YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


`It really hit us we were in danger'

Students, faculty and staff describe escapes, close calls and chaos.

April 17, 2007|Richard A. Serrano and Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writers

BLACKSBURG, VA. — By the time the gunman entered the classroom and started shooting, Josh Wargo was already halfway out the window. He never looked back. Leaping from the second story of Virginia Tech's Norris Hall, he landed safely, helped some classmates up off the ground and ran away.

Wargo, a junior engineering student, was in mechanics class at Norris when he first heard the shots. "At first it didn't really register," he said in an interview Monday. "There was a lot of construction going on outside. But then I heard some screams through the wall behind us. That's when it really hit us we were in danger. We had to do something."

One student went out in the hallway, then ran back in as the shots "were raining down."

At that point, Wargo said, about 15 of the 20 students in the class rushed to a back window, lifted it and started to jump. Most aimed to break their fall on a bush. Wargo said one student broke both of his legs, and another landed on her back.

But he said three or four other students were shot in the room, along with their professor.

Out in the hallway, custodian Gene Cole was slowly rounding a corner. He had taken the elevator up from the first floor, seeking a fellow employee because of an e-mail about a shooting two hours earlier at a dormitory at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in southwestern Virginia.

"People were running out of the labs," he said. He saw a body on the floor, "still jerking."

Cole then came face to face with the gunman. He said the young man fired at him, but missed. He described the shooter as a "foreigner with a black automatic handgun," wearing a hat and blue jeans.

Cole fled, racing back down the stairs. "There was blood all over the floor," he said.

Ruiqi Zhang, a junior studying engineering, was in another classroom in Norris when he heard what he took to be "someone banging on a wall with a hammer."

"About 10 or 20 seconds later, a teaching assistant and a student went out to the hall to see what happened," Zhang said. "They ran back in and said, 'Everybody get down.' "

He said everyone hit the floor, and a couple of the male students threw a table up against the door, making what Zhang called "a flimsy barricade." Several students tried to hold it in place as the gunman approached and tried to "shoulder his way in."

"He put two bullets in the door," Zhang said. "One didn't hit anyone. The other went out a window. Then he went off to other classrooms."

A floor above, Scott Hendricks, an associate professor of engineering science and mechanics, had taken a phone call from his wife. She told him about the earlier shooting in the dorm, and asked him to be careful.

Hendricks checked the school website. He saw no mention of the first shooting. He asked some colleagues on the third floor. They knew nothing either.

"Then the shots started erupting right below me," Hendricks said. "I saw people crawling away from the building, some who had jumped out of the second-floor windows."

He remembered the gunfire as very slow, very deliberate, as a "bang ... bang ... bang ... bang," he said. He locked his office door and "hunkered down" for an hour, until police battered the door open and directed him safely outside.

Puchie Darcy, a junior studying computer science, decided to stay put after being awakened by police sirens at West Ambler Johnston Hall.

"I was definitely not leaving my room," he said.

But most ventured out.

Jamal Azim Albarghouti, another student, aimed his cellphone camera at the police as they rushed toward Norris. He recorded the sounds of 27 bullets, apparently from both police and the man inside.

"I saw many police -- many, many," he said. "In the few yards, there were more than 20 police around there, and they were trying to get in. They were the police. I assumed they knew what they were doing."

He added: "They dropped a gas bomb -- a tear gas bomb or something -- at the building, and I think they were shooting at him too."

Andrew Major, 22, of Downingtown, Pa., who graduated from Virginia Tech last semester, knew one of the shooting victims from the marching band -- Major played trumpet, the other student saxophone.

The victim made it to the hospital, and Major received text messages and e-mails from former classmates updating his condition until 4:30 p.m. -- when Major learned that the student had died.

Major created an online memorial on his blog, and contributed to a growing memorial on the dead student's blog.

The wind-swept campus was largely quiet Monday evening. Police and state troopers kept the curious from Norris Hall, but several stunned students stared at the building from across Drillfield at the heart of campus.

Outside West Ambler Johnston Hall, three students embraced before going inside. Male students posted themselves at the entrances of the building to let in those going to small-group counseling sessions inside.

Los Angeles Times Articles