Five years ago yesterday, Virginia Polytechnic Institute senior Seung Hui Cho shot and killed 32 students and wounded 25 more on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. It remains the deadliest massacre by a single person in the history of our country.
BLACKSBURG, Va. — The warm night air of this college town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains came alive Monday with a joyful noise — the aching sounds of sadness pierced on Virginia Tech’s campus just past 8:40.
“Let’s go!” the chant began. “Ho-kies!” it ended.
No one here will forget the 32 deadly gunshots delivered five years ago on this campus in the worst mass school shooting in U.S. history. But the mountains, the students, and the locals are thirsty for more of that century-old chant.
It was the first April 16 in five years that the campus opened for classes. I encountered Virginia Tech sophomore, Matthew Roe, on the Tech campus near Norris Hall — the site of the violence in 2007.
Roe has aspirations to become a Navy Seal. He began to politely point out to me – unprompted – how odd it seemed to have so many reporters and photographers showing up on campus five years after the horrible news.
“I guess another round of gun control debates are coming later tonight,” he said matter-of-factly. “But I got to admit, the topic is very relevant, especially to a libertarian like me. Like almost everything – guns, drugs, whatever – people just need more appropriate education. That guy [Seung Hui Cho] was going to shoot whoever he wanted with or without more gun control. It’s too much emotion in this whole thing.”
The lingering impact goes well beyond the Virginia Tech campus.
Over lunch break four miles up the road at Price’s Fork Elementary School, seven years into her job as administrative assistant to the principal, Sharon Robinson started getting phone calls from friends who knew her 21-year-old daughter, Lindsay, attended class only one floor below where Cho had just cut short dozens of lives.
“I was extremely, extremely upset,” she said. “I was frantically trying everything I could to get ahold of her. Later that day we saw each other and hugged for a long time. I knew her classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but it was an hour before we spoke on the phone. Days like today just bring it all back.”
Carla Vaden, who was Sharon Robinson’s new administrative aide five years ago, remembered rushing home to hug her three children. “It’s still scary to think about,” she said very softly.
An hour away in Roanoke, we met Christopher Nicholas, 23, a Virginia Tech graduate from the first freshman class to enroll after the unspeakable tragedy. He was a high school senior in Roanoke that day, already accepted to his father’s alma mater. When we met him, Nicholas was wearing a maroon checkered shirt with a bold VT insignia.
“April 16th each year is something bigger,” he said. “I try to wear something that shows I’m part of [the Hokies’] community. It’s important to show others. The Virginia Tech community has always been close. If you are a Hokie or related to someone who went, it’s always been there.”
Virginia Tech sophomore Jill Zaricor, a psychology major serving as a Big Sister to first-graders at the same school where Lindsay teaches, told me that she understands all the media interest every April 16, but wishes all the focus would be on those 32 who were killed and nothing else.
“Nobody’s afraid to come to school here,” she said. “I don’t know of anybody who even thinks about it much. [The shootings] were so hard to take because it was such a random act. But go to a football game. Just walk across campus. It’s awesome. After the first day I was here, I knew this was the school for me.”
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, the state’s former attorney general whose daughter will graduate from Virginia Tech this spring, has lost count of his visits to Virginia Tech since 2007. “The passing of five years has done nothing to dull our memories [of that day].”
Yet last night’s moving tribute to those murder victims — who inspired Virginia Tech’s now legendary “Live for 32” community service initiative that honors the dead — seems a turning point going forward.
In the evening, all 32 names were very slowly read from a podium protected by uniformed military men and women. Sobs could be heard in every direction. Candles too many to count were lighted by students, alumni, and visitors and held aloft. Suddenly, about a hundred yards to the west, a choir broke out in song.
As if in queue, a student leader shouted at the top of his lungs: “Let’s go!”
Without missing a beat, thousands of Hokies in unison shouted even louder: “Ho-kies!”
Then another student leader shouted “Let’s go!” And another. And another.
Within 10 minutes of the candlelight vigil finishing, almost everyone was gone except a few surviving family members and friends.
A beautiful little girl remained. She ran from stone memorial to stone memorial below the now abandoned podium, alternately lighting and placing candles near the names of those etched in stone forever. She then decided to place a few flowers at the bases of the impeccably groomed monuments.
“I like how people are nice to each other, especially when they’re sad. Why is it so sad?” asked Ariel Xu. Nobody said a word. Not her mother. Not her father. Not the patrolman kneeling just a few yards away.
This 5-year-old girl reached for a small carnation on the ground, then held it out in her hand. Ariel giggled and said, “Take my flower home.”