News of First Va. Tech Attack Spread Slowly

Monday's first shooting at Virginia Tech killed two in a dorm. Two hours later came a second deadly attack in a classroom building. Many question the way police and campus authorities handled the news during the gap between shootings.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There are still many questions remaining following yesterday's shootings. Police have not provided a motive, nor have they ruled out the possibility that someone else might have been involved.

The shootings took place in two different locations, two hours and half a mile apart. Some students have questioned why authorities waited to tell them that two people had been killed in a dorm that morning, long before the second mass slaying occurred. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: Virginia Tech Police chief Wendell Flinchum identified the killer in a news conference this morning.

Mr. WENDELL FLINCHUM (Chief of Police, Virginia Tech Police): Cho was in the U.S. with a residence established and Centerville, Virginia, and was living on campus in Harper Hall.

LANGFITT: University officials say the first shooting came before class yesterday, at the sprawling campus in the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is school president Charles Steger at a news conference.

Mr. CHARLES STEGER (President, Virginia Tech): At 7:15 AM Virginia Tech police receive a 911 call to respond to a dormitory room at West Ambler Johnston residence hall.

LANGFITT: Two people were found dead there. Campus police said they sealed off the dorm. As they interviewed witnesses, they believed it was a domestic killing and an isolated incident. They also say they thought the gunman had fled campus, so they didn't tell the school community about the crime or cancel classes. Chief Flinchum explains.

Mr. WENDELL FLINCHUM (Chief, Virginia Tech Police): Keep in mind, when we first got there we had to figure out exactly what we had first. So it did take some time to get all that in place and going.

LANGFITT: Oblivious to the initial crime, many students went to class, even some from the dorm known as West AJ, where the shooting had occurred.

Laura Grin-Savage(ph) is a freshman who lives there.

Ms. LAURA GRIN-SAVAGE (Freshman, Virginia Tech): I just went on like it was a normal day since I didn't hear anything. And I just went to my 8:00 AM, and while I was in class my friend text messaged me and she let me know that West AJ was on lockdown. And people who lived on my floor still hadn't heard a thing about it.

LANGFITT: As police tried to find what they called, quote, "a person of interest," school leaders eventually decided to send an e-mail to students at 9:26 AM That was more than two hours after the first killing had been reported. The e-mail was brief. It said there had been a shooting. It advised students to be cautious and contact police if they saw anything suspicious. Asked whether authorities should have acted sooner, Chief Flinchum said this.

Mr. FLINCHUM: We acted on the best information we had at the time. What you need to understand is this is a campus of over 2,600 acres, well over 100 buildings, 26,000 students, faculty and staff. And a lockdown or shutdown does not happen in seconds.

LANGFITT: Not long after the e-mail went out, university President Steger says a gunman struck across campus in another building.

Mr. STEGER: At 9:45 the Virginia Tech police received a 911 call of a shooting at Norris Hall.

Mr. JOSH WARGO (Student, Virginia Tech): We were just sitting in class. All of a sudden we heard these loud banging noises.

LANGFITT: That's Josh Wargo, a student in class at Norris, speaking on CNN.

Mr. WARGO: Everybody started to panic. We were going to run out the front door, and someone opened it and we heard shots coming down the hallway. So everybody started jumping out of the window.

LANGFITT: Trey Perkins told MSNBC he was in another classroom where the gunman struck.

Mr. TREY PERKINS (Student, Virginia Tech): Then a guy comes into the room. He shot our teacher and then we all got on the ground real quick and he started just shooting around at different people. It was probably only about a minute or so, and then he finally left the room. We went up to the door and, like, put our feet against it to hold it shut in case he started to come back again. He started to try to open the door again and started to shoot through the door. Fortunately, none of those shots hit anyone.

LANGFITT: Students elsewhere said they were confused about what was happening. Kristin Maynard(ph) a senior marketing major said she relied on other students for information.

Ms. KRISTIN MAYNARD (Senior, Virginia Tech): It was a frenzy of calling people on cell phones, trying to figure out the other stories. No one really knows what's true and what's rumor.

LANGFITT: As the second shooting was going on, Chief Flinchum said police were still investigating the first one.

Police rushed to Norris and found that some of the doors had been chained shut. They said they heard gunshots, but by the time they reached Cho, he had killed himself. In all, 31 people lay dead there.

Some students wondered if authorities could have saved lives if they'd informed students earlier. Again, senior Kristin Maynard.

Ms. MAYNARD: It does cross your mind, that there could have been less casualties, had we been notified sooner.

LANGFITT: Police say they have not charged the person they'd interviewed off campus. President Steger said that after emergencies, the university reviews its communications procedures to find places where it can improve.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Many of the wounded from yesterday's shooting are in stable condition in area hospitals. Nine patients remain at Montgomery Regional Hospital in Blacksburg. Three others are at a facility, Lewis Gayle Medical Center in Salem, Virginia. The CEO of Montgomery Regional, Scott Hill, says the hospital performed six surgeries on the victims yesterday. He says no one needed surgery last night.

Our coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings continues at npr.org, with eyewitness accounts, reactions and photos.

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