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Gunman kills 32 at Virginia college

E.A. Torriero, Jodi S. Cohen and Rex W. Huppke
A police officer stands guard near Norris Hall on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where 32 people were killed and more were injured on Monday, April 16, 2007. (Jason Arthurs/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

BLACKSBURG, Va. - With dizzying speed and deadly accuracy, a man armed with at least two guns murdered 30 people in a Virginia Tech engineering building Monday morning and then killed himself, transforming the pastoral campus into the site of the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history.

Another two students were shot to death two hours earlier in a dorm room on the opposite side of the university's sprawling 2,600-acre campus, bringing the day's death toll to 32. Police said they were still trying to determine whether the two shootings were related. University Police Chief Wendell Flinchum gave no motive for the attacks and would not identify the deceased gunman or say whether he was a student.

Flinchum did give a taut, stark description of the grisly scene inside Norris Hall, where the shooter apparently chained the doors shut from the inside before opening fire in classrooms on the second floor.

"It was probably one of the worst things I've ever seen in my life," Flinchum said.

Another 15 people were either injured by gunfire or hurt while jumping from second-story windows of Norris Hall in a chaotic scene that evoked memories of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. By late Monday, the university had not released any names of the victims.

The first shootings happened at about 7:15 a.m. EDT and the second more than two hours later. Students, however, weren't notified of the first shooting until 9:26 a.m., prompting many to question the university's handling of the crisis. Many believed the campus should have been locked down and classes canceled immediately after the first shooting, particularly because police did not have the shooter in custody.

Flinchum said police believed the initial murders stemmed from a domestic dispute and, based on witness interviews, felt confident the shooter had left campus. University President Charles Steger said he felt the university's response was appropriate.

"You can second guess all day," he said. "We acted on the best information we had at the time."

Several students inside Norris Hall said when the shooting began, they thought the noise may have come from some kind of construction equipment. Then they heard screams, and more shots. Many crouched behind their desks or tried to barricade the classroom doors.

Sophomore Derek O'Dell was sitting in the second row of German class when the gunman came through the door and began shooting. Dell ducked under his desk but was shot in his bicep.

"He was going along the front row shooting people," said O'Dell, a 19-year-old biology major.

He said that of the 20 people in the class, the gunman probably shot 12 of them. The gunman left the room and students barricaded the door and tried to help classmates who had been shot.

"He kept trying to come back after we barricaded it," O'Dell said. "The police came and cleared the hall. Those of us who weren't shot or who were shot minorly made it out of the building with the help of the police."

O'Dell said he heard gunshots before the gunman entered their classroom, but he thought it was a hammer. The grammar class started at 9:05 a.m., and the gunman entered the room at about 9:30 a.m., he said.

"He just opened the door and started shooting," O'Dell said. "A lot of people were shot, bleeding, not moving."

Alec Calhoun was in an engineering class when gunfire erupted in the room next door. He said his professor, Liviu Librescu, went to the door and pushed himself against it in case the shooter tried to come in.

Calhoun and his fellow students opened a window and jumped two stories down.

"I aimed for a bush thinking it would break my fall," he said. "But I landed on my back."

Calhoun said he got up and ran to a nearby building, then breathlessly called his father at work. Jim Calhoun drove to campus to comfort his son.

Asked the fate of his son's professor, Calhoun said: "We believe that the professor was killed as he was trying to protect the students."

A 911 call for the first shooting came in at 7:15 a.m. EDT. Campus and Blacksburg police responded and found a female student and a male resident adviser dead in a fourth-floor room at the West Ambler Johnston dormitory. The building was locked down and witnesses there led police to believe that the shooting was domestic in nature and that the shooter had left the campus.

Flinchum said that while interviewing a "person of interest" off campus, police received another 911 call at 9:45 a.m. EDT about the shooting in Norris Hall. Flinchum said the man they were interviewing off campus was not in custody, but remained a person of interest in the earlier shooting.

He said ballistics tests on the bullets found at the scenes of the two shootings would help determine whether the shooter that killed himself was responsible for all the murders or whether another shooter was involved.

At the dorm where the initial shooting occurred, rumors were flying among the student residents. Several said they were told an Asian student somehow got inside the building after 7 a.m. and went up the stairs to a dorm room on the fourth floor, apparently looking for his girlfriend.

Some students said they heard popping sounds, and later found that a popular male resident adviser had been killed along with a female student who the students said was a roommate of the woman the man was looking for. The resident adviser was later identified as Ryan Clark, 22, of Martinez, Ga.

Police did not confirm any of the students' accounts of the shooting.

Late Monday, outside a campus building where friends and family members awaited word on the identities of the victims, Greg Bringhurst, 18, was pacing nervously. He said his dorm hall adviser, a sophomore, was missing. She would've been in class in Norris Hall at the time of the shooting.

Bringhurst said neither her parents nor her friends had heard from her.

"It's not like her," he said. "We're all getting really worried. Her parents are now on the way from New York."

Sophomore Olivia Folmar said she and her fellow students, still with little definitive information about the shooting, can't escape the anxiety of finding out who actually died in Norris Hall.

"Everybody is afraid to see who is on that list," she said. "More than likely, we will know somebody or know somebody of somebody who has been killed."

The carnage at Virginia Tech now supplants a 1991 killing spree in Killeen, Texas, as the country's deadliest shooting rampage. In that incident, a man drove his truck into a Luby's Cafeteria and shot 23 people to death before killing himself.

Monday's carnage also marked the deadliest campus shooting in the country since 1966, when Charles Whitman opened fire on students at the University of Texas at Austin from a clock tower on campus, killing 16 people before he was shot to death by police.

President Bush, through a spokesman, offered prayers to the victims and the people of Virginia.

Classes at Virginia Tech were canceled through Tuesday and grief counselors and priests were made available to students, faculty and families.

This was the second time in less than a year that the Virginia Tech campus was closed because of a shooting.

Last August, the opening day of classes was canceled when an escaped jail inmate allegedly killed a hospital guard off campus and fled onto the university. A sheriff's deputy involved in the manhunt was killed just off campus. The accused gunman, William Morva, faces capital murder charges.

___

(Torriero reported from Blacksburg, Huppke and Cohen from Chicago. Chicago Tribune national correspondent Aamer Madhani contributed to this report from Blacksburg and Karoun Demirjian and Jim Tankersley of the Washington Bureau also contributed.)

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