BLACKSBURG, Virginia — They started gathering on Drillfield just before dusk — thousands of Virginia Tech students, still grieving over those they've lost. Proudly sporting the school's colors of orange and maroon, they held candles — and each other.
Reminders of the deceased were everywhere (see "Cho Seung-Hui, Virginia Tech Gunman, Described As 'Loner' "). The sisters of Kappa Kappa Gamma meandered through the crowd with black strips of electric tape strewn across their letters — similar to how police officers cover their badges when one of their own is killed in the line of duty. Tree trunks were wrapped with orange ribbons. Pictures of those killed were carried by those who miss them.
Lauren Mooney, a 21-year-old senior majoring in animal and poultry sciences, said the loss of her friend — whose name she would not provide, respecting the wishes of the victim's family — hasn't been made real yet.
"I just keep wondering when I'm going to wake up from this nightmare," she said, adding she's out of tears. "The students here want people to know this is a safe place, and we're hoping students in the future will still decide to come here, that they'll honor the dead by coming here."
The mood was somber, with students clinging to and embracing each other heartily. The crowd — which also included parents and friends — lit their Dixie Cup-enveloped candles, filling the air with the tang of burnt wicks.
"We're here tonight to remember the members of our Hokie family we've lost," said Student Body President Adeel Khan, before introducing Vice President of Student Affairs Zenobia Hikes. "I want America and the world to see this outpouring on Drillfield this evening," she said. "This is love, and we appreciate it. We will move on from this, but it will take the strength of each other to do that. We want the world to know we will recover, we will survive with your prayers."
With that, Khan called for a moment of silence, and for more than a minute, there wasn't a sound. Thousands of grave faces were illuminated in dim light, and the flames flickered as a brisk breeze swept the audience, creating a sea of dancing light. Tears were shed as the first note of taps was played painfully on the trumpet — a slow, calculated, poignant rendition that had some reporters also welling with tears. A chorus of sniffling nearly drowned out the trumpets, as did the quick, succinct breaths of hundreds of sobbing students.
Before long, the crowd members hoisted the candles above their heads in unison as a man, far off in the distance, began singing "Amazing Grace." He only got the song's second line out before the majority of people joined him; the crowd's hesitant singing was barely audible and came across more as a collective whisper. Next came "America the Beautiful," which was initiated by a woman in the middle of the crowd. The song built slowly, to a resounding crescendo.
"Let's go!" belted out a male student toward the rear of the rabble, which had swelled to well over 10,000 people. "Hokies," the crowd responded, chanting the name of the school's athletic teams about 20 times before another Virginia Tech tradition — the jostling of keys — took place.
When asked about the significance of the gesture, one student explained that, during Tech football games, the crowd jangles its keys during important plays. He smiled, noting the solidarity among the students. "What it really means, though," he said, "is that we're all going to be OK."
Read "Students From Across U.S. Respond To Shootings: 'It Is Beyond Unsettling' ", "On Virginia Tech Campus: 'I Can't Believe This Happened Here' ", "Gunshots 'Sounded Like A Hammer': Virginia Tech Students Speak About Shootings" and " 'People Are Missing': VT Student Reflects On Loss Of Friend" for firsthand accounts from the Virginia Tech campus and additional student reactions.
and "Virtual Memorial, MySpace Pages Help VT Mourners Cope Online" to find out how students are coping with the tragedy.
And read " 'The Scariest Moment Of My Life': A Timeline Of VT Shootings" for a timeline of the tragedy.