Hokies share stories of grief

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BLACKSBURG — Set against a clear blue sky with the sun beating down, the Virginia Tech campus was a sea of maroon and orange Tuesday afternoon.

Students streamed to Cassell Coliseum for the memorial convocation in honor of the victims killed in the shootings Monday morning.

One student leaned beneath a tree across the street from the coliseum. Wearing a gray Tech sweatshirt, she stood out among the crowd.

Freshman Megan Ginley was off campus Monday when the shootings occurred. As she called her friend to get her keys back, Ginley found out her dorm, West Ambler Johnston, was on lockdown.

After hearing about the shootings, Ginley and her friends searched for their missing friend, freshman Erin Peterson.

They never found her.

“We looked in the hospital in Roanoke. This morning I found out on the news she (Erin) was dead,” Ginley said, looking down. “I’ve been OK. I did most of my crying last night.”

Peterson was in French class at Norris Hall when she was shot and killed. Her professor, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, also was killed.

Ginley met Peterson when she rushed for a co-ed fraternity, Phi Sigma Phi. She said the whole fraternity was upset about Peterson’s death.

“The final vote for getting in was this past Sunday,” Ginley said. “We were supposed to find out the results Thursday. Guess that won’t be happening.”

As the line for the memorial convocation began to wind around the block, one student held a VCU bag.

Senior biological sciences major Katherine Mason is graduating this spring from Tech, and said she plans to attend pharmacy school at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Mason was in the nearby McBride building when the shootings happened. She was waiting for her next class to begin when she overheard two students saying they had heard gunshots.

Police cars and an ambulance went flying by. Students were told they needed to go back to their dorms. For Mason, that was Harper Hall — also home to 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman. Mason said she did not personally know the shooter; he lived on the second floor and she lived on the fourth.

“I can’t believe this has happened,” Mason said. “It’s never been like this before, and I have been here for four years.”

Mason said she felt the school was safe, but teachers need to have some sort of message system so they know what to do in emergency situations. She said that last semester, many teachers did not know what was going on when classes were shut down because of the escape of prisoner William Morva.

After the ceremony, people slowly exited from the crowded Lane football stadium where the overflow audience had been directed.

Three people, two men and one woman sat for a moment and then started to leave.

Richard Fell and Dini Miller are both professors of entomology at Tech. Fell has been teaching for 28 years, and Miller has been teaching at Tech for eight. Fell said that  everyone at Tech was in shock and disbelief. Miller said she was surprised by how quickly the school organized. Everyone had to decide how to feel about the tragic shootings in such a short time, she said.

Entomology technician Tim McCoy said he was worried President Bush’s coming would complicate the recovery. He was glad to see the community unite.

“It’s trite to say that this is a Blacksburg family here at Tech,” McCoy said. “But it’s like that. There’s not much division between the university and town. I think the town will help us deal with the tragedy.”

All three members of the staff were present at the academic building, Price Hall, when the shootings occurred. As a campus with 26,000 students and 3,000-4,000 employees, Fell believes the school responded to the incident as well as could be expected.

Prospective student Alex Ayala was visiting Virginia Tech the Saturday before the shooting. A senior at Park View High School in Sterling, Ayala said he was looking at Tech’s engineering program.

“I listened to the news and don’t like how the shooting happened at 7:15 in the morning, and noone was notified until later,” Ayala said. “I find it sketchy the way they handled it.”

Having lost his sister in a shooting at a Safeway in Sterling, Ayala said, he finds it difficult to look at a gun or come close to one.

Ayala said he felt the students acted like Tech was their home.

“When I was in Blacksburg, I could tell Blacksburg is Virginia Tech. It is a city in itself,” Ayala said. “Most campuses are dead on the weekend, but there were people everywhere. The atmosphere there is so close. There are so many people there, but you can’t tell. Everyone is so united.”

Monday night in West Ambler Johnston, students in the dorm had their doors open and were comforting one another while watching the news.

Resident assistants were on call making sure everyone was all right, saying they were available if students needed to talk.

“The important thing is that we don’t forget,” Fell said. “The healing process will proceed and a sense or normalcy will return. The students and faculty lost will be honored.”

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