Grief gives way to healing at Virginia Tech

Students gather on campus and connect with each other in cyberspace after the shootings, which left 33 dead and 25 injured.

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?"

Miraculously, he was not as the "methodical" shooter, after breaking through a barricaded door into a French class just underway, either missed him or failed to spot him during the mid-morning rampage on this 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, Mr. 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, as the hour approached midnight.

Gritted teeth, 1,000-yard stares, and somber reunions marked a day of tragedy here in the New River Valley, as a heavily-armed gunman killed 33 people, including himself, and injured another 25. Grief counselors descended on the campus. Students, meanwhile, relied on an impromptu patchwork of Internet communication, text messaging, and quiet gatherings to work out the immediate shock, and, along with the rest of the community, prepare for the grief ahead. The emotional aftermath, grief counselors say, will be profound as the dead are identified, and as the community and students on campus – three quarters of whom hail from Virginia – try to parse meaning out of the worst shooting rampage in American history.

"It's not over yet," says Kelley Howers, a freshman whose friend was still one of the missing late Monday night. "I don't know if it'll ever be over."

Vigils are planned for Tuesday morning. Virginia Tech President Charles Steger is scheduled to lead a convocation Tuesday afternoon.

There was a call for university students across the country to wear Virginia Tech's color maroon Tuesday to show solidarity. At a vigil at the marble alumni memorial, cadets patiently replaced a wreath that kept getting blown over in 40-mile-an-hour gusts.

As the library closed, groups of students gathered, or holed up all over this sweeping campus set in the winter-gray folds of the Appalachian plateau. The campus remained empty Monday night, as students gathered in watering holes to recount the day's events.

Grief experts say the students automatically turned to digital "grief walls" such as to display their solidarity and send messages as well as try to find people who had gone missing.

The sheer activity of the day carried students deep into the night, with many foregoing sleep altogether. Phone lines here jammed as panicked parents and relatives tried to find out what has happening. Amid the grief, anger was building: Students instantly began criticizing the decision by campus police and the university administration to fail to lock down the campus, and calls for Mr. Steger's resignation began building among some students. University police say they believed the first shooting was a "domestic" dispute. But instead of leaving the campus, the shooter, it is believed, walked across the parade ground in swirling snow and entered Norris Hall, chaining the doors closed behind him. Thirty people died there, including faculty and students.

"Everyone was scared to death," says Ms. Howers. "It was total confusion."

Steger said it would take a long time for the campus to heal. The tragedy "impacted every American classroom and every American community," President Bush said as he addressed the nation about the shootings Monday afternoon. Meanwhile, campuses across the country began reviewing their security procedures.

"We had tears all day, and there will be more tears," says Bill, a student who did not want to give his last name.

For Vigiland, who made it out alive, the only outlet for his grief he had was his story, the horror of which betrayed itself in his dark-clouded eyes and grim set of his mouth. His father had driven down from Washington, D.C., after receiving hysterical call from his wife, who said, "Clay's alright, but you won't believe what has happened."

At around midnight, an African-American man approached Vigiland and asked him if he'd seen his daughter. "She's still missing," the father said, noting he'd checked both hospitals and still no sign. "I know her., Vigiland replied. "She's in my class. But I can't remember seeing her; I'm sorry," he said as he again recounted the terrifying minutes where a tall man, who was identified as being of Asian descent, fired repeatedly and inexplicably into the classroom without saying a word. After the story, the two strangers hugged, not at all awkwardly.

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