Somber Va. Tech Marks Tragic Anniversary

It was one year ago when a student at Virginia Tech gunned down 32 of his classmates and instructors in a nightmarish killing spree. At the Blacksburg campus, students, administrators and residents gather to honor those who died.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

At Virginia Tech, classes were canceled today so students and faculty could commemorate what happened there one year ago. On April 16th 2007, a gunman opened fire in a dormitory and a classroom building. He killed 32 people before taking his own life. Here is how one survivor, student Clay Violand, described the scene in his French class when the killer walked in.

CLAY VIOLAND: He just started picking people off with the gun. I kind of heard it more than I saw but I just kind of expected, like, after every bullet I just prepared myself for the hit, you know, but it never came for me.

NORRIS: Today on campus there was a moment of silence and quiet memorials for the dead.

NPR's Adam Hochberg is in Blacksburg.

ADAM HOCHBERG: On the anniversary of America's most deadly campus shooting, the mood at Virginia Tech is one of remembrance and resilience for a college community that took pride in pulling together after last year's violence. Today marked another step in the healing process - a chance to move forward from the tragedy while at the same time, grieving for those who were lost.

DEREK O: These are pictures of all 32 students who were killed last April - all 32 students and faculty. Five were in my class.

HOCHBERG: Virginia Tech junior Derek O'Dell displayed those photos on the wall of his college apartment. O'Dell himself was hit with the bullet when gunman Seung-Hui Cho opened fire in a classroom. O'Dell was fortunate, his physical wounds were minor and he was able to return the school. But he says he still feels the mental effects of what he's been through. And this week has been especially tough.

O: There's definitely sadness and grief that comes out of the one year anniversary. It's difficult and it's hard to return to classes and continue study. But it's something that I feel like I need to continue on to, sort of, honor those classmates.

HOCHBERG: O'Dell was writing a book about his experience. An exercise he calls incredibly healing, and one that he says has helped him see the positive things that have come out of a very negative event.

DELL: Blacksburg is such a great place and won't be marked or defined by a school shooting but as some place that has prevailed, that has continued on but not forgetting those that we lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOCHBERG: O'Dell was among about 14,000 people who gathered at the center of campus this morning where the university held a simple and somber service. A wind ensemble played, a memorial candle flickered, flowers adorned the monument that was erected last year to honor the dead. Virginia Tech president Charles Steger called today's anniversary a stirring and sober reminder of what might have been.

CHARLES STEGER: And while the passage of time has helped us in many ways, we remain deeply and profoundly saddened by the events of that tragic day. Neither the heat of summer nor the winds of winter has relieved our pain.

HOCHBERG: Faculty members briefly eulogized each of the victims. One student was remembered as a jazz musician, another loved shopping for shoes. A French language instructor was cherished for her joie de vive. And after listening to those 32 eulogies, Virginia governor Tim Kaine said the world was cheated.

TIM KAINE: If Virginia Tech wanted to be represented by 32 people that would tell the story of who this university is and more importantly aspires to be, those 32 descriptions make us mourn the lost promise.

HOCHBERG: A separate private memorial service was held on campus this morning for family members. And Blacksburg's churches and synagogues opened their doors to the public for worship and meditation throughout the day. The Reverend Scott Russell, who chairs a multi-denominational group of more than 40 local religious leaders, says there's a lot a variation in how people here are coping.

SCOTT RUSSELL: There are people who are feeling some, I think, flashbacks. I've spoken with students who are being treated for anxiety attacks. But then there are also students who really want to move on and not be in the same place we were last year.

HOCHBERG: Russell says there's a degree of self healing that takes place in the university community. As students who was closed to the tragedy graduate each year and new ones take their place. He says Virginia Tech will always remember what happened last April. He hopes with time, those memories won't feel so raw.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Blacksburg Virginia.

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Virginia Tech President Haunted by Shootings

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger i i

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger during a news conference in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, 2007, hours after a gunman killed 32 people on campus. Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
Virginia Tech President Charles Steger

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger during a news conference in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, 2007, hours after a gunman killed 32 people on campus.

Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
An unidentified man grieves at a memorial to the 32 people killed a year ago at Virginia Tech. i i

An unidentified man grieves April 15, 2008, at a memorial of 32 granite blocks representing each of the people killed a year ago by Seung-hui Cho at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mario Tama/Getty Images
An unidentified man grieves at a memorial to the 32 people killed a year ago at Virginia Tech.

An unidentified man grieves April 15, 2008, at a memorial of 32 granite blocks representing each of the people killed a year ago by Seung-hui Cho at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Look out the window of Charles Steger's office at Virginia Tech, and you can just see the edge of the simple memorial to the 32 students and faculty who died at the hands of Seung-hui Cho on April 16, 2007.

Most of the time, someone is there, day or night, pausing by one or another of the stones engraved with a name.

So much changed that day last year, including the idea of what it means to be a college president: Steger, president of Virginia Tech, had to quickly shift from academic, fundraiser and booster to crisis manager.

"Even today, you can't believe it actually happened, you know," he says about the campus shooting. "There's something about it."

No Frame of Reference

Steger, 60, grew up in Richmond and is an architect by training. Except for a short stint practicing architecture for a firm, he's been at Tech since he was 18 years old. He is a private person, hard to draw out.

"I like people, you know. It's not that I wish to be withdrawn from people. But I try to spend a little time every day alone and just sort of, as the Buddhists would say, kind of be centered," he says. "Once you can do that, you can cope with most anything that comes along."

Steger became known to most people a year ago, when reporters shouted questions at him during a news conference held just hours after the shootings.

After Cho shot Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark in a dormitory, the campus police figured, wrongly, that the crime was domestic and isolated. So they didn't try to warn the campus that a killer might be on the loose.

About two hours later, Steger got word that his police were questioning a suspect, Hilscher's boyfriend.

"I'm thinking, thank God, this is a horrible tragedy. How do we deal with it?" Steger asks.

That's about the time that Cho was chaining the doors at Norris Hall.

Then Steger saw the SWAT team running past his office to Norris. He heard gunshots.

"It's hard," Steger says. "You have no frame of reference for this, and certainly I didn't."

And there wasn't much time for him to get one. In 11 minutes, Cho killed 30 more people and wounded more than two dozen others.

'I Never Considered Resigning'

Shortly after the shootings, the school had a room set aside for families of the victims, "and I was there a couple of times a day," Steger says. "You don't know what to say. What can you say?"

Some families read Steger's muted style as unfeeling and defensive.

And for some people, Steger will always be the president who didn't warn his students after the first shooting.

There are still calls by some families that Steger should resign. He says he understands, but he doesn't agree.

"That sort of shock and anger and looking for some reason why this horrible thing happened, it's a very complicated problem, so you have to understand that," he says. "I never considered resigning."

Steger stands by his belief that he acted appropriately at the time, given the information he had in front of him.

At Home

Every month or so, Steger has lunch with students on campus at the Inn at Virginia Tech. He meets with a different group each time. The Inn is the same place families gathered last year.

At a recent lunch session, Steger is at home with his students and they are at home with him.

Junior Jillian Lytle tells him how recruitment tours have gone up this year, a surprise. There's talk about the under-funded library and questions about why there's only one Arabic language professor.

There are students who are down on Steger, who feel that he blew it. But others are fiercely protective of him.

After lunch, Steger shakes hands and disappears into the crowd.

Remembering

At the memorial, senior Ryan Smith walks the curve of 32 stones. Each has a flower or two beside it: a red rose, a yellow daffodil.

Smith says the people who criticize Steger don't know he bears the consequences of the shootings every day.

"A lot of times in the group settings he is very calm, he is very composed, and that's why he is our president," Smith says. "But sometimes, when you can just have a small side conversation, you can see the hurt."

Smith recounts a time last year when he and Steger cried together. They were talking about the moments when it all comes back.

"He said for him it was just sometimes when he's flying out and he looks out the window and he sees the world from a different perspective from that high up, and you realize just how fragile and yet how connected we are," Smith says. "And he said that silence and that looking down ... it gets to him."

Up there, all alone, Steger told him, is where it really hits him.

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