all for a day.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

The range of emotions is as varied as the number of mourners present at Virginia Tech. For some it seems that their unbridled sadness is all that they can feel or express, while others show no emotion at all, they just watched their fellow Hokies as they wander from memorial to memorial. Many are resolute and hopeful while the rest are simply angry, or confused.

“I don’t know what to say. It’s just weird, unbelievable that this happened to us,” says Julia Facchina, a Junior from just outside of Baltimore as she walks with her sister Jane, a Freshman, around the drillfield on Friday afternoon. One of Julia’s engineering professors, Kevin Granata, was killed in the shooting. “He was a great guy, one of the two best professors at this place. It’s a shame,” she says. She frowns as she speaks of her loss, but for the most part keeps her composure.

In the wake of the massacre, parents and family is a big issue for Tech students. The Facchina sisters feel fortunate that they were able to contact theirs before news of the shooting reached home. “I was at work off campus and as soon as we heard the news I called home,” Julia says.

“I was asleep when Julia called me, then we both called home to let our parents know we were okay,” says Jane. Some parents came to campus during the week to see their children. Some of those children went home to be with their parents. Julia and Jane were content in their decision to stay in Blacksburg in the week after the shooting. “I thought about it for about two seconds. No way,” Julia says.

Jane chimes in, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Many of the students feel the same way. To be fair, it’s only natural that those that stayed on campus after the shooting would be the ones feeling this way. At the same time, no one can blame those that chose to go home to be with their families after a lone gunman came into what was supposed to be their safe space and committed a calculated genocide. You take comfort where you can get it after a thing like that, and very often that kind of comfort can only be found at your home. Still, it is unavoidable to notice the displays and solidarity and resolute pride at Virginia Tech.

“This isn’t Columbine,” Wayne, an alumnus says as he shakes his head, “You say Columbine High School, and you think of those two guys that shot up all those kids. It’s important that Virginia Tech doesn’t become the place where this happened. It still has to be Virginia Tech: World-class engineering school."

Just up a small hill from the drillfield, behind Virginia Tech’s towering Burruss Hall, Wayne stands on a concrete path that guides pedestrians between academic buildings. His shirt rubs up against yellow police tape as he watches a small gaggle of police officers chat with one another as they guard the entrance to Norris Hall. This is the building where Seung-Hui Cho embarked on the second and most violent part of his killing spree. Before it was over, he murdered 26 students and four faculty members here, shooting most multiple times. He then turned the gun on himself.

“He knew what he was doing,” Wayne says of Cho. Wayne attended many classes in Norris Hall, which houses engineering classrooms as well as the Office of the Dean of Engineering. He expounds on his theories about why the building was chosen - the fact that there are only two entrances to the three-story L-shaped building, and that it’s one of the least-open buildings on campus, as it sits in the middle of a tight cluster of academic buildings.

Wayne is a middle-aged engineer in Northern Maryland, and a proud Hokie. “There’s something about this place,” he says, speaking not only of Virginia Tech, but of the surrounding community as well, “Even kids who’ve been here for only a year or so, it gets to you. It’s something you can only understand if you’ve lived here. It’s a special place.” As for why he’s here today, it was simple for him, “I wanted to come down Tuesday, but we waited,” he says. “We were planning on being here this weekend for the spring game, but after it was cancelled, we came down anyway. We just had to be here.” With a tinge of pride and a grin that he adds that he and his wife are planning to retire to the area.

Behind us, an elderly man approaches and hugs a police officer as he thanks him for his service and weeps. “You take care of yourself,” the officer tells the man as they end their embrace.

One male student seems entirely uninterested in grief, if only for a moment. “We’re gonna keep going. We’re going to go to football games; we’re even going to party tonight. And we’ll do it for [the victims]. We’ll drink to them.” He is from Centreville, the northern Virginia hometown of Cho and two of his victims, Rheema Samaha and Erin Peterson. While he plans to celebrate and pay tribute in his own way tonight, he is also making preparations to travel home the next morning to take part in memorial services.

“Nothing will be normal.”

The resolve not to let this tragedy define this university is also met with the resignation that things have indeed irreversibly changed in Blacksburg. What remains to be seen is whether that change ultimately defines this community. Like the nation came to find out after September 11, there is an irreversible loss of innocence that follows tragedies such as these, and all that anyone can do is embrace a new normal and make it as akin to the quality of life that was enjoyed before, even if it is different.

For many, the idea of moving forward after a week of idle mourning is met with the sad understanding of its inevitability. Monday’s return to classes will be a welcome cathartic exercise for some, and a grievous task for others. What seems to be agreed upon is its necessity.

“Nothing will be normal,” one anonymous female says, repeating a common sentiment. She explains that whatever comes after this, will come after the hard, unfinished work of grief. She’s in the Tech drama department, and says that dealing with this tragedy has been a group effort. “We’ve been meeting everyday; we’ve been talking. Because we have to, we have to get through this together…I couldn’t leave this week. [My] family is important, but right now my friends are my family.”

For most at Virginia Tech in the week after the shooting, the media presence is at once understandable and intrusive. Many mourners choose to keep some degree or another of anonymity when talking to one of the many reporters combing the drillfield, mining the tearful horde for quotes and fresh perspective. “I don’t feel comfortable,” or, “I’d rather not…” are oft-repeated refrains among the impromptu interviewees. Some refuse outright to speak to the press.

One female student is willing to speak to reporters, as long as they’re not from NBC. Around Blacksburg, there is plenty of anger at NBC over the airing of Cho’s video manifesto only two days after the shooting. “There are kids in the hospital that all they can do is lay there and watch TV. And that’s all that’s on the news now, and they just have to watch it,” she says as she fights back tears. Her anger over NBC’s move to air the video and pictures led her to complain to the local affiliate. “I called them. It was just wrong.” She says a representative of the local station acknowledged that hers was not the only angry call.

While there is no shortage of need at Virginia Tech in the days after the shooting - the need for comfort, understanding, counsel – nor is there any shortage of help. All accounts are that the University has handled the crisis admirably, even if some are still asking questions about its response in the time between the first and second shootings. To that point, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), at the request of the University, has set up an independent committee to investigate Virginia Tech’s actions on April 16, as well as its handling of Cho’s mental health issues and assessment of his risk of turning to violence beforehand.

It seems that students and faculty all have the tools they need from the University in order to help them manage this crisis at a personal level. Counselors are on hand in the student center during regular day hours, as well as on call 24 hours a day for students. Moreover, alumni anywhere in the country can contact their local chapter of the Red Cross for services related to the shooting. Every department and student service is geared and retooled toward accommodating the wide range of student and faculty needs for the rest of the semester, and beyond.

Students have a range of options regarding the completion of this semester. There are some guidelines, but the University’s website states, “Implementation of [the policies regarding this semester]…will be accomplished in a manner consistent with university academic policy. Existing policies related to other academic issues remain in effect. Flexibility and attention to the needs of the students is a high priority. The deans fully support the implementation and will be supported by the Office of the Provost.”

On this official day of mourning, help comes from sources other than official University action. One casual-looking group of students huddles at the northwest corner of the drillfield and holds up a sign: “Need to talk? We’re here to help.” Lovers hold hands, friends chat, and perfect strangers are quick to comfort one another with an easy pat on the back. Easily-identified chaplains rove the rove the drillfield looking to help.

Some aid comes from outside the Virginia Tech community. Andres Uribe, 19, and Courtney Anderson, 18, two full-time missionaries from Pittsburgh walk together from one end of the field to the other holding a bright orange sign that reads, “Free hugs and Hershey Kisses.” A small basket hangs from Anderson’s arm, from where she distributes the candy. They, along with six of their colleagues from the Pittsburgh chapter of Youth With a Mission, a global missionary for young people, have been here since Tuesday, staying with a family in Blacksburg. “We decided Monday that we wanted to come down here. As soon as we found a place to stay, we drove down,” Anderson says.

“Give ‘em hell tonight...”

The most prominent memorial sits at the bottom of a small wall of Hokie Stone that protrudes from the north slope of the drillfield. Hokie Stone is a multi-colored limestone indigenous to the region that the University mines itself. It is the most prominent architectural feature at Virginia Tech, and a source of pride for the University community. Around this wall, in about a ten-foot-radius half-circle are 33 football-sized Hokie Stones, one for each person killed on April 16, including Cho. Inside the semi-circle is an unorganized memorial altar of candles, signs, flowers, cards and notes. It’s one of the most sacred spots on campus this week.

At a little before 4:00, a large group of men dressed in all white emerges at the southwest corner of the drillfield. The group of about 30 determinedly makes its way across the field in the direction of the wall. It’s the Virginia Tech baseball team. They are about to play Miami in Virginia Tech’s first athletic competition since the shooting. They climb the small hill to the memorial and file without hesitation through the crowd of mourners and each take a knee in front of the small personalized Hokie Stones. “Give ‘em hell tonight guys,” one alumnus says. The emotion of the moment is too much for many on hand, as coughs, whimpers and sniffs emanate from the mass of mourners. Many of these strapping athletes are reduced to tears and are forced to take themselves aside, while news cameras scan the scene.

As the team takes again to their feet, they huddle up once again for a quick, “1-2-3 Hokies!

“Let’s get ‘em boys,” one team member cries, and leads his comrades back in the direction from where they came. After the they leave, onlookers turned to find a brand-new white baseball at each of the stones.

The Hokies lost their match with Miami that evening. It was reported that when Virginia Tech tried to mount a late-game rally the crowd was ecstatic.


It’s hard to say that there is an upside to tragedy. In fact, it probably just shouldn’t be said at all. Tragedy is dark and painful. Those that it strikes hardest often are led to ruin on a number of different levels. It hits a person hard and robs them of time, energy and identity.

Virginia Tech is a huge university with a beautiful campus and proud community of students, faculty, staff and alumni. This is especially clear at a dark time like this; the tragedy that has stricken this community is the very thing that brings to the fore all of the things that make Virginia Tech and Blacksburg the great and special place that it is.

Still, it would be better to be able to return to a lost innocence than to depend on the conspicuous display of positive attributes in the aftermath of a tragedy as the reminder of who you are, and the things you haven't lost. It's impossible though.

Will these murders ultimately define Virginia Tech? Perhaps the university may never fully emerge from the shadow that Seung-Hui Cho has cast over it, but the school's response to the shooting bodes well for its future. It's hard not to be impressed with the way students have handled the media attention, as well as their own grief. Regardless of how the University continues to officially respond to this tragedy, its memory will always lurk here. But that's okay, because less-than-great people, schools and communities don’t handle tragedy this well. If tragedy makes it apparent to outsiders what you are, then so be it. Virginia Tech possessed these attributes long before the shooting, and it has shown the world in its aftermath that it will continue to hold to them into the future. That’s the true significance of the tragic and irreversible change that was forced upon Virginia Tech on April 16: The good things that are on display here will remain.

Go here to see more photos.

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