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11 p.m. Monday, April 16, 2007
“Just keep it together. It all goes on.”
“At least when they go to Iraq, they give you a gun.…At least you have a fighting chance, not sitting behind a desk….That’s not a level playing field.”
“[The gunman] sucks. That’s what it comes down to. He sucks.”
“I need a smoke break.”
“That’s about as real as it gets, right there.”
—Heard on 105.3 FM driving from D.C. into Blacksburg, Va.
You can pick out the mourners—even at a bar that cranks Lynyrd Skynyrd. A blond woman stomps through London Underground on North Main Street and orders a beer. In her wake are four friends. They form a protective ring around her and/or give one another holy-shit looks. At the center of the ring, you can still see that the woman’s eyes are bloodshot and wet.
Soon, she sees me and my notebook. She hears me interviewing a townie a barstool away.
She wants the notebook to go back in my coat. Now.
On the bar’s TV, CNN has given today a name: “Virginia Tech Massacre.”
Her rage quickly turns to Virginia Tech’s not-quite-ready-for-prime-time president. She leans forward and wags her finger at me. “Ask President [Charles] Steger why they didn’t shut down classes.”
She wants to know why the president didn’t cancel classes until 10 a.m., some three hours after the gunman killed two students on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Residence Hall. As everyone by now knows, the assailant then took his weapons—9-millimeter and .22-caliber handguns—to Norris Hall and killed 31, including himself.
The Norris Hall crime scene has none of the stuff that has cropped up elsewhere on campus—no homemade signs proclaiming Hokie Love, no spent candles, no bouquets. It is quiet except for the sounds of police tape flapping in the high wind. Along certain sections, the tape has given up, snapped clean from its ties, and sits in the grass next to some crumpled trash and someone’s French homework.
Four state police officers walk out of Norris and under the police tape.
“Any food, man?” one asks another state trooper just beyond the tape.
In a first-floor classroom, crime scene investigators, detectives, and dudes wearing “security” jackets are gathered. Most of the mayhem took place just above them on the second floor. A French class got hit. So did a German class and an engineering class. The gunman also took out students in the stairwells. Just above the staging room, there’s a broken window where at least two students jumped; one broke an ankle, but both survived.
With the yellow tape rendered useless by the winds, the crime scene is protected at one end by two cops keeping warm in their cruiser.
One trooper came up from Richmond, the other from Fairfax. They kill time by looking at family pictures on a digital camera. The two have been guarding the scene for seven hours.
“It’s just part of the career path,” explains the Fairfax cop.
Scott Werner, 22, shows up at the yellow tape. He’s brought three friends with him. “We’re the ones that didn’t want to watch CNN all night,” he jokes. “I just wanted to check it out. I wanted to see where everything went down.”
Actually, Werner wanted to see where his friend got shot. He says she’s still in the ICU after being hit in the back. The bullet, he says, cut through a kidney and went into her intestines. He says he heard that she’s awake and doing OK. “She was beautiful,” he says. “Anything I had to complain about, she always had a way to turn it around.”
I tell Werner that he is referring to his friend in the past tense.
“I know,” he says.
A red-faced student and his three friends just arrived and are milling about the crime scene. One of the students tells me about the blood stains on the sidewalk just below Norris. I wonder aloud if I’ll be able to find the blood.
“It’s really obvious.”
At the far left corner of the hill, just below Norris, there is indeed a series of blood stains without a perimeter of police tape. The first stain, a series of splatters and blotches, is 24 feet long. A bigger, scarier stain follows it.
It resembles the outline of a body. At the torso, the blood just runs in two streams to the curb and stops.
Ty Biagas walks on it and doesn’t notice. He can’t sleep. He works as a campus minister at Catholic Campus Ministries and officiated a vigil that evening. But it wasn’t enough. He says he knows people who are still missing.
“I had so many classes in that building,” Biagas says, looking at the rooms lit up in Norris Hall. He graduated last December. “I need to get it set in. Maybe this will help me sleep, who knows.”
The real campus vigil, located at the lip of a lush quad known as Drillfield, is down to two students. One is draped in a dark blanket. He’s just here, he explains, because he has to be. The other is a recent addition. Emily Canis, 19, says she, too, can’t sleep. Her birthday was the day of the massacre.
Canis lives at East Ambler Johnston on the fourth floor. East and West “AJ” are not separate buildings. They are connected by a shared room. The shooting took place on the west side’s fourth floor, a short walk away. She was up when the shooting happened but didn’t hear anything.
Canis went to class at 7:45 a.m. When she returned to her dorm, she saw yellow tape and police. But still, she says, she was told nothing.
Rumors started going around. “We thought maybe a stabbing,” Canis says.
Canis walks up to the vigil and tries to fix the few flowers that are there. They are too battered by the wind to resemble anything but the idea of flowers. But Canis tries her best.
Grafton Peterson and his family have been waiting for nearly 12 hours for word of their freshman daughter, Erin.
They drove in from Centreville, Fairfax County, to Blacksburg, where they’d just been the day before, visiting her for the weekend.
Erin had been a 6-foot-1 center and senior-year captain of the basketball team at Westfield High School, the same high school as the killer, who graduated three years earlier, and another victim—Reema Samaha—who graduated with Erin, Class of ’06.
Erin picked Virginia Tech because it was still close enough to home. This past weekend, she had been accepted into the university’s honor society fraternity and her parents drove down to take her shopping and out to dinner.
“She was just a super child,” says William Lloyd, Erin’s godfather. “Never ran the streets. Her and her dad, man, you couldn’t separate them. He lost a child from cancer —a daughter, 8 years old. A week later, [Erin] was born.”
The only time Erin and her father, Grafton, parted ways was when the Redskins played the Cowboys. “She was a Redskin,” Lloyd says. “He was a Cowboy.”
Erin would call her family every night. It was a ritual.
“Her mom and dad loved her like crazy,” says Pat Deegan, Erin’s high school basketball coach and a social studies teacher at Westfield High. The Petersons came to every game. “And they didn’t just cheer for their own kid,” he says.
An assistant principal stopped by Deegan’s house after word spread about the shooting. “He said, ‘We haven’t heard from Erin.’ That began a long process.”
At first Grafton Peterson says he was told that Erin, 18, was at Montgomery Regional Hospital. So they went there. When they arrived, they were told she’d been transferred to a hospital in Roanoke. So they went there. In a room, they found somebody else’s daughter alone in a hospital bed. They wondered if that girl had a family looking for her.
They ended up at the Inn at Virginia Tech. The faux manor complex, complete with watchtower clock, is serving as a grief warehouse for the incoming friends and family of the dead.
But Erin wasn’t dead. She was missing.
A student shows up at the Inn. He had been in one of the shot-up classes in Norris Hall—a class he shared with Erin. He told the Petersons he hadn’t seen their daughter today. She skipped that class, he said. There was hope.
But at 2:30 a.m. word spread that the Medical Examiner’s Office in Roanoke had stopped working on the bodies. There were five families—including the Petersons—left waiting at the Inn. The medical examiner may have quit for the night. But the Petersons refused to go up to their complimentary rooms.
“You can’t sit around in a room trying to sleep,” Erin’s aunt told me later that morning. “We don’t know where she’s at.”
Erin’s family squatted in the hallway by the elevators. They laid themselves out on chairs and wrapped themselves in sheets. And they waited.
In the lobby, a grief counselor waited, too. On the coffee table were the assembled totems of instant therapy: donated bags of uneaten potato chips and a box of Kleenex. The trash cans were filled with Salvation Army coffee cups. The counselor had been working since noon, when identifications started coming in.
She says she’d sat with eight or nine families that day, mostly listening. Families brought pictures. But they still weren’t prepared for much of it. Soon after she began counseling one family whose loved one had been identified, a Good Morning America rep buzzed the father’s cell phone. “I can’t believe you’d call a parent,” the father yelled into his cell before hanging up.
The counselor was trying to wait out the medical examiner, too. She had a room and was encouraged to take a nap or at least shower. But she wanted to wait, she says, eyeing a raft of friends and family that had been pacing the first floor all night. They were waiting to hear about Minal Panchal, 26, a graduate student getting her master’s in architecture.
Like Erin, Minal, at that point, was still only missing.
Several of the Minal contingent take over the hotel bar, the Continental Divide. They slouch in chairs and on a sofa next to the big-screen television. Two little girls wander around, hands stuffed in their sleeves.
Every few minutes more friends appear either from the elevator area or through the front doors. It’s a lot of pacing, waiting, and lining up in front of the Inn’s entrance. They speak in library whispers. The lobby is quiet except for Salvation Army volunteers warming by the fireplace and talking strategy about what to do when the morning shift arrives.
A Virginia Tech handler asks me: “Did the person come in [the counselor] was waiting for?”
“I don’t think so.”
You just can’t tell who is coming in with bad news and who just needs to take a leak. A man in a suit shows up and is directed to the elevators. He is somber. I think: Is he the one?
Suddenly a friend of Minal’s appears in the lobby. His cell rings. “You will see a blue sign that says hospital,” he says. “It will be 8, 9 miles from that. You’ll see the downtown exit for Blacksburg.”
The somber man reappears and leaves through the front door.
A grief counselor shows up and asks: “Is everyone comfortable?”
Eight of Minal’s friends cue up in the lobby and stare out the front door, expectant. Two bundles of USA Today are delivered. The front-page headline: “Blacksburg’s Darkest Day.”
Four minutes later, more newspapers are delivered, followed by what appears to be Minal’s mother, who traveled from New Jersey, according to a friend.
Rajat Singhania is part of the Minal group. He says there are between 30 and 40 members of this group, all have done time at the Inn at various points in the night and early morning. They are given a ballroom to sit and wait. Handlers offer them bananas and bottled water. Earlier that evening, families are given meatballs and fried chicken strips and Kit-Kats.
“She was very easygoing,” Singhania says of Minal. “Just the night before she had organized an impromptu party with her friends.” She and her roommates cooked fish and took pictures of one another.
By 6 a.m., Minal had not been identified.
The Peterson family needs to talk to someone other than the Virginia Tech flaks and the understandably worn-out grief counselors. Grafton, along with Erin’s aunt and a family friend in toe, find a CNN producer in the lobby and start complaining. They had been waiting hours and still no word about their daughter.
Suddenly, flaks surround the Petersons. A clergyman. A Red Cross rep. A grief counselor. They lobby them to shut up.
Mary Peterson, Erin’s aunt, won’t have it. “We’ve been waiting 24 hours,” she complains loudly. “No one tells us anything. I’m tired of watching you all drink coffee.”
The three Petersons walk out, leaving the massacre’s honor guard behind. One state trooper sees me talking to Cecil Terrell, the family friend, and grabs a fistful of my coat. He says I’m not allowed to talk to the family.
Once the trooper sees the Petersons holding court with CNN and the Los Angeles Times, he gives up on me. Grafton then recounts his night: the two hospital visits and all the waiting. Of the medical examiner, he says: “They said they were tired.” Officials told him he would be notified at 7:30. It’s 7:35 and still nothing.
Mary Peterson makes her case, too. Erin, she says, is tall. “She would stand out in a crowd.”
Erin emulated Shaq during her high school basketball days. At Virginia Tech, she was majoring in International Studies. When I ask Grafton why she chose this university, he just freezes. He can’t deal with those questions now. He can’t deal with Erin in the past tense.
The last time Grafton had seen his daughter, the day before her death, she’d teased him, Lloyd recalls. She told her father that she had only 25 more days left of school until she was back home to mess with him. Or at least watch basketball games on TV together like they always did.
The Petersons get the awful news. Erin isn’t missing anymore. Grafton Peterson walks out of the Inn sobbing. A reporter walks up to him, waving her notebook.
“Can’t talk to anybody,” he stammers. “Can’t talk to anybody.”