Ten Years Later
Remembering April 16th
10 years ago today I was coming up on the close of my Freshman year at Virginia Tech. I was a web developer for the Collegiate Times (our college newspaper) and when I woke up that morning, like the many thousands of others on campus I had zero idea what that day had in store for me.
I was completely oblivious in the beginning.
I found myself that Monday morning walking towards the Drillfield from my campus dorm (East AJ), completely unaware of the shooting that had already occurred in West AJ. I was early for class and planned on hanging out in McBryde Hall until my class in one of the student lounges. I never made it that far.
I was an idiot.
As I made it to the Drillfield about to cross, I saw students running the other way from the academic halls. My initial thought was “did classes let out early”, immediately followed by “Why are they running?”. So I stopped one of the students and asked. I never knew his name, never saw him again, and probably couldn’t pick him out of a crowd, but I remember the complete fear in his eyes as he said — “There’s someone shooting over in Norris Hall” and then continued running.
The gravity of what he’d just said did not hit me immediately. I had a rush of thoughts at that moment, but the most clear thoughts at that moment and even now, 10 years later, as I reflect on that day were “Where is my camera? I need to update the website”. I grabbed my crappy little digital camera out of my bag and moved towards a tree at the edge of the Drillfield across from Burruss Hall. I positioned myself between that tree and a vehicle and started snapping pictures of students running across.
I realized how real the situation was in an instant.
As I was snapping pictures I heard sirens. Lots of sirens. I saw cop cars and ambulances blazing in and individuals in tactical gear with rifles. That’s when it hit me. “Fuck. This is actually happening”. A few seconds I saw one of our Collegiate Times reporters (whose name escapes me) and one of our Photographers (Shaozhou Cui — his name is important… more on that in a moment).
I moved to their location (on the same side of the Drillfield) and we all recapped what we knew about the situation. That’s when I learned about the shooting that morning in West AJ. At this point I pulled my laptop out and started updating the website with information about the current situation… “Must get the facts out so people know what’s going on” — fear hadn’t caught up with me yet.
Reality caught up to us.
As I’m updating the website Cui (which is what we called him) decides to move closer to get better photos. He starts making his way across the Drillfield and taking photos. I continue updating the website and the reporter I was with at some point screams “Oh shit!” As I look up, I see cops swarming on Cui. We were on the opposite side of the Drillfield and cops were now coming towards our direction telling everyone to get out of the area and move. We later found out that Cui “matched the description of the shooter” which is why he was swarmed on. They detained him for a while and later released him.
More stupid decisions.
The reporter and I ran towards Squires Student Center where most people were heading. There was someone at the door and we were the last two to enter… He asked that individual if we’d be able to leave if we went in and they said no, but we needed to get inside. We politely declined and they closed the doors and locked them. I don’t think I’d ever seen this area of the campus look so much like a ghost town.
The reporter said we should go over behind McBryde where all the Police Officers were and see what we can find out. So we booked it over there. We came up behind McBryde and saw ambulances rushing down the road. Three of them blazing by us.
“Shit. This is really bad.”
He runs up the road where most of the cops were congregating and I hung back. Within a few seconds I see him being ushered back with a cop yelling “THIS IS NOT FUCKING GAME GET OUT OF HERE!”, and almost instantly after that I heard a gun shot. I’m not sure if that was the only one I heard that day, but it was loud and clear from where I was standing. That was the last gun shot of the day. The one when Seung-Hui Cho took his own life after murdering 32 of our fellow Hokie brothers and sisters and injuring many others.
It’s a little surreal to think about, but apparently only 9 minutes had passed between the moment I got to the Drillfield and this point.
Life altering phone call.
The rest of that day was a whirlwind. I remember being in a car not long after that. My cell phone started ringing for the first time that day. I looked at the caller id and was surprised. I’m actually still not sure why I picked up, but I did. The caller was an individual named Ellen Bernard. She was a recruiter from BAE Systems, one of the places I’d interviewed for an internship that summer. I was still in the process of making a decision of where I was going to go and hadn’t gotten back to anyone yet. I assumed the call was to see what my status was…
I picked up and said “Hello”. “Hi Tim, This is Ellen — I just saw news about a shooting at Virginia Tech and I just wanted to call and make sure you were okay”. I made my decision to go to BAE that summer after that call ended. I have no clue where I’d be had she not made that call.
After her phone call I realized I hadn’t checked in with anyone at all. Luckily my mother had yet to see the news and I was able to get in touch with her and let her know. I then started reaching out to all of my friends to make sure they were okay.
Websites Crashing and Press Conferences
I sat in three press conferences that day. I was effectively live blogging the press conferences. In between press conferences I was working with reporters to push other information they were collecting out. 53 million hits on our website by that afternoon. More traffic than the site had ever seen. I don’t think I could have worked with a better team of developers throughout this event. Gabriel Martinez and John Edstrom (two life long friends) and our Development Manager Chris Ritter were working tirelessly to make sure the site stayed up as I was working to keep information fresh. It crashed at one point and John and Gabe were able to quickly get it back up and running so we could continue feeding information.
It was interesting watching all of the national news networks swarm into our town that day. The room the press conferences were held in at The Inn at Virginia Tech was pretty empty during the first one around noon. The second press conference later that afternoon was a bit more crowded — more networks, more cameras, more reporters. By the third, it was packed. There were cameras and reporters outside interviewing students. I stayed in that room most of the rest of that day working from there. After the third press conference I went to the Collegiate Times office.
Debates, Interviews, and Going Home
I distinctly remember a long internal debate that night we had about whether or not to include Cho in the death toll. Do we print 32 or 33 in our future articles. None of us wanted to acknowledge him and include him with our brothers and sisters that had passed that day, but there was a question with respect to journalistic responsibility. We ultimately decided not to include him directly in the number, but to make reference to his taking of his own life.. For some reason that debate has always stuck with me. 32 of my Hokie brothers and sisters died that day. He does not count.
I worked until about 4a that night. Went back to my dorm, showered, and started the next day.
My family lived in Florida at the time. A number of students left campus almost immediately and went to visit their families. For some reason I was still stuck in the mindset that I needed to be there. My family wanted me to come home, but I stuck around for the week. The rest of the week was emotional. A number of the Collegiate Times reporters had left town to go be with their families so those of us on staff that were left were working to do everything we could. I wound up being tasked to interview some of the friends and family of the victims of the shooting during that week.
It was absolutely heartbreaking. I did not personally know any of the victims of the shooting, but in talking to the families it felt like I did and it tore a hole in me. None of these people deserved what happened — no one does. It is an interesting feeling to have the kinds of emotions I did for people I did not personally know, but it is absolutely true of the Hokie Nation that we are all family whether we know each other or not. I continue to pay my respects at the memorial any time I make it back to campus.
When Friday finally rolled around things were starting to slow down so I flew home to see my parents family that Saturday morning. That’s when it hit me. It was an interesting moment. I saw my parents and their relieved faces to see me whole and intact and the gravity of everything that had just happened really hit me. It was a wave I wasn’t expecting.
Remembering The Fallen
Every year on this day since then I always take a few moments to reflect. I’m still amazed that 10 years have already passed. I was unfortunately unable to make it back to campus for the remembrance events this year, but that doesn’t stop me from being able to remember my fallen Hokie brothers and sisters and honor their memories.
That day was a tragedy, but it brought the entire Hokie Nation closer together. On this day I find it fitting to close with the final words of Professor Nikki Giovanni’s Convocation address on April 17, 2007.
We are the Hokies.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We will prevail.
We are Virginia Tech.
The Fallen 32
Henry J. Lee (Henh Ly)