In wake of tragedy, Virginia Tech and others still uneasy

“I was shocked and appalled,” Bruininks said. “I can’t think of a more tragic event.”

University President Bob Bruininks was returning from a luncheon Monday when he first heard the news of the Virginia Tech shootings.

The death toll was rising in Blacksburg, Va., after a gunman killed two in a dormitory and dozens more inside a classroom building hours later. Before taking his own life, gunman Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 students and professors.

“I was shocked and appalled,” Bruininks said. “I can’t think of a more tragic event.”

But Wednesday afternoon, the bone-chilling reality that the University and other schools across the country are also vulnerable to attack settled in, with several educational institutions receiving on-campus terroristic threats.

Virginia Tech officials reported receiving bomb threats on two occasions this month before Monday’s rampage.

Virginia Tech first-year Sean Saksena of Eden Prairie, Minn., said students were concerned, but brushed the threats off.

“Classes were canceled,” he said. “People were kind of excited.”

Virginia Tech officials took both threats seriously, though no explosives were found in either scare, Saksena said.

“The one time it does happen, it becomes catastrophic,” he said.

Despite the previous weeks’ false alarms, Virginia Tech students were caught off guard by the deadliest gun-related mass murder in U.S. history.

“The tragedy that happened on Monday was not an error in safety – it could have happened anywhere,” Saksena said.

Saksena heard two gunshots and saw people running from buildings early Monday morning.

He ran back to his dorm, where he alternated between watching events unfold from his window and on the news.

Later, Saksena learned one of the victims had been an acquaintance of his.

Virginia Tech Associate Professor Carol Burger said many in the community have avoided tuning in to broadcast coverage.

“It’s like watching a slow-motion disaster because you don’t know who the next name is going to be, and if that name is going to be a student you taught, or the wife of somebody you know,” she said. “It’s agonizing.”

Burger, who learned she was acquainted with a French professor who was killed, found it difficult to formulate e-mail responses to concerned friends.

“No one can say anything. We start sentences and it’s like the words don’t mean anything,” she said. “I have e-mails from people all over the world; what do you say, ‘I’m fine?’ I’m not fine. ‘I’m safe?’ But am I safe?”

Ross Macmillan, a University sociology professor who has taught classes focusing on school shootings, said such rampages on campuses are highly unlikely.

“Anybody on this campus has a much higher likelihood of being assaulted, having their laptop stolen or getting their car broken into than a rampage shooting,” he said. “We’re a fairly peaceful group of people; it’s only in extreme circumstances where you get deviations out of that.”

But those extreme and unlikely circumstances have scarred Virginia Tech and other communities subject to similar tragedies.

“The realization that this is real is seeping into our consciousness,” Burger said. “I want to reclaim this space and not erase their memory. We’ll never get back to where we were, but we want to reclaim this space as a place of learning and unity.”

Virginia Tech officials canceled classes, but plan to resume them on Monday.

“(Virginia Tech) has got to recover from this and get everyone back to start the healing process,” said Twin Cities native Jeff Paradise, a Virginia Tech junior who arrived on campus minutes after shots were fired in Norris Hall on Monday.

“This is going to stick with us for the rest of our lives,” he said. “At job interviews, when people see Virginia Tech, they’ll ask about it. When we’re playing golf with clients when we’re 40, that’s what we’ll talk about.”

For those involved, life will continue, but the future plans of those students killed will never be fully realized.

“Those kids were great and they too will never be able to contribute what they could have contributed,” Burger said.

The University community will hold an event today at 11 to commemorate Monday’s shootings. “We Are All Hokies: Reflecting on the Virginia Tech Tragedy” will take place at Riverbend Plaza behind Coffman Union. Students will be able to sign banners to be sent to Virginia Tech on behalf of the University. Attendees are encouraged to wear maroon and orange, the school’s colors.