The pain and anxiety of Monday’s school shooting at Virginia Tech was keenly felt in Falls Church and throughout Northern Virginia, as locals could only wait, watch, listen and pray that a number of their friends, siblings, sons and daughters would emerge from the tragedy unscathed.
As the grisly events unfolded four hours away in Blacksburg, Va., concerned parties jammed over-taxed cell phone circuits with phone calls, desperately trying to ascertain the status of their loved ones as news broadcasts continually revised the death toll from one to 22 and finally 33, with 30 other students and members of the faculty wounded.
While the official record of fatalities has not yet been released by authorities, independently confirmed reports list at least six Northern Virginians among the fallen.
Among them are James Madison High School graduate Maxine Turner of Vienna, Mary Read, a 2006 graduate of Annandale High School, and Leslie Sherman, who graduated West Springfield High School in 2005. The partial list compiled by various news agencies also held the names of Erin Peterson and Reema Samaha, both 2006 graduates of Westfield High School in Fairfax County. Those five were among the 30 victims killed at Norris Hall, the scene of a shooting spree that began around 9:45 a.m.
Emily Hilscher, 19, a 2006 graduate of Rappahannock County High School, was among the day’s first fatalities according to police, one of two students fatally shot shortly after 7 a.m. in the West Ambler Johnston Hall dormitory. Rappahannock County High School is one of six schools that comprise the Bull Run District, a high school athletic league that includes Falls Church’s George Mason High School.
At a press conference on Tuesday morning, police disclosed the shooter’s identity as 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui, a resident of Centreville, Va. and a 2003 graduate of Westfield High School. Cho was a senior at Virginia Tech, where he majored in English. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Cho’s creative writing was disturbing to the degree that he was referred to Virginia Tech’s counseling service.
The massacre on Monday ranked among the grimmest days ever known in the Commonwealth of Virginia and stands as the single worst mass shooting in the history of this country. Those that survived the ordeal say they are carrying on in a state of sorrow and disbelief.
“It’s really silent [on campus],” said Nathan Ballou, a Falls Church resident and a Virginia Tech sophomore who worked in the Engineering Sciences department in Norris Hall. He had done research for professors Kevin Granata and Liviu Librescu, both of whom perished in the shootings. “Most of the time you hear people in the lunch rooms talking and laughing, it’s completely diminished now.”
A popular college destination for area graduates — George Mason High School has sent 51 alumni to Virginia Tech in the past four years — the vast majority Northern Virginia students escaped the morning’s tragedy physically unharmed, if somewhat unnerved. Hunkered down in their dorm rooms, many students scoured the internet or sat riveted to newscasts for any information they could find. With cell phone service sporadic at best, some used Instant Messenger or the internet community site Facebook to inform families and friends of their whereabouts and condition.
For a handful of Falls Church students however, the day held more than a multi-hour vigil in front of CNN. Some slept through the events entirely.
Michael Jansen, a sophomore from Falls Church, was in his dorm all day on the fifth floor of Ambler Johnston. Sound asleep, he never heard the shots from the early-morning killings one floor below him. He later learned of the shooting from a resident assistant.
Virginia Tech junior David Le awoke to a phone call from a friend at home in Fairfax who gave him the news of the shooting at Ambler Johnston. Worried for his roommate who had already made his way to campus, Le set out in his car to pick him up and bring him to safety. After retrieving his roommate and driving away from campus, Le, a member of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, learned that one of his fraternity brothers was unaccounted for, but known to be in the area of Norris Hall at the time of the shooting. Le then drove to the campus for a second time, locating his fraternity brother and also giving several other students a ride to safety.
“Not really,” Le said when asked if he had any misgivings of going into a potentially dangerous situation. “It’s really just a natural instinct for me. My parents probably wouldn’t have approved though.”
Hilary Strollo, a friend of Le’s who had recently attended his fraternity’s formal, was shot in the back three times during the Norris Hall episode. He has since learned that she will be alright. Le also said he knew Ryan Clark, the second shooting victim at Ambler Johnston. Le met Clark through a Resident Hall Federation event.
“He was a really nice guy,” Le recalls. “He was very friendly and really outgoing.”
Senior Stephanie Rosse, also of Falls Church, knew Clark as well. The two were both members of Virginia Tech’s band, the Marching Virginians, and Clark, who was a good friend of Rosse’s roommate, spent a lot of time at the girls’ apartment.
Rosse herself was fortunate to avoid the day’s heartbreaking events. She was supposed to attend an urban policy class in Norris Hall that morning, but instead elected to sleep in. Rosse returned home to Falls Church early Wednesday morning after attending Tuesday night’s candlelight vigil on campus.
“This whole year has been a frightening one,” said Rosse who graduates in May.
The dubious year Rosse refers to has also included an incident on the first day of classes, August 21, when robbery suspect William Morva escaped from police custody and fatally shot a Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy near the Virginia Tech campus. The school issued an immediate lock down in response to that incident. On April 13, the university closed down Torgersen, Durham and Whittemore halls following a bomb threat. A similar threat was received two weeks prior as well. The Washington Post wrote Tuesday that police found a bomb threat note, targeting several of the school’s engineering buildings, near Cho’s body following the shooting on Monday and believe the events to be related.
Despite that string of events, the vast majority of local students questioned by the News-Press stated their support for their school and said they believed the university had performed admirably in the midst of the crisis.
“It’s kind of hard to second guess what they knew,” Ballou said. “I’m sure they did what they thought was best.”
University President Charles Steger has been criticized since the killings for a two-hour period between the first shootings in Ambler Johnston and a mass e-mail sent out to students warning them there may be a shooter on the loose.
During a convocation at Virginia Tech on Tuesday, university president Charles Steger received a standing ovation from a large crowd. The audience, which included President George W. Bush and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, had gathered to remember the victims and begin the healing process.
The support for Steeger is not echoed by everyone, particularly those whose loved ones were in danger.
“They put the school in lockdown during [the William Morva situation]. Why didn’t they do it this time?” asked Carol O’Fiesh of Falls Church. Her son, Griffin, waited out the shootings for about two hours in Torgerson Hall, a classroom building adjacent to Norris, after a “sweaty and out of breath” man ushered him and a friend back inside around 10 a.m.
Carol O’Fiesh says that her son had earlier applied to transfer to the University of Virginia, where her daughter currently attends, and that she wants Griffin to leave Virginia Tech if he is admitted.
“I do feel like Virginia Tech is less safe than the University of Virginia,” she said. “Kids pull the fire alarms almost every night [at Virginia Tech] and they have to wait outside while the fire marshal goes in and gives them the all clear. There was that shooting on the first day … It’s not safe.”
Stephanie Rosse’s mother, Deborah, thinks otherwise, but admits she has reservations about possibly sending her two younger children to the university in the future.
“I still think it is [safe],” Deborah Rosse said. “But this has definitely made me think about Virginia Tech differently than I did before.”
Though still shaken from Monday’s events, some students wanted to make it clear that violence of any kind is not indicative of the university located in southwest Virginia.
“I still feel that Virginia Tech is a very safe campus and community,” said Andrew Montgomery, a third-year architecture student and graduate of George Mason High School. “This was a freak incident and there is no way to prevent something like this from happening.”
“You almost never hear about rapes or murders, so I’ve never had reason to worry. But after two shootings and three bomb threats in a year, I’m a little scared,” Lauren Cobert of Falls Church said. “I’m also concerned that all this bad publicity will discourage future students from attending and applying to Virginia Tech. Hopefully the university will take measures to increase security and make students and their families feel safe again.”
• Nicole Theberge, Nate Taylor and Genevieve Makris contributed to this report.