For most of you, April 16 is just another date on the calendar, but for millions of others, this date serves as a reminder.
On April 16, 2007, a horrific tragedy occurred on the campus of Virginia Tech; a world-renowned university. I remember sitting in Geometry class my sophomore year in high school when I first heard about the shooting. The overhead intercom blared with notification of the event taking place. My teacher at the time had a daughter that was attending Tech, so she burst into tears and left the room; cell phone in tow. We had a television in the corner of the classroom where we would watch the daily announcements, so a fellow classmate cut it on to the local news channel. The scenes from the live broadcasting where absolutely terrifying. Chaos. Screaming. Blood. Police. Gun shots. Ambulances. These were the sights and sounds that were bouncing around on the screen as breaking story after breaking story were reported.
A student (who will remain nameless) was unhappy. That can be said about millions of students around the world, but what made this student different from the rest is that he acted upon his emotions. He decided to leave a mark; to get back at the world around him that made him so unhappy. He decided to kill dozens of innocent people.
It began in a dorm room at 6:47am. The shooter sought out a female student that he was supposedly involved in a love triangle with (which may or may not have been his motive for the attack). After shooting her in the head, he left her room and encountered a resident adviser whom he shot as well. He then returned to his room, changed out of his bloodstained clothes and began getting rid of evidence. As the first responders began to assess the scene in the first victim’s dorm, the shooter made his way to the local post office to send a package to a nationally recognized news station that contained a letter and a video.
Around 9:00am, he left the post office and headed to a lecture hall with a loaded backpack containing chains and locks (used to barricade the main exits in the building) along with a couple of hand guns and almost 400 rounds of ammunition. It was in Norris Hall that the shooter opened fire, killing over 30 students and professors, and eventually, himself.
This massacre made headlines around the world, and rightfully so. I knew about it when it was happening, and heard more weeks after as countless reports were made about the survivors as well as the deceased and their families. It was such a sorrowful time, but as news stories do, this too fizzled, and many people from that point on have not given it a second thought. So I am writing this post to serve as a reminder: neVer forgeT.
“I just got accepted to Virginia Tech!” This was what I heard on the other end of the phone one day when my boyfriend had called. He had tried and failed previously, so when he told me that he was actually accepted, I was shocked. Ever since he was young, Boyfriend wanted to be a pilot and he heard the best way to do so was through the military. What many people don’t know is that Virginia Tech is part of an elite set of universities that provide regular academic classes as well as a Corp of Cadets program. When you complete training and academics through the Corp, as long as paperwork is filed and your grades are up to standard, one can graduate Virginia Tech with a Bachelor’s degree as well as the ability to enter his/her choice branch of military as an officer. This was Boyfriend’s goal.
After finishing up my bachelor’s degree, I decided to move to Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech, to be closer to Boyfriend for the last 2 years of his schooling. I accepted a position working at the university with a start date 3 days after my graduation ceremony. It wasn’t until I was hired and had worked for the Engineering Science and Mechanics department that I found out: I was working in the same building the massacre had happened in.
Working as an Administrative Assistant, I was often tasked with menial jobs that either no one wanted to do, or didn’t have time to do. I enjoyed the myriad of assignments that went along with this job, so I was often eager to take them on. One day, I was tasked with going through an old storage closet in which I came across a file cabinet full of newspaper clippings, letters, memorabilia and everything in between, related to April 16, 2007. As I flipped through condolence letters and read through articles, I came across a quilt. Each little square was etched with personalized messages of what looked to be from children. Along with the quilt, I found a letter stating that the quilt was made and sent from a kindergarten class in Columbine; a town in Colorado that had experienced a similar tragedy back in 1999. My eyes filled with tears. My heart beat became rapid as I recounted the events of that day on paper. The lives lost. The impact it had on the survivors; the community; the world.
I then found a booklet with information regarding one of the professor’s who lost his life: Liviu Librescu. He was a Romanian born Israeli who had survived the Holocaust. During the shooting, Librescu barricaded the door to his classroom allowing all but one of his students to jump out of the second story window to safety. He and the remaining student were gunned down shortly after. Subsequent to his death, Librescu was posthumously awarded with the Cross of Romania, the highest civilian honor one can earn, for his brave actions that fateful day.
I was working along side survivors of the shooting; people who saw first hand, what had happened, and experienced it. As time passed I got to know these people and some of their stories and the effects the event had on them. One of my coworkers whose office was located on the first floor of Norris Hall, refused to go upstairs. She was in the building when the shooting occurred and since then, she had a phobia of venturing any further than the ground floor.
I also worked alongside a man who worked with, and was kin to, one of the fallen professor’s. My coworker’s brother-in-law, Kevin Granata, was on the floor above when the first gun shots were fired. He lead some students from a classroom to his nearby office that contained a door with a functioning lock. He made sure they were safe then headed downstairs to investigate the noise. He met the assailant in the hallway where he was shot and killed.
I was told that one of the instructors who was hired to the department around the time I was, was one of the survivors of the shooting. He was one of the students who had jumped out of the second story window to safety. The fall caused numerous injuries including fractures to one of his legs and several vertebra, but the memories from that day didn’t keep him away. He returned. And not just that; he thrived.
I heard countless stories of how employees wanted to switch buildings after the attack. Although, the wing of the building the shooting occurred has been remolded and now serves as the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, showing up on a daily basis to what once was a horrific crime scene can be unsettling. “I don’t want to work in this building anymore.” “I can still hear the gun shots ringing through the halls.” The thing that kept these faculty and staff members in Norris Hall is the thought of the attacker winning by putting them out of their offices. “We can’t give him and people like him, that satisfaction.”
Almost one year after I was hired to work for the ESM department at Virginia Tech, the 8 year anniversary arrived. My coworkers invited me to join them at the memorial outside to witness the annual ceremony the university performs to show respect and mourn the fallen Hokies (Virginia Tech’s mascot; also the term given to anyone and everyone associated with the great community that is Virginia Tech). As we made our way outside, we huddled under umbrellas as mother nature symbolically wept for the fallen. The university’s president spoke kind words, asked for a moment of silence, then members from the Corp of Cadets’ regimental band (the Highty-Tighties) played Taps across the Drillfield. I was overcome with a sense of unity. It was at this moment that I considered myself a Hokie.
The following year, I started working at a local flower shop part time. As April 16th approached, we started receiving more and more orders for memorial arrangements. I worked closely with the owner, so I asked him about the shooting and what he remembered. He talked about celebrities that had called in orders personally, dignitaries from around the world sending condolences, as well as state and national officials. He worked around the clock; morning, noon, and night for weeks following the shooting. And each year after, he teamed up with the other florists in town to provide arrangements to be placed on each victim’s memorial on campus. Although the influx of orders has slowed as years pass, there are still many people who send their thoughts in the form of flowers every year.
I now work closely with the head of Emergency Preparedness and Response for the county. Since he was involved with the rescue operation that day, he travels the country giving lectures about the effectiveness of Emergency Preparedness, recounting processes that went well and those that have since been improved.
“The day of the shooting was unseasonably cold with winds gusting 20-30mph and temperatures in the lower 30s. What kind of impact does weather like this have on an emergency situation?”
This is how he begins his lectures. Given the circumstances, helicopters were not able to land on campus that day and as a result, ambulances from all over came to assist in transporting the victims. He goes on to talk about the updated procedure of communication practices and hospital personnel response. Not many people think about the teams that jump into action behind the scene during events such as this, but what I have learned so far, is that the men and women who respond to emergencies (police, rescue personnel, drivers, doctors, surgeons, and everyone in between) deserve more thanks than they are given.
Also included in his presentation is an image:
The student shown in this picture was one of the victims, shot several times by the gunman. One of the main arteries in his leg was punctured by a bullet and he wasn’t expected to live. Not only did he survive thanks to the surgeon that performed his operation, he was able to walk across the stage at graduation one month later.
Every year around the anniversary date, the community comes together to remember. A remembrance run is held; 3.2 miles for 32 lives. A candlelight vigil takes place at midnight to mourn the fallen. Throughout the day, members of the Corp of Cadets stand guard of the Pylons as well as the memorial site of the victims. There is also a blood drive and community picnic on campus for members of the community to congregate. They even incorporate the number 32 into the class rings every year, commemorating the 32 victims.
I never thought I would become so involved in this wonderful community. I never imagined I would be given the opportunity to work alongside survivors who were in the building during the attack; to learn the craft of floral arranging from an amazingly passionate florists who converted condolences from around the world into beautiful arrangements; to understand the meaning of Emergency Preparedness from the man who led the response that ultimately saved dozens, if not, hundreds of lives. In this community, we will neVer forgeT, and I hope after reading this post, neither will you.