45. Blacksburg

Morning of April 16, 2007

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

A “Nor’easter” storm has been pounding the Atlantic coast all weekend, gushing rain with the strength of a hurricane. But now, on the third day, although the trees that dot Virginia Tech’s sprawling 2,600 acre campus are still leaning in heavy wind, it appears that the worst parts of the storm have passed north, leaving a clear and chilly Monday morning in Blacksburg. Classes at the university are to proceed as scheduled.

7:02am

West Ambler Johnston Dormitory

On the west side of campus, a female student is dropped off by her boyfriend, outside of her residence hall. He sees her go inside, and then drives off in his pickup truck, in a rush to make his own classes at nearby Radford University.

Inside the dormitory, the female student passes through the unsecured foyer area, and swipes her pass-card to unlock the inner security door. She goes to her room on the fourth floor.

Meanwhile, the list of card swipes logged on Virginia Tech’s servers is an imperfect record, not quite catching everyone who gains access to the residence hall that morning. At least one person has “tailgated” — they didn’t have a badge that would access that building, but they followed behind a student who did. No one saw who it was.

About ten minutes later, the residents on the fourth floor hear a series of loud noises coming from room 4040. They debate what to do, for about five minutes — then tell another student, who decides to immediately call the campus police. The person making the call says they thought someone might have fallen out of their loft bed (as would happen in the dorms now and again).

The police tell them not to enter room 4040, and they dispatch an officer to go check it out.

7:17am

Harper Hall

At another residence hall, two buildings away, a male student swipes his pass card, and goes to his room in Suite 2121. His roommates are not home. He logs onto his computer, and deletes everything under his account from the University’s servers. He removes the hard drive from his PC, and disposes of it, along with his cell phone, neither of which are ever recovered. He changes clothes, dressing in black.

7:24am

West Ambler Johnston Dormitory

Back at the other dorms, police arrive at room 4040, and open the door. Inside, they find the female student, shot multiple times. Next to her is the dorm’s Resident Assistant, also shot; it is presumed that he heard the first gunshots, and came to investigate.

The responding officer immediately calls for backup, and for homicide investigators. The residence hall is locked down, and police are stationed inside and out. They search every waste bin, looking for the gun, and interview every resident on the 4th floor. But none of the students saw anyone leave room 4040 after the noises were heard. So the police do not have any description of the shooter; the only evidence left behind are a number of 9mm shell casings, and a few bloody footprints, leading away from the scene.

At 8:14am, the other student who lives in room 4040 arrives at her dorm to pick up her books, and is surprised when she is met by police. She tells detectives that her roommate spends the weekends with her boyfriend, who drops her off in his truck every Monday morning. They ask her if the boyfriend is armed; she says yes — she knows he owns several rifles, for hunting and target practice.

The police declare the victim’s boyfriend a “person of interest,” and begin searching the campus, but he is not found, and neither is his truck; an officer goes to the boyfriend’s listed address, and he is not there.

Based on the scant information they have, investigators reach the preliminary conclusion that the shooting is likely to have been the result of a “domestic dispute.” The chief of campus police tells his staff that their person of interest has probably escaped the campus, and soon, every unit in the county receives a BOLO — “be on the lookout” — for the boyfriend’s vehicle. Meanwhile, campus police allow the residents of West Ambler Johnston to leave for their 9:00am classes.

In response to the unresolved incident, the university’s Government Affairs Director orders the president’s office to be locked. But the rest of the campus continues operating as normal, while Virginia Tech’s Policy Group convenes, to plan how they are going to notify students of the shooting.

* * *

At 8:45am, a member of the college’s Policy Group sends an email to a colleague at another school, notifying them of the shooting. He says there is a “gunman on the loose,” and adds “this is not releasable yet.”

He sends an update at 8:49am, and reminds the recipient “just try to make sure it doesn’t get out.”

At 9:00am, classes begin.

9:01am

Main St. Post Office — Blacksburg, Virginia

A professor from Virginia Tech goes off-campus to pick up his mail. While at the post office, he recognizes one of the other customers in line: a 23-year old male Asian student, who lives in Harper Hall. He thinks to himself that the young man, who was mailing a small package, looks “frightened” for some reason.

9:15am

Norris Hall

Fourteen minutes later, the student from the post office is seen by witnesses outside of an engineering building, Norris Hall. This is not unusual, because he has attended classes in the hall before, and his Deviant Behavior psychology course meets on the second floor… except, that class is not scheduled on Mondays.
The witnesses observe that the young man is wearing a black shirt, and a khaki vest over it, with large pockets. He has a black baseball cap on his head, turned backward.

A few minutes later, another group of students go to enter Norris Hall — and find that the front entrance has been chained shut from the inside. They go to the side entrances, and find that these doors, too, have been chained shut.

Inside Norris hall, a faculty member finds a note taped to one of the doors. In crooked handwriting, it reads, “Bomb will go off if you open door.”

This is not the first bomb-threat note found at Virginia Tech that year — students tend to get desperate around finals time. She gives the note to a janitor, to bring to the Dean’s office.

9:24am

Radford University

The boyfriend of the victim from the dorm is in class, one town away, when he gets a text from a friend, asking him about the shooting at his girlfriend’s dorm. He calls her — and when she does not answer, he immediately gets in his truck, and speeds back toward Virginia Tech.

Two Montgomery County Sheriff’s Deputies, having received the alert about the person of interest, suddenly spot the truck as it passes by on the highway. They hit their siren, and the driver pulls to the shoulder. With guns drawn, they pull him out of the truck and force him to the ground. They handcuff the young man, and swab his palms to test for gunshot residue — but already, they notice that the tread pattern from his boots does not match the description of the bloody footprints leading from the dorm room. Also, he does not have any blood on his clothes. They radio these details back to the campus police at Virginia Tech, who begin to realize that their theory — that the shooting was a simple domestic disturbance — may have been mistaken.

9:40am

Norris Hall

Students on the second floor see the young man in the black baseball cap, pacing back and forth in the hall. At one point, he stops and pokes his head through the open doorway of their classroom, looks around, and then moves on. They figure he’s lost… though it seems strange, that a student would have trouble finding his classroom so late in the term.

A professor in Room 206 is teaching an Advanced Hydrology course, to graduate students, when suddenly the young man in black walks in. He is not registered for that class. He does not say anything. He just draws two semiautomatic handguns — a 9mm Glock 19 and a .22 Walther P22 — and shoots everyone in the class that he can.

The shooter goes across the hall to the German class in Room 207, and shoots everyone he finds there, too. He has extra magazines in his vest pockets, and is very calm as he walks up and down the aisles, reloading as necessary, not saying a word, just pulling the triggers over and over. It only takes about a minute and a half.

After he leaves, a few injured students crawl over to the door, and try to hold it shut. None of the doors have locks.

Down the hall in Room 205, a graduate student is filling in for her professor, giving a lecture on Issues in Scientific Computing. Annoyed at what she thinks is construction racket, or a loud chemistry experiment, she looks out her classroom door — just in time to see a young man in black, coming her way, carrying two handguns.

Quickly, she shuts the door. One of her students exclaims, “We should block the door!” and so they move a long, heavy table in front of the entrance. Seconds later, the gunman is on the other side, trying to push the door open, but he can’t budge it. Students lying prone on the classroom floor hear shots, and see bullet holes pierce through the door over their heads. But the gunman moves on.

At the other end of the hall, in Room 211, a French professor tells a student to call 9-1-1. The class pushes a desk in front of the doorway — but the gunman is able to nudge the door open this time, and gets inside. He shoots everyone he sees, including the person calling 9-1-1, who drops their cell phone; when the shooter leaves, an injured student crawls over to the phone, picks it up, and relays more details to the police. She begs them to hurry.

The gunman goes back to Room 207, where the injured students are holding the door shut. He beats on the door, gets it open one inch, and tries to fire his gun around it, but gives up again. He goes back to Room 211, where the injured student is still on the line with 9-1-1, lying with her hair covering the phone. The operators hear gunfire as the shooter again paces up and down the aisles — shooting everyone on the ground, including her. She does not move or make a sound. When the gunman leaves again, she resumes talking to 9-1-1.

In the hallway, the janitor has just delivered the bomb-threat note to the dean, and is coming up the stairs, when he sees the gunman, reloading. He turns and runs back down the stairs.

In Room 204, an engineering professor named Liviu Lebrescu had been teaching a Solid Mechanics class. He is a Holocaust survivor, and grew up in a Jewish ghetto in Romania. He has been teaching at Virginia Tech for over twenty years now, but he would never forget the evil he encountered earlier in life — and so, he recognizes the force that he now hears approaching the doorstep of his classroom.

Lebrescu closes the door, leans his own body weight against it to keep it shut, and tells his students to jump out the windows; falling from the second floor onto the grassy hill behind Norris Hall, some of them sustain broken bones — but they survive. Meanwhile, the shooter fires through the door, and Liviu Lebrescu falls. The gunman finally enters room 204, and shoots the handful of students that he finds still climbing through the windows — but most of his targets are gone. He quickly goes back to Room 206, where he started the attack, and the steady pop of gunfire resumes again.

* * *

At 9:45am — three minutes after the first 9-1-1 call — the police arrive at Norris Hall. Hearing rapid shots, they pause to confirm that they are not under fire, and they then try to storm the building — but discover the doors have been chained from the inside. They scramble to find an entrance they can open, and locate the door to the basement machine shop. It is always locked, but it has a push-bar, and can’t be chained. An officer with a shotgun blasts through the lock, and the police finally rush into Norris Hall.

At the same time, everyone on campus receives an emergency alert in their email: “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows.” The same message is broadcast over four loudspeakers, its echo mingling with the sound of the gun blasts still coming from Norris Hall.

At 9:51, just as police reach the second floor, they hear a final gunshot emanating from Room 211, followed by silence. They find the gunman there, dead of his own hand. The Virginia Tech shooting is over.

* * *

Toxicology tests on the shooter’s body would find nothing of note, while the eventual autopsy records no abnormality more significant than his “weak musculature.” But the coroner did find something odd, when he inspected the shooter’s right forearm — a mysterious message he had written on himself in black marker: “Ax Ishmael.”

The attack itself had lasted only about ten minutes. The authorities found 17 empty ammo magazines littering Norris Hall, where they determined the gunman had fired at least 174 times. Some of the empty magazines were 10-round, and some were 15; the gunman still had two 15-round magazines left when he took his life. Authorities suspected he ended it when he heard the shotgun blast downstairs, and realized that opposing forces had arrived. He wasn’t about to stand up to anyone that could shoot back.

Adhering to active-shooter protocol, the police had made reaching the gunman their first priority — and immediately upon him being eliminated, their rescue operations began. Every resource was diverted to help deal with the massive number of casualties at Norris Hall. They only had to do without airlifts — all helicopters were grounded, as the still-strong winds of the Nor’easter raged overhead.