BLACKSBURG, Virginia — On a normal Tuesday afternoon, Virginia Tech's sprawling Drill Field is swarming with students: eating lunch, playing Frisbee, socializing, getting some last-minute studying done. Not today. The cafeteria is empty, the quad is vacant and the library nearby is "closed until further notice."
But it's here — the same stretch of plush grass that Cho Seung-Hui reportedly walked across on his way to Norris Hall from West Ambler Johnston dormitory — that students have gathered to remember the deceased (see "Virginia Tech Gunman Was 23-Year-Old Student").
A cardboard memorial shaped like the college's "VT" logo is covered with messages such as "You are in our prayers. We hurt for you, and will remember you forever." A VT cap hangs from one corner of the memorial, and candles and flowers adorn the ground in front of it. Students — many of them dressed in maroon and orange, the colors of the Virginia Tech Hokies sports teams — walk up, arms around each other, crying, covering their faces as they weep. Later in the day, President George W. Bush will lay flowers here with Virginia Governor Tim Kaine (after state police secure the area) and sign the memorial "God bless, George Bush."
"It's a heartbreaking scene," Jeff, a freshman from Smithtown, New York, reflects. "We'd go over to pay our respects [at the afternoon convocation] but we'd just get attacked by cameras. It's a true intrusion of our privacy. But really, there are no words for it."
Jeff (who declined to give his last name) says he barely slept last night and hasn't shed a tear — yet. He says he's still in shock, having known two people who were killed. "I'd never even seen a gun before I came here, and I'm from New York," he says, adding that the first time he saw a firearm was his first day at Virginia Tech last year, when an escaped convict sought shelter here after killing a hospital guard and a sheriff's deputy. "There were cops everywhere back then."
Jeff says he isn't afraid to finish his education at VT. "I feel the campus is secure because the VT police went through each and every building." But, he admits, it will be "weird" going back to class for the first time.
"I was in the building next to Norris Hall, and I didn't see the shootings, but I did see a lot of stuff I didn't want to see," he recalls. "I was just about to leave the building but there were cops outside the doors, screaming at us to stay inside. I just can't imagine someone would do all of this over a girlfriend." He's referring to unconfirmed reports that Seung-Hui's rampage was sparked by troubles with a girlfriend.
As more students congregate on Drill Field, they walk with their heads down, staring at the ground.
Alison Smith, 22, a senior from Pittsburgh, says she's "worried to see that final list" of the dead, noting that she knew one of the victims: a chemical-engineering major just three weeks away from graduation. "I saw her name scroll across the screen this morning, and ... it was just scary."
Earlier in the day, student Derek O'Dell, who survived the rampage, was besieged by reporters after he emerged from his residence. He'd been shot twice in the bicep; the bullets exited his tricep.
His girlfriend, freshman Laura Jones, recalled Monday's events. Her cheeks were flushed from hours of crying. She'd known that O'Dell was inside Norris Hall during the shootings and tried frantically to get in touch with him. With the phone lines inundated with calls, she couldn't get through to his cell phone.
"He texted me later and said, 'Don't freak out — I'm fine. I'm at the hospital,' " she recalled. "It was so surreal. You can't really describe what this is like. You see it on TV all the time, but you never expect it could happen to you."
She too couldn't sleep on Monday night, she said, wiping away a tear with the sleeve of her maroon sweatshirt. "It was eerie. Life will never be the same again. This has left a permanent scar."
Jason Klein, a junior from Chantilly, Virginia, described waking up on Monday morning and checking his e-mail. He was greeted with a message from the school's administration that there had been a shooting and students should "be cautious." He continued, nevertheless, to campus.
"There were ambulances and cop cars all over the place, and I thought they were just taking precautionary steps," he said. "Then, there were cops on megaphones telling us there was a gunman on campus and that we should take cover.
"I just can't believe this happened here," he continued. "It's such a small town and such a tight-knit community. We're all in a state of shock and disbelief — and we're waiting. We want to hear the names of the victims, but at the same time, we don't. Eventually, we'll pull through this together. This could have happened anywhere, and some people may transfer out or they won't want to come here. Everyone will remember this day, and because we lived through it, I think it will bring us closer. These kids had their whole lives ahead of them, and those lives came to a tragic end. But we'll pull through."
Adeel Khan, Virginia Tech's student body president, noted that the school will hold a candlelight vigil Tuesday (April 17) at 8 p.m., and that the community is doing its best to move forward.
"We're not going to dwell on the negative," he said. "We're wearing orange and maroon today, as a sign of a united front we're taking as a school, and a country, to prevent violence like this. Today, I think everyone in America is now a Hokie."
Go to "Virtual Memorial, MySpace Pages Help VT Mourners Cope Online" for more student reactions and accounts.
[This story was originally published at 12:52 pm E.T. on 04.17.2007]