- Associated Press - Saturday, April 15, 2017

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - On the second floor of Norris Hall, parallel stories of Virginia Tech unfold.

In a quiet lounge where Emerson Ham, a senior from Savannah, Ga., was studying on a recent morning, a plaque on the wall captures for each new class of Tech students a reminder of the university’s saddest day.

“Every once in a while, you get that moment when you just sit back and it occurs to you again. This is where everything happened,” Ham said.

The first time he read the plaque - which tells how Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor and engineering professor, died while protecting his students - “was the moment it became real to me,” he said.

In the room next door is the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, founded by the widower of French professor Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, who was killed with 11 of her students as they tried to barricade the door.



Across the hall, behind the oversized image of an athlete in motion, is the biomechanics laboratory carrying on the work of Kevin P. Granata.

Granata, who researched the mechanics of movement to help people move better, rushed into danger from the third floor when he heard the gunshots below.

Virginia Tech’s reputation is forever tied to April 16, 2007, when the three professors were among 32 faculty members and students ages 18 to 76 who were shot to death by Seung-Hui Cho, a Tech senior who then took his own life.

But in the decade since, the university has had to tread the sensitive line of moving forward while also remembering.

“It’s not easy for them to do that, I know,” said Joseph Samaha, whose 18-year-old daughter, Reema, died in French class. “But it will never go away in our hearts and minds.”

Until last year’s carnage in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub, the Tech massacre was the nation’s deadliest mass shooting in modern history - a ranking inevitably repeated with each new tragedy.

Virginia Tech’s name is always mentioned,” said Christina Rittenhouse, a senior from Chesterfield County who is president of the undergraduate Honor Council. “And I think that is unfortunate, because Tech is so much more than what happened on April 16.”

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More recent headlines reflect Tech’s accomplishments - the engineering professor who helped expose lead in the water supply of Flint, Michigan; the researchers whose concussion studies are making football helmets safer; and even the experiments that allow drones to deliver burritos to students.

Much was put on hold during the year that followed the shootings, as so much energy was spent on just coping, said Larry Hincker, the now-retired Tech spokesman who was the university’s public face during the crisis.

But the tragedy put Tech on a world stage, he said.

“People got the opportunity to see that it was a pretty special place,” he said. “It was and still is a very, very big university that feels like a very small place.”

On this 10th anniversary, the university will pattern the commemoration more closely to the spontaneous vigil that followed the shootings, when the world mourned with the Hokies.

By the fifth year, the university had scaled back parts of the commemoration, holding class for the first time on the anniversary date but still lighting the ceremonial candle that burns for 24 hours each April 16 at the memorial to the tragedy on the school’s Drillfield.

Samaha, who is president of the board of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, and his family will be at the memorial on Easter Sunday to stand with others “who want to be at peace with us.”

Time has not lessened the added grief relatives felt by their treatment in the hours after the shootings.

Samaha recalls rushing to Tech only to be given the phone numbers of local hospitals and the morgue and told to make the calls himself to find out what had happened to Reema.

But Samaha said he always has felt the deep respect the campus holds for the victims and their families when he visits the April 16 Memorial - a semicircle of 32 Hokie Stones at the top of the Drillfield with a marker that reads “We Will Prevail. We Are Virginia Tech.”

He said he has heard it’s the second most-visited spot on campus, after the football stadium.

The memorial, Hincker said, touches people in much the same way as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

“It’s a very low-key memorial, but it is right in the middle of campus,” Hincker said. “It’s in the geographic and the psychic center of campus - the Drillfield.”

Still, Samaha wonders what the 11th year will bring. “Is this the pinnacle year?” he said.

A decade later, the tragedy may seem increasingly remote - this year’s freshmen were second- and third-graders at the time.

Part of the planning for the commemoration included ways to make sure that connection remains, said Rittenhouse, who will help light and extinguish the ceremonial candle.

As the distance from the shootings grows, she said, it’s important that students appreciate the lives that were lost and understand how the tragedy “shaped the community they live in now.”

Timing was all too close for Joe Wood, a 2007 graduate who was nearby the morning of the attack.

Wood had an 8 a.m. exam at McBryde Hall, next door to Norris. “It was actually snowing that morning,” he said.

He left the class about 9 a.m. and returned to his off-campus apartment, not realizing until later that he just had attended his last class.

Sometime after 9, Cho, who already had killed two students at West Ambler Johnston Hall, was chaining shut the entrances to Norris.

“That was the end of my time at Virginia Tech as a student, which is sort of surreal,” he said.

His classes were canceled for the rest of the semester, but students still met with their professors just to talk, he said.

The overwhelming grief and outpouring of emotion united Hokies then and now.

Although “obviously an incredibly sad day,” Wood said, it didn’t leave him with a bad feeling about Tech.

“It’s actually the opposite. It’s even more of a special place,” said Wood, now a water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“It was just palpable how much people cared about each other,” he said. “It ended my education at Virginia Tech but left me with a message of what a great place it was, the way people responded.”

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That solidarity was similar to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said James Hawdon, a sociology professor who is director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

“It wasn’t only an attack on the 32 victims. It was an attack on the entire community,” he said.

Hawdon has led the center since 2011, succeeding founding director Jerzy Nowak, a retired horticulture professor and widower of Couture-Nowak.

The center’s offices are in the second floor’s reconfigured and refurbished space - a sharp contrast to the concrete-block walls and institutional look of the rest of Norris.

“This is sacred space,” Hawdon said.

The year before the tragedy, Tech had conducted a survey to measure how much students, faculty and staff felt a part of the community, and so had a way to measure the impact of the shootings. After April 16, the level increased by more than 20 percent.

The level of solidarity was tracked during the year and remained elevated 13 months later before beginning to revert back to pre-tragedy levels, Hawdon said.

By the seven-year mark, it no longer was statistically different.

“The one thing I think we learned is the importance of community after these events and the importance of not withdrawing from your community,” he said.

The research found that people who engaged with the community after the tragedy “not only helped promote that solidarity but did better themselves personally six, nine, 13 months after the event,” he said.

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Tech’s solidarity was as strong as the native limestone known as Hokie Stone that defines the campus, but deep fissures were felt by the families of the victims.

The first 911 call from Norris Hall came just after 9:40 a.m.; the first from the West Ambler Johnston residence hall was placed at 7:15 a.m.

The more than two-hour gap - during which the campus was not put on alert - would result in a lawsuit by the parents of two women killed in Norris and fines by the U.S. Department of Education.

The university in 2014 paid the federal fines totaling $32,500 without conceding wrongdoing as President Charles Steger, who never apologized for the delay, was preparing to retire.

The VTV Family Outreach Foundation was established by family members and survivors “in our grief and our tears” using part of the money from the settlement reached with the state, Samaha said.

Two months after the shootings, family members had connected at a meeting in Northern Virginia, feeling that they were not included in the state’s investigation of what happened that day and why, he said.

“The families took a position that we want to know the truth, we want to know who’s accountable and we want an apology,” he said. “We didn’t directly get any of that.”

Samaha describes the relationship with the university, which established an Office of Recovery and Support to aid relatives and survivors, as “respectfully mutual.”

The foundation’s focus is on campus safety. The group’s Campaign 32 initiative is pushing for full participation in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for gun purchases because Cho was able to obtain weapons even though he had been ordered to obtain outpatient mental health treatment.

Hincker dismisses the importance of the two-hour delay as “hindsight bias.”

“People want to ascribe to it things other than what it was,” he said. “It was an absolutely horrendous mass shooting by an angry young man with easy access to powerful killing machines.”

One area where they are in accord is that the tragedy changed everything about safety on campuses nationally, from the emergency alert systems that are now commonplace to the threat-assessment teams set up to try to identify a potential shooter.

As for Cho, Samaha thinks he could have been saved, too, if he’d had proper treatment.

“I say there were 33 victims that day, not 32,” he said. “That’s my perspective.”

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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