Virginia Tech Commemorates 2007 Shootings

Two members of Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets stand guard during the Midnight Ceremonial Candle Lighting, April 16, 2010. The ceremony began a day-long series of events in memory of those who died during the on-campus shooting three years ago. Virginia Tech/Michael Kiernan

Heidi Miller worked hard to ensure that her time at Virginia Tech would be defined by her academic achievements and experiences, not by the massacre during her freshman year that claimed 32 lives and left her wounded in 2007.

After a long summer of physical rehabilitation back home in Harrisonburg, Miller returned to Tech the next semester.

She is preparing to graduate next month with a 3.7 grade-point average, a double major in international studies and geography, and a minor in French.

She will remember many of the highlights, such as her trips to Europe and New Zealand.

Even though she believes she has done her best to make the most of her time in college, she is ready to move on from Blacksburg, a place that also has served as a harsh and frustrating reminder of the violence that she survived.

"Sometimes you do get discouraged and think, 'Maybe if I could get out of Blacksburg, it wouldn't always be around,"' said Miller, who was shot three times April 16, 2007, during her French class in Norris Hall.

Miller, one of 17 people who were shot and wounded, is speaking today at a ceremony at the April 16 Memorial on campus for the dedication of two sitting benches to honor survivors and the resilience of the Tech community.

As Virginia Tech observes the third anniversary of the shootings, Miller and many other students who were attending Tech at the time of the attacks are poised to graduate May 14. Their departure will diminish further the number of students at Tech who were there on the day of the killings.

Several graduating seniors say their common experience left them with a unique bond, and some worry that after they are gone from campus, the collective memory of the tragedy and of the people who died may fade.

"On the one hand, we worry that maybe the future generation of students that come here will not be able to grasp the magnitude of what happened," said John Welch, a graduating fifth-year student who is co-founder of Students for Non-Violence.

Welch noted that Friday, which will be marked by a full day of activities ending in a candlelight vigil, could be the last anniversary of the shootings for which classes will be canceled. Next year, that day falls on a Saturday, and classes are scheduled to be held on Monday, April 16, 2012.

That is not necessarily a bad thing, Welch said.

"It's just a sign that the university has regrouped and made a strong recovery since the shooting," he said. "Things are getting back to normal."

Lauren Maxey, a veterinary student who was a junior at Tech on April 16, 2007, said she is frustrated that some students will treat the anniversary as little more than the start of a three-day weekend.

She said one of her friends, a fellow veterinary student, told her she was going out of town and didn't feel any direct connection to the anniversary.

"It was hard to hear," Maxey said of her friend's remarks. "She said, 'I wasn't really affected by it.'"

Maxey is a member of Contemporary Dance Ensemble, a group that organized the Remembrance Through Dance performance on Sunday.

The event commemorated the 32 people killed by gunman Seung-Hui Cho, who ended the attacks by committing suicide in Norris Hall.

One of the students killed, Reema Samaha, was a member of the dance ensemble.

"Some people don't like to talk about it all," said Jamie Garubba, director of the ensemble. "Some people just want to forget."


"The University Will Never Forget"

Miller, now 22, says it's OK and to be expected that incoming students will have no direct emotional connection to the shootings, and officials at the university say the day will not be forgotten.

"What occurred on April 16 will forever be remembered; that is undeniable," said Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski. "The university will never forget. What the observances and Days of Remembrance will be in the future will be for future generations, future students, to decide."

Miller was shot three times in her left leg and couldn't put weight on it for six weeks. She said she has recovered fully, although she still has a surgical scar on her knee, screws in her knee, and a metal rod in her femur.

Her teacher, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, was killed in the classroom along with several students. Miller remembers seeing Cho shooting people as she lay under a desk in the back of the room with other students.

Sometimes, the sound of sirens reminds Miller of the murders. During her time at Tech, some high-profile tragedies also have served as reminders.

In January 2009, a former Tech graduate student, Haiyang Zhu, attacked a female graduate student from China, Xin Yang, so savagely in a campus cafe that her head was severed.

Last summer, Tech students David Metzler and Heidi Childs were shot and killed at a campground in Jefferson National Forest in Montgomery County. Another student, Morgan Harrington, disappeared from a concert in Charlottesville last year and was found dead in a hayfield in Albemarle County this year.

"You get the impression that this isn't a normal college experience," Miller said. "You're just like, 'Why does this keep happening?'"

After graduation, Miller plans to move to Philadelphia and teach high school English through the Teach for America program.

In Philadelphia, she said, "bad stuff may be going on, but it might not be on the front page of the paper every time. It will be less pronounced in my personal life."


"Life Is Precious and Nothing Past Now Is Guaranteed"

The attacks on the West Ambler Johnston Hall dormitory and Norris Hall left the Class of 2010 with a sense of compassion and a keen appreciation of the brevity of life, said Brandon Carroll, president of student government.

Carroll, a senior from Poolesville, Md., said he and members of his class stood strong as a glare of scrutiny focused on Tech's handling of the attacks.

"Hindsight's 20-20," Carroll said. "The only person responsible for this is the shooter. Everyone's trying to blame someone, and we stuck together."

Any time Carroll hears an ambulance, he said, it takes him back to that day, when he huddled in a dorm room with hall mates as they watched the ambulances from a window and listened to the crisis unfold on a police scanner.

Bill Bason was living on the seventh floor of West Ambler Johnston and remembers hearing the commotion three floors below, where Cho killed students Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark, a resident adviser who had helped Bason move into the freshman dorm.

About 2½ hours later, Cho killed 30 students and professors in Norris Hall before he killed himself.

Bason left school on the day of the attacks and went home to Martinsville. He returned the following Monday, when classes resumed.

He remembers sitting in class that day when one of his teachers, who had been trying to carry on as if things were normal, broke down in tears.

Bason left that day and went home until the fall semester. He preferred to depart and accept his grades as they were up until the shootings, an option that was allowed by university administrators.

"Returning felt like such an empty shell," Bason said.

He said he left school after the attacks because it was clear to him that normalcy would not be returning any time soon. He didn't want the anguish on campus to ruin the memories of an otherwise wonderful first year in college.

Bason said his college experience, if not a normal one, has given him a greater appreciation of life. No one who was on campus on the day of the shootings could have avoided being changed in some way, he said.

"As young people, despite the tragedy, despite having those things ripped away from us that day, I believe strongly that it certainly gave us - the people who were around - a very firsthand proof that life is precious and nothing past now is guaranteed," Bason said.


Needed: "A Peaceful Vision

Students and faculty who were affected directly by the shootings are remembering the attacks this week in their own ways.

During Sunday's Remembrance Through Dance performance at Burruss Hall, students of the Contemporary Dance Ensemble performed "Andaloosia," a dance that had been choreographed by Samaha.

One of the dancers, Christian Mason of Lynchburg, was a close friend of Samaha from their freshman year.

Mason said she and Samaha were up until 3 on the morning Samaha was killed. They were supposed to be studying, but they had talked for hours about their friendship, relationships and other topics.

"Andaloosia," as choreographed by Samaha, had included her dancing solo near the end of the performance. So when that time came during Sunday's performance, Mason and the other dancers cleared a space on stage, and a spotlight shone down on the spot where Samaha would have been dancing.

Jake Grohs, assistant director for student engagement programs at Tech, plans to take a personal day tomorrow and spend it gardening at home with his wife and visiting with friends.

Jerzy Nowak, who lost his wife, Couture-Nowak, is the founding director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Norris Hall and will help host an open house there tomorrow.

"It's very hard for some of the students who were linked to the tragedy. . . . to come to Norris Hall," he said.

Referring to the building's transformation, Nowak said, "One man's deadly, inhumane imagination needed to be contradicted with a peaceful vision, a symbolic act honoring the victims."


List of Events Friday:

A ceremonial candle was lit at the April 16 Memorial at midnight by the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets and representatives of the student body, and will remain lit for 24 hours.

At 8:00 a.m., a 3.2-mile "Run in Remembrance" beginning at Alumni Mall near the North Main Street entrance. Officials expect more than 5,000 participants.

All day: Locations across campus are reserved for quiet reflection throughout the day. A downloadable map (pdf) is available.

"Woven Together: April 16 Memorial Textiles," an exhibit at Squires Perspective Gallery, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

A community picnic on the Drillfield from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Several events will be held at various locations from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. as part of the "Expressions of Remembrance." Among these events: "Connections," a community art project at GLC Multipurpose; a memorial exhibit and slide show at the Holtzman Alumni Center; "Healing Through Arts," at which participants can express their thoughts and feelings in various media; "A Community of Learners, a Legacy of Achievement," a Newman Library exhibit remembering the lives and work of the victims; video of the April 17, 2007 convocation; "Hokie Stone: An Event of Student Shared Knowledge"; music and private reflection at the War Memorial Chapel; and a panel discussion on community resilience: A Panel Discussion, with faculty and community members.

At sunset, a commemoration and candlelight vigil will be held on the Drillfield at the April 16 Memorial.

Also:

The Contemporary Dance Ensemble will perform "Remembrance Through Dance" at 2:30 p.m. in Burruss Auditorium.

Blood drives will be held on campus and in other Virginia communities (including Falls Church, Old Town Alexandria and Winchester) by the Virginia Tech Richmond Center; the Richmond, Shenandoah and National Capital Region Chapters of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association; the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center; and the student chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects in Old Town Alexandria.

On Saturday members of the National Capital Region Chapter of the Virginia Tech Alumni are volunteering at the D.C. warehouse of the Capital Area Food Bank.
By Reed Williams, Richmond Times Dispatch
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