- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

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Virginia Tech authorities said they decided not to cancel classes after the first fatal shots were fired in a deadly rampage yesterday morning because they thought they were investigating an isolated incident.

But two hours after campus police found a man and woman fatally shot in a dormitory, a gunman killed 30 persons in a classroom building a half mile away before taking his own life.

Virginia Tech officials faced questions about why they did not cancel classes after the first shooting, but they said they made the decision based on what they knew at the time.

“We had information from witnesses and the evidence at the scene that led us to believe the shooter was no longer on campus and more than likely off campus,” Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said of the dormitory shooting, which happened about 7:15 a.m.

“The information we had on the first incident led us to make the decision that it was an isolated incident to that building, and the decision was made not to cancel classes at that time,” he said.

Students first learned that something was amiss in an e-mail sent by the university at 9:26 a.m. The message noted, “A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating.”

At 9:50 a.m., another official university e-mail alert hinted of a catastrophe. It warned, ‘A gunman is on the loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows.”

Virginia Tech officials yesterday said they were still investigating links between the dormitory shooting and the rampage at Norris Hall about two hours later.

After learning of the first shootings, Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said, authorities closed the dormitory.

“We concluded first that the incident in Ambler Johnston was domestic in nature,” Mr. Steger said. “In fact, we had some reason to think the shooter had left the campus, in fact may have been leaving the state.

“It’s one of these things that no one anticipated,” he said. “You have to remember that you can only make a decision based on the information you know at that moment in time, and you don’t have hours to reflect on it. You have to take immediate action.”

In August, the opening day of classes at Virginia Tech was canceled and the campus closed when an inmate escaped from a nearby hospital and fled to the campus area.

Hospital security guard Derrick McFarland was fatally shot, and a sheriff’s deputy, Cpl. Eric Sutphin, involved in the manhunt was killed on a trail just off campus. William C. Morva faces capital murder charges.

Steve Agresta, whose son Anthony is an electrical engineering major at Virginia Tech, said he was concerned that officials did not close the campus after yesterday’s initial shooting.

His son was in his off-campus apartment when the incident took place.

“It’s a little upsetting they would allow classes to continue,” said Mr. Agresta, of Westfield, N.J. “They just had [a shooting] in the fall, and I’m really concerned about the reputation of the school. Basically, I’ve been sick all day about it.”

The incident also sparked increased awareness and concern at campus police departments around the D.C. area.

“We have asked our officers to increase their diligence, especially as relates to the residence halls,” said Maj. Cathy Atwell, a spokeswoman for the University of Maryland Department of Public Safety. “We are confident that we have in place the right security measures.”

Tracy Schario, a spokeswoman for George Washington University in the District, said school officials regularly practice their emergency plans.

“But this incident is a reminder that something of this nature can happen any time, any place, anywhere,” she said.

At Catholic University in the District, President David M. O’Connell urged students to remain calm and “always vigilant on our own campus.”

School spokeswoman Chris Harrison said the university also had emergency plans in case of a crisis.

A vigil was held last evening at Catholic to pray for those involved in the Virginia Tech tragedy.

“I think at this stage people in the higher education community are in a state of shock and horror,” she said. “Our prayers and thoughts are with the victims.”

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