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In Virginia Tech tragedy, a pulling together

In the midst of the worst mass shooting in US history, 'a number of heroic events' occurred.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 18, 2007

Blacksburg, Va.

Clay Vigiland walked out of his French class after a gunman had killed and wounded nearly all of his 20 classmates. When police rushed up, Mr. Vigiland stretched his arms out and pleaded, "Am I hit? Am I hit?"

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Somehow, he was not. The shooter, after breaking through a barricaded door into a French class just under way, either missed him or failed to spot him during the midmorning rampage at Virginia Tech, a 2,600-acre engineering school in the mountains of southwest Virginia.

In an effort to confront a "numbness" that overwhelmed him in the hours after the shooting, Vigiland made it his mission to find parents of his wounded and dead classmates to tell them what he knew, to never let them wonder about the last minutes of their loved ones. "They tell me the emotions will come later, but right now this is the only thing I can do, so I'm doing it," says Vigiland.

Others tried to directly stem the violence. Virginia Tech aeronautics professor Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor born in Romania, reportedly blocked a classroom door to keep the attacker out, shielding students from the gunfire as they scrambled to jump out windows. Mr. Lebrescu died in the attack.

"We know that there were a number of heroic events that took place," Col. Steve Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, told reporters Tuesday.

All together 33 people including the gunman were killed and at least 20 more were wounded Monday in the deadliest shooting rampage in US history.

The challenge for the university now is to reconnect those affected – some 26,000 students, faculty, and families – with both the campus community and their home community, experts say.

"One of the issues is how to reconstruct a community in the face of such an event," says Peter Sheras, a psychology professor and grief specialist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Part of that can happen and needs to happen among the people who are most affected. A key word at a time like this is connections, to avoid feeling isolated, empty, and frightened."

At a news conference Tuesday, more details of the shooting came to light. Virginia state police identified the gunman as 23-year-old Virginia Tech student Cho Seung-hui, a Centreville, Va., resident of South Korean descent. Witnesses described Mr. Cho wearing a calm, but serious expression as he systematically entered classroom after classroom at Norris Hall, sometimes forcing doors open, and shooting in a "methodical" fashion. Ballistics tests show that at least one of the two weapons – a .22 caliber semiautomatic and a 9-millimeter handgun – recovered at Norris Hall was also used in the dorm shooting.

Authorities have not yet confirmed, however, that the shooter was the same person in the two incidents, contributing to a lingering unease on campus. According to students, friends of the shooter believe the incident had something to do with the breakup with a girlfriend. At Tuesday's news conference, Virginia Tech president Charles Steger announced that classes would be canceled for the rest of the week and Norris Hall, where most of the killings occurred, will be closed for the remainder of the school year.