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

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?"

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.

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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.

The university's emergency human resources plan is in place to deal with the deaths of faculty and students. But most of that plan was used to initiate an unprecedented call to state agencies and counseling centers throughout Virginia.

All across campus, meanwhile, students wiped away tears, spoke in hushed tones, and came together in small groups for small vigils. Several hundred Virginia Tech military cadets raised the campus flag to half staff Tuesday morning and then huddled in a prayer circle. "We draw strength from each other," says a sophomore cadet.

The religious community on campus also came together. About 50 people attended a vigil at the Church of Christ Monday. "We tried to make sure that everyone we could think of was OK. We're still trying to find ways we can help, other than prayer and counseling," says Seth Terrell, a campus minister with the Church of Christ.

Some students decided to leave campus after the tragedy, while others explained why they chose to stay.

"This is a small-town campus, and you do feel safe here," says Amy Adams, a university employee, who works in the human resources department. "There's no way to be prepared for something like this or even to accept it."

A convocation planned for Tuesday afternoon will be the first campus-wide vigil, and President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush are expected to attend. The tragedy, President Bush said Monday "impacted every American classroom and every American community."

The service would be the first of many campus-wide opportunities to "share our collective soul," said President Steger. As the campus "continues to struggle with these horrible deaths, [we will take] steps in the following days [to] help that healing process."

Students have been turning to digital "grief walls" such as Facebook.com to display their solidarity and send messages as well as try to find people who had gone missing, grief experts say. Students from as far away as Nanjing Normal College in China wrote with condolences.

"There are no words, just tears. Mine along with yours," wrote "Nancy" on the "wall" at Planetblacksburg.com.

In the village of Karattdipalayam, India, family members of slain professor Vasudevan Loganathan started working with the State Department to get expedited visas to bring the body home, where he will be buried according to village tradition. "It's hard to get a sense of the enormity of what's happened," says one father of a freshman student, who did not want to give his name. "You get the sense that the students want to stay together. Life will go on, but it won't be the same."

[Editor's note: The original version reversed two photos' credits.]

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