Students representing each of the 32 killed one year ago lit their candles from one burning since midnight when another event on the same field began a day of grieving for the victims.
As the vigil ended, "Let's go," was screamed at one end of the field. "Hokies" was the reply from the other end in what became a growing participatory chant.
Earlier, a sea of people clad in maroon and orange, some with heads tearfully bowed, others with arms interlocked, paid tribute to the victims who died a year ago.
"We remain deeply and profoundly saddened by the events of that tragic day...," Virginia Tech President Charles Steger told the crowd. "Indeed, all our lives were changed on that day."
The accomplishments of each of the 32 people echoed across the drill field, a litany of what they had done and planned to do before a student gunman killed them in classrooms and a dormitory.
Austin Cloyd had an iron will. Caitlin Hammaren loved playing the violin. Emily Hilscher was a skilled horsewoman. Ryan Clark was a collector of friends. Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva dreamed of bringing people together and making the world peaceful.
"The world was cheated - cheated out of the accomplishments that were sure to come from these extraordinary lives," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine told the crowd.
People held back tears as a moment of silence was observed for those killed by Seung-Hui Cho, who took his own life as police closed in. But as music started playing, many sobbed and wept openly, overcome again by the magnitude of loss.
One grieving young woman fell to the ground and EMTs hurried to tend to her, eventually helping her off the field as she blinked back tears.
After the ceremony, bells in the nearby administration building tolled 32 times as mourners approached the semicircle of memorial stones, each engraved with the name of a victim.
The mourners gathered on the same field where a white candle lit at midnight began a day of grieving for the victims. Its flame was to be used to light candles for a vigil at dusk.
Some 20 people gathered in front of Norris Hall shortly after 9:30 a.m., the time one year ago that Cho killed 30 people in the building.
Shane Hutton, a senior from Bristol, said he had wanted to go into Norris but it was closed. Hutton, who had studied under instructor Jamie Bishop, one of the victims, said he has visited the wing of locked classrooms a half-dozen times in the past year.
"I find comfort in it," he said. "I just go in and think about the victims and the families."
Some in this close-knit campus of 27,000 were just hoping to make it through what they knew would be a difficult day.
"It's just so emotional for everybody," said Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily survived being shot. "The kids - you're just so worried about them and think, `Are they reliving those moments?"'
A similar "lie-in" was held at the University of Toledo, Ohio, and more were planned for other campuses.
Seung-Hui Cho had a history of bizarre and threatening behavior and had been declared dangerously mentally ill by a court. Under federal law, Virginia authorities should have sent his name to an FBI database, and when the gun stores ran their instant background checks his purchases should have been denied.
In the past year Virginia tightened its laws, sending thousands of names to the FBI, and congress gave all the states financial incentives to do the same, but at best.
Numbers provided by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence show that a year ago there were 166,000 names in the FBI database and today, about 402,000. But an estimated 2.6 million Americans have been declared dangerously mentally ill.
The Brady Campaign's Paul Helmke says that means, "8 out of 10 people that have a history of being dangerously mentally ill are still going to be able to buy a gun in this country."
Others argue that solving the problem isn't as simple as creating stricter gun laws.
"If you have someone who's intent on committing criminal acts and they want to get a gun, they're gonna find a way to get a gun," says Virgina House of Delegates majority leader Morgan Griffith.
Some family members of victims entered War Memorial Chapel early Wednesday for a private service. Other family members of those killed said they couldn't bear to attend the official events and planned to grieve privately.
Bryan Cloyd, whose daughter Austin was killed, hopes to plant an oak tree with his wife Renee to honor their daughter's life. It is a way of looking toward the future, he said, rather than reflecting on the horrors of last April 16.
As a Virginia Tech professor and Blacksburg resident, Cloyd has faced reminders of his daughter every day. He believes Austin would want the community to honor her life, but then move forward.
"I won't be able to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. I won't be able to bounce her children on my knee," he said softly. "And I don't think it's helpful to dwell on that, because where that leads is just more sadness. I think what's helpful to do is to dwell on what can be. What can we do with what we have?"
"It's been difficult at times. The nightmares and reliving flashbacks and other things," said Derek O'Dell, who was shot in the arm in his German class. He told CBS News there were 13 people in his class, and five didn't survive.
"I try and not let this event define me. It's tough to not be defined by tragedy, especially when you are in the news as much as I might be," O'Dell said. "It's difficult for people who might not have known me prior to April 16th to learn who Derek O'Dell is. Hopefully I will eventually reach all of my aspirations in life and become a great veterinarian and hopefully change the world for the better, and hopefully become remembered for that, and not just as a survivor."
No public memorials were planned for Cho.
Gerald Massengill, who led a governor-appointed panel that investigated the slayings, has tried to focus his thoughts on the changes that have been made to the state's mental health system and school security procedures in light of the panel's recommendations.
"I think a lot of us have been anticipating April the 16th with some reservations as to how it would impact us," he said. "And I think as it's gotten closer, what I have tried to consume myself with are those things ... the lessons that we think we could learn from Virginia Tech."