On a normal morning, Anthony Linkous, a Virginia Tech maintenance worker, begins his day with what he calls his “quiet stuff.” He arrives on campus by 7:30, collects his work orders, and makes his way into the Eggleston Hall dorm complex. As students get ready for their 8 a.m. classes, he goes about replacing dead light bulbs, checking bathroom stalls for clogged toilets, tightening the pipes of leaky sinks.
Aug. 21, 2006, bucked routine. In the early morning hours the day before, William Charles Morva, a Montgomery County Jail inmate, allegedly shot and killed a hospital security guard and escaped. He was armed with a pistol and hiding, authorities thought, somewhere in Blacksburg, possibly on the Virginia Tech campus. Roughly 29 hours after the first shooting, a deputy sheriff spotted Morva a few short blocks from campus and would end up dead. Morva is accused of shooting the deputy at about 7 a.m., an hour before the first class of the new school year.
The university sent an e-mail on Sunday, describing Morva’s escape and asking them to call police if they saw someone matching his description: “a 24-year-old white male…wearing a white T-shirt and dark shorts.” As the manhunt wore on, rumors outnumbered facts. A lot of people didn’t know what to do. Some barred doors, some reached out to friends, some kept watch, and some were simply in the dark. It was a lot like the morning of April 16, in the hours between the double homicide and the carnage at Norris Hall that followed. In both cases, some were more plugged in than others.
Linkous knew more than most. He had heard about Morva as he drove to campus. And he had a diligent boss. When Linkous arrived at the maintenance office in Owens Hall on Aug. 21, he received an unusual work order, one most on campus did not receive until hours later: Stay inside and keep away from the windows. But Linkous didn’t think it was reason enough to sit around all morning.
He and a co-worker went outside and walked the 40 feet to their workshop in Eggleston. “I figured whatever’s going to happen is going to happen,” he explains. “I can’t stop my life.”
Once inside his shop, Linkous looked out his window. He saw some cops. And he saw a lot of students walking through the Drillfield, the huge open area in the center of campus. “There was still people running around outside,” he recalls. “I think there’s some students that never quit running around.”
At some point that morning, Linkous, 49, heard the man may be hiding in Squires, the student union, just 50 some yards from his shop. “Then I knew I was staying inside,” he says. “I was thinking, I hope they got him cornered over there.”
Amber Moore, a 19-year-old sophomore, was sitting in the first floor of the student union eating an Au Bon Pain bagel when the police streamed through the entrance, their big guns drawn. They wanted everyone out. It was about 9:15 a.m.
The reaction to the rumor, the police, and their guns was predictable chaos. Dozens of students headed toward the exits with the knowledge that a gunman could be among them.
When she got outside, Moore says she was struck by the fact that only she and the other students in Squires seemingly knew the horrible potential of that moment. “I was just terrified,” she says. “I couldn’t believe an escaped convict was running around and nobody knew where he was.” As she made her way back to her dorm, she saw a couple hundred students on the Drillfield still “acting like normal.”
That’s when Moore took it on herself to become Tech’s emergency alert system, at least for her friends. She started calling up the people she knew would be en route to classes and dorms, surely oblivious to the morning’s scary news. “They couldn’t believe it,” she remembers. “They are like ‘What?’”
Students from Squires ran everywhere, many making it to Bollo’s coffee shop, half a block from campus on Draper Road. Others rubbernecked at a nearby intersection.
Karen DePauw, the dean of the graduate school, noticed the hordes leaving the student union and walked outside to ask what was going on. She then called the campus administration building and finally locked her building down.
Robert Sebek, 38, a classroom manager at Newman Library, saw the police hovering around Squires and decided to walk to Torgersen Hall, a huge classroom building. He could still get in.
At the far southwest corner of campus, the Student Services Building was having its busiest day of the year. It’s where students go to get their ID cards, parking permits, pay for classes, and get a fix on the complexities of financial aid paperwork. Pam, an employee who worked that morning, recalls she and other staffers didn’t know much of what was going on. If they got an e-mail notice, they couldn’t access it. Their computers had crashed.
Matthew Lewis, vice president of the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad and a potential first responder to a campus disaster, was in his microbiology lab when he started hearing the rumors from other students. One student asked him what was going on. But he didn’t know anything. Rumors weren’t enough to bar the doors and stay put. After class, everybody just went their separate ways.
Lewis says he went directly to the rescue squad’s building, where he found most of the other 40 or so student volunteers re-reading plans for what to do in a “Mass Casualty Incident” while they listened intently to their radios. Some went to Kroger to buy bottled water in case it was going to be a long day. Others left to position themselves outside the student union.
Steve, one of Squire’s managers, was inside the student union for all of the morning’s commotion. He says police did little more than order the building’s evacuation. If the escaped inmate was among the hordes, the police did not seem intent on finding out. “They weren’t actually checking everyone that left the building,” he recalls.
All the doors were then locked—except the front doors leading to College Avenue. Steve, who manned the front desk 20 feet from that entrance, was left to keep watch. He says he had a plan in case an armed Morva walked through: He’d “jump on the phone real quick.”
University officials waited 32 hours into the manhunt, until around 10:30 a.m., to cancel classes for the rest of the day. It was after 1 p.m. before staff were finally told to evacuate.
Morva was captured at about 3:30 p.m. Police found him hiding out in a set of thick briars along the Huckleberry Trail—a few blocks off the Tech campus.
Students instantly turned that day’s frantic events into a running joke. After all, none of them were hurt. The gunman was found off campus. By that night, the Roanoke Times reported that students had dubbed their school year the year of “duck and cover.” And one student had cracked on a Facebook site that “Jack Bauer would have caught Morva faster.”
That was about all the criticism Virginia Tech’s administrators would face. In the following days and weeks, few questioned the efficiency of the university’s lock-down mechanisms: the lookout for a barefoot hippie, the confusion at Squires, the hundreds—perhaps thousands—of students out and about completely unaware of the morning’s tragedies.
The questions came months later—and only after the morning of April 16, when the university faced a similar, horrifying scenario: one missing murderous gunman.
Two days after Seung-hui Cho’s campus killing spree, which left 32 Tech students and faculty dead, the inevitable happened. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine announced the formation of an independent commission to investigate all the events and decisions leading up to those early morning hours.
The commission—headed by former state police superintendent Gerald Massengill and including former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge—will assess how the campus police incorrectly assumed the first crime scene at West Ambler Johnston Hall was most likely a domestic incident. They will take a long look at the university’s mental health system. And one of their first questions will be: Why did administrators wait some two hours before beginning its lock-down procedures?
“This panel will provide a thoughtful, objective analysis of the circumstances leading up to, during, and immediately after Monday’s horrible events,” Kaine said in a press release announcing the panel.
If the commission will be as thorough as advertised, it will turn its attentions to what an actual lockdown would look like. And its members will conclude orderly lockdowns happen only on paper. All last week, administrators were comparing Virginia Tech to a small town. But small towns don’t work like a big state university. They don’t have the same moving parts: the packed dorms, the thousands of office workers, the teenagers running to class in jammy pants and fuzzy slippers.
“This is a huge, huge campus,” Tech’s police chief, Wendell Flinchum, told the Washington Post. “It’s not like you’re locking down one building to do this. You have over 200 buildings. Just because you call it a lockdown doesn’t keep people from still moving about the campus and doing what they want to do.”
Virginia Tech looks like a lot of other land-grant universities—a series of historic and faux-historic stone buildings surrounded by cows and a happy, somewhat vegan-friendly town. The university has more than 25,000 students. About 9,000 live on campus; the majority live in Blacksburg apartments and houses nearby. All of them shuffle through all of those imposing buildings—not including those that are part of the airport, golf course, and duck pond—covering 2,600 acres. Figuring out the scope of who is where on an average Monday morning is like throwing up thousands of pieces of string into a wind and predicting where they will land.
Students take a lot of unofficial shortcuts—sophomores say it takes at least a month to figure them out. Buses run on a steady loop to and from town, transporting thousands of people every day. On game days, the university’s entire population more than doubles. How does a university pull off a super-secure lockdown? How quickly does it take to lock all those doors? What if administrators yelled “freeze” one morning? What would they find?
University police start their day shift at 6 a.m. Roll call consists of seven or eight officers on duty. About half of them are dispatched to traffic beats at main intersections around campus. The rest work foot patrols or push squad cars, patrolling campus, and looking for speeders.
More than likely, the first people the police will see on campus are the students who have pulled all-nighters at one of the half dozen or so open computer labs. Massive Torgersen Hall, just a short walk from Norris Hall, has multiple labs as well as an atrium dotted with tables and chairs. If the labs are full, each table along the atrium has outlets where students can plug in their laptops.
Torgersen’s doors are rarely secured, even when locked. Students will use the welcome mats as doorstops or knock on the windows of the labs to get someone to let them in, says Rob Dickert, manager for the campus’ labs. Inside the building itself, not all doors are equal. Some have security punch codes. Some have locks. And some are just open.
While night owls are filing out of Torgersen, the campus’ housekeeping staff is making its way to campus.
S.M., a housekeeping supervisor for the north quad, is just settling into a routine inside her first-floor office in Shultz, just off Main Street. Her office is a converted gym with mirrors on both sides; S.M. has papered them with pictures of wolves, one of her favorite animals.
As workers start to arrive for their assigned duties, S.M. dispenses dorm and building keys. Thomas Hall’s second floor is the worst of the bunch: It’s “the loudest and messiest one we got,” she says. “Think of a party and what’s left, and they left us to clean up.”
Around 7:30 a.m., at a spot known as the “VT,” about 700 ROTC and civilian cadets start lining up for formation and the raising of the American flag.
By that time, students are lining up inside Shultz’s cafeteria, known for its amazing breakfast deals, including all-you-can-stuff-in-a-Styrofoam box ($5 for nonstudents), breakfast bar, and made-to-order omelets.
Just down from West Ambler Johnston, Dietrick Hall’s cafeteria is packed. Off campus, a half-block away from the student union, 30 to 40 students get their morning fix at Bollo’s.
And thousands of students start to think about making their way to 8 a.m. classes.
Theodore Hoffer, 19, checks Blackboard.com, a site Tech profs use to communicate with their students. He makes sure he’s finished his homework. His goal is to get to class at the last possible moment, he says. He starts his walk to class with his iPod set to metal, trance, or rap blasting in his ears.
Stephen Luhman, 19, drives his 2003 Toyota Corolla from Pheasant Run Townhomes to the main commuter lot. He doesn’t listen to the radio on his way to campus. Allison Stephenson, a graduate student in geo-chemistry, wakes up to NPR and bikes to campus using a local trail.
No matter where the students are coming from—whether Slusher Tower or a group house off College Avenue, most will end up converging on the Drillfield. “No matter what, you have to cross it,” says Puneet Lahrani, an 18-year-old sophomore.
The Drillfield is a huge green space zippered with paved paths; it’s the dividing line between the majority of dorms to the north and west of campus and the classroom buildings to the south and east. At 7:50, thousands of students are crossing its flat grassy expanse, many using the dirt trails student feet have made through the years.
The parking spaces along the Drillfield are filled. The roads that border it are also clogged. There are so many students at the crosswalks, idling drivers end up waiting a long time: “You can sit at the crosswalk for five minutes,” says Brian Mihalik, a professor in hospitality and tourism management. Not all crosswalks are equal but, he says, “Everyone stops for the ones on Drillfield.”
This pre-class rush has become known as the “Blacksburg Traffic Jam.”
Filling things out are the Blacksburg Transit commuter buses, which each drop off dozens of students in front of Patton Hall, located just below Norris Hall.
By 8 a.m., the parking lots and classroom buildings are full. In an hour or so, the morning routine will begin all over again for students with the next round of classes. The Drillfield will be crisscrossed all over again. West End Market will prepare for its lunch crowd. The student union will be packed. McBryde’s classrooms—one of them seats 500—will fill up with sleepy-eyed students. So will Randolph’s and Torgersen’s. And so will Norris’.
If administrators freeze campus at this point, which on April 16 would have been about 45 minutes after Cho killed two people in one dorm, went back to his own, and prepared for his rampage at Norris Hall, what would it look like? What if they hesitate and wait 10 more minutes? What would campus look like then?
“How are you going to lock down a city?” wonders Debra Duncan, who was the Virginia Tech police chief from July 2001 to July 2006. The current chief, Wendell Flinchum, was her press officer. “You can’t even lock down a building. You can tell people not to leave, but they will.”
Duncan says the police department does have an “unusual occurrence policy.” But, she adds, it’s extremely general. “It’s not going to say, ‘If you have a shooting in a building, you do A, B, C, D, and E,’” she explains. “It’s a guideline. You can’t make a plan for every occasion.”
Students from East and West Ambler-Johnston, where the first shootings occurred, describe a lockdown in name only. They describe waking up and going to class oblivious of what had occurred in their dorm or on their floor. Katherine Zimmerman, 19, only found out that anything had happened after a friend IM’ed her: “Hey Katherine, are you going to class?”
Mihalik describes dropping off his wife about 60 yards from the dorm, about a half hour after the call came into the 911 center. He didn’t see any barricades or any other indicators that a double homicide had happened and a murderer was at large. “I saw no activity of the police,” he says. There were “no cops that I saw.”
It took about a day for Cho’s story to start trickling out: his stubborn silence toward his roommates and classmates, his angry writings, his stalking of female students, and the hints of deeper mental problems.
Morva has a messed-up and well-known backstory, too. Before he got locked up for attempting to rob a Deli Mart, he tried for years to impart his unique wisdoms on Blacksburg. A coffee shop regular, he often found an audience among the supertolerant staff at Bollo’s. People there can still recount his unsolicited monologuing, the pro- libertarian rants, and the various tangled riffs on life.
People dressed like they were afraid of the weather, Morva argued, so he walked everywhere without shoes and wore shorts in the winter. He fixated on his Cherokee heritage and, as a tribute of sorts, attempted a raw-meat diet. He had dozens of other proposals about how people should live.
Acquaintances remember one of his inventions, “Dude Ball.” The game amounted to two guys running around and tackling each other, a way more lighthearted and simple sight than one of Frank Beamer’s offensive schemes.
But no one started walking around barefoot or eating raw meat. Dude Ball doesn’t get played on Worsham Field in front of the Hokie faithful. Morva’s real legacy, it turns out, is the lessons learned from the lockdown following his escape, the dry run he inadvertently gave Tech before tragedy focused the world’s attention on the college’s response.
In the aftermath of the Morva incident, Tech officials began to rethink their lock-down procedures and sought ways to enhance their notification system. They said they were considering adopting a text-messaging program. “We will certainly be investigating other kinds of communications vehicles,” Tech spokesman Larry Hincker told the Roanoke Times in early September.
As of last Friday, Hincker says the university was still working on procuring a text-messaging system. “That,” he says, “will possibly help students.”
Additional reporting by Joe Eaton