BLACKSBURG, VA. — Gunfire erupted on the Virginia Tech campus Monday in the Blue Ridge Mountains, killing at least 32 people in a dorm and an academic building, in attacks more than two hours apart. A gunman took his life after the second incident, police said.
The attacks -- the worst such incident in modern U.S. history -- raised questions about campus security officials' response to the first shootings, in which two people were killed at the West Ambler Johnston dormitory at 7:15 a.m. Angry students asked why university officials failed to lock down the campus after that incident.
Thirty others were slaughtered at Norris Hall, an engineering building, by a lone assailant who methodically fired at students and teachers before turning a gun on himself. At least two dozen others were injured, authorities said. Witnesses said some panicked students leaped from second-floor windows to escape the killer.
It was widely assumed that the same gunman had committed both attacks, but campus Police Chief Wendell R. Flinchum would not confirm that. Flinchum said investigators were still questioning a "person of interest" in the first shooting. By late Monday, police had not identified the dead gunman -- who carried no identification -- nor uncovered a motive.
Erin Sheehan, who was in a German class when the gunman entered, said that she played dead while wounded students lay around her. Sheehan told the campus Collegiate Times newspaper that the assailant, whom she described as Asian wearing what appeared to be a black ammunition belt, peeked into the room after her class had started. Moments later, she said, he began shooting through the door.
She said that she and several students "forced ourselves against the door" to keep the gunman out, but the volley of bullets drove them back. When she scanned the room moments later, she said, "everyone was either dead or injured."
Sheehan said she was one of five people to emerge unscathed from the classroom after the gunman moved on.
Although authorities did not identify any of the victims, colleagues confirmed that German instructor Christopher James Bishop, 35, was among the dead.
Authorities said the gunman apparently blockaded the front entrance of Norris Hall with chains. Heavily armed police surrounded the engineering hall and rushed in, reportedly using stun grenades. Flinchum said investigators recovered two guns.
"It was probably one of the worst things I've seen in my life," Flinchum said, describing the carnage on the second floor of Norris Hall, on the northern end of the 26,000-student Virginia Tech campus, about 160 miles west of Richmond.
In addition to those killed, officials at several hospitals said that another 26 people were being treated for gunshots and other injuries. The majority were taken to Montgomery Regional Hospital, where emergency room doctors and nurses processed them so quickly that they identified them by numbers instead of names at first. At least three of Montgomery's wounded remained in critical condition, officials said.
"I don't know that you can ever fully prepare for this level of violence," hospital CEO Scott Hill said.
During a news conference, a subdued Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech's president, said he was "at a loss to explain and understand the carnage that has visited our campus."
Steger said that investigators initially thought that the dorm shooting was a domestic incident and that the gunman had left campus. As a result, Steger said, a campuswide alert did not go out for about two hours.
"It's one of those things no one could anticipate," Steger said. "You can only make your decision based on the information on that moment in time."
But students like Laura Spaventa, a sophomore media major, expressed dismay that classes had been allowed to continue.
"I don't understand their logic behind that," she said. "It does bother me. I feel like a lot of lives could have been saved and a lot fewer injuries."
Spaventa described the horror of sitting in class in a nearby building and hearing the attack. "We were in class and got an e-mail about the first shootings, but classes kept going," she said. "And then we got another e-mail saying to stay where we were, that there was a shooter on the loose. Then we heard five shots.
"My teacher shut the blinds and locked the door, and we all got away from the windows and under the desks. And we started calling our family and friends on our cellphones to tell them we were OK."
"It was very scary," Spaventa said. "I called my dad crying."
Authorities said they first responded to a 911 call about a shooting at the residence hall. At that time of morning, students normally could only enter the residence by using electronic card keys. Inside, authorities found two victims, one male and one female, on the fourth floor. The victims were taken to a nearby hospital but were later pronounced dead, Flinchum said.