BLACKSBURG, VA. — Thousands of students gathered at the center of the Virginia Tech campus Monday morning as a brass bell tolled 33 times, one for every student and teacher killed in the worst shooting spree in U.S. history.
Every time the bell rang, a balloon was released into the bright blue sky. By the time the last one was aloft, the silence was punctuated by sniffling and sobs.
Classes resumed a week to the day after student Seung-hui Cho's rampage, and many here relished the return to routine. Students and school officials said that the only way to confront their grief was to do so collectively.
"I need to heal, and I can't do that by myself," said Melissa McCracken, 22, who came back to campus after spending the week at home with her parents in Arlington, Va. "It's important to be with my classmates. We need to be around other people who understand what we're feeling."
McCracken, a senior majoring in psychology, said she had just received an e-mail from one of her professors informing her that a classmate was among the dead.
"I guess I'll find out who when I go to class," she said.
Officials did not estimate how many students had returned to school Monday, but the parking lots were nearly full and the campus was bustling with young men and women in T-shirts and baggy shorts, lugging backpacks and chatting with friends as they walked through the campus.
Ian Bumgarner, 18, a landscape architecture major, returned even though his mother wanted him to transfer. One of his friends died in the attack. With each ringing of the bell, he said, he thought of the terror she and the other victims must have felt. The moment of silence seemed to go on for so long.
"He fired that many shots, he killed that many people," Bumgarner said. "Every single time it was just like, wow. That shot killed that person."
Poet and English professor Nikki Giovanni wept during the ceremony. She used to teach Cho. He shot and killed a student she was close to. At one point during the moment of silence, a white balloon floated toward Giovanni and all she could think of, she said, was the young girl she used to teach who was no longer alive.
Giovanni said she would help students channel their feelings into writing.
"I am not the only faculty who has lost their student," Giovanni said with tears in her eyes, "but it is incredibly sad. You get to know these kids, and you get to love them."
It seemed that everyone who returned was connected to at least one victim. Ryan Hash, 24, a football player, knew two of the students who died. On Monday, he looked across the drill field, which was decorated with orange and maroon banners and posters. He said it felt so different from the snowy day a week ago, when the area was full of police and ambulances.
"It was windy and it was awful. It was almost like God was so sad and angry about what was going on," he said of the scene last week. "Now, it's beautiful. I think God is happy now that everyone is showing their love."
Hash's fraternity, Sigma Chi, created a counseling group -- called "Strong Arms" -- for its 90 members. It is also raising money from its chapters nationwide for victims' families.
"This is a scar, and people are never going to forget about this, and they shouldn't," he said. "But this shouldn't cripple us, this should make us stronger."
Many in Blacksburg have grown weary of the media coverage, and felt that it was hindering the community's healing. Before classes began Monday, student government leaders asked the media to start leaving campus.
Large signs at the entrance to every classroom building told reporters that they were not welcome.
The only classrooms that remained shuttered were in Norris Hall, where most of the killing occurred.
The building, cordoned off with yellow police tape, will remain closed for the remainder of the school year. Its future beyond that remains unclear.
Mindful that some students may not be comfortable returning to campus, Virginia Tech officials have given them a choice: finish the semester or accept a final grade based on work completed before the shootings.
Students praised school officials for the policy. But after Monday, many said they planned to resume their schoolwork in order to take their minds off what had happened.
"There are many people who are devastated, who lost friends or who saw terrible things. Making them come back and try to earn their marks would have been unfair," said Kaushik De, a 28-year-old graduate student. "But with all the things they are doing on the campus, there is a lot of support here. I feel safe coming back."