It’s not my nature to be maudlin over tragedy. My default setting is to move on. But every year when 4/16 rolls around, I can’t help but reminisce about what happened at the school I love. Since Sunday marks the ten-year anniversary of that dark day, it will likely get heightened attention. It is bitterly ironic that the ten-year anniversary will fall on Easter Sunday.
As most of you know, I was a radio News Director at the time. The series of alerts and updates from the Associated Press began shortly after nine o-clock that fateful morning.
I clicked on the header. It read:
(Blacksburg) — Shooting at Virginia Tech dormitory…developing…
Given the location and my close emotional ties to the school, I perked up. I was not particularly worried, though. Hey, it’s a big campus. These things unfortunately happen. I figured a couple of guys had gotten into it and someone fired a shot or two. The next update came minutes later.
(Blacksburg) — Shooting at Virginia Tech dormitory…West Ambler Johnston…two fatalities confirmed…developing…
Well this upped the ante. My News Director’s brain kicked in. “O-K. Maybe I’ll run a state story during my midday news. About thirty minutes later, the ante was upped again.
(Blacksburg) — Multiple shots fired inside Norris Hall Virginia Tech …developing…
“What the hell is this, I wondered.” Did AP screw up the earlier story? Did they have the location wrong? The stories I was working on concerning two large trees falling in the downtown area during heavy winds got pushed to the back burner. It was forgotten completely after the next AP Alert.
(Blacksburg) — Multiple fatalities confirmed inside Norris Hall, Virginia Tech campus locked down…shooter unknown…developing…
What followed seemed like a blur. I continued tracking AP and giving live updates on both stations. By noon, we knew this was catastrophic.
It didn’t hit me until early afternoon what had happened. Until then, I had kept my professional veneer and reported the facts as they came in—gruesome as they were. It wasn’t until I got a little down time and happened to glance at FOX News that it hit me. Seeing those familiar-looking buildings, juxtaposed against the backdrop of the kind of intense coverage reserved only for events like 9-11 hit me like a ton of bricks. This was MY school! I lived a couple hundred yards from Norris Hall! I had several classes there! Was I ever in the upper floor? I couldn’t remember.
After having done news for 20 years you learn to keep stories at arms length. Many of the stories we tackle have strong emotions attached to them, and you would quickly become overwhelmed if you got too involved. I thought I was tough. I thought I could handle anything in a news context. I was wrong.
After about 15-to-20 minutes of watching national TV coverage, I had to go out into the hallway and do something I hadn’t done in years. I cried. (only briefly, though—gotta maintain my man-cred).
What I choose to remember the most are the 32 people who were killed that day at Virginia Tech. When I look at their bios, I am struck by the outstanding character that is obvious with most of them.
These were winners! A Holocaust survivor who held the door while students escaped through a second-story window; being riddled with bullets in the process. A French teacher who seemed to possess a special connection with her students. A former wrestler who was killed while tackling the gunman in a vain effort to save people he probably didn’t know.
Even more impressive is the public service resumes that had already been compiled by folks in their late-teens to early twenties. These were people who were on their way to becoming outstanding adults. It’s trendy for middle-aged folks like myself to view the younger generation with benign disdain. To laugh at their ability to hold conversations while texting. The lives these young people led before their death should make all of us forty-somethings rethink our views on the next generation.
One in particular stands out. As a hopeless Detroit Tigers fan, I became familiar with the Motown Sports website years ago. Among the most frequent contributors was Brian Bluhm. He was also one of the best posters. I noticed that he had a VT logo as his avatar. I shot him an e-mail and he replied. Turns out he was a graduate Engineering student at Tech, just a month away from earning his Masters. We shared a few more messages; talking about our shared love of the Hokies and the Tigers—and how trying both teams can be!
Brian was shot twice while sitting in an Engineering class in the second floor of Norris Hall. He was pronounced dead at the scene. I wished I had e-mailed him more often.
I guess it shows maturity on my part that I’ve pretty much forgiven the shooter. Evil takes many forms and envelops people. I hope his tortured soul is finally at peace. His final resting place is not my call.
Monday the 17th, a group of leaders in Danville will hold a commemoration of the ten-year anniversary of this tragedy. I am honored to have been selected to participate. I will be reading the names of the 32 victims. Behind each of those names is a story…a wonderful story. Their lives were senselessly cut short. But each of us in our own way can do things to ensure that their lives have the fullest, most positive impact possible.
Below is a link to the University’s remembrance page on each of the victims. Please. Click on a few of these links. Read them. And remember.
Ross A. Alameddine
Christopher James Bishop
Brian R. Bluhm
Ryan Christopher Clark
Austin Michelle Cloyd
Kevin P. Granata
Matthew Gregory Gwaltney
Caitlin Millar Hammaren
Jeremy Michael Herbstritt
Rachael Elizabeth Hill
Emily Jane Hilscher
Jarrett Lee Lane
Matthew Joseph La Porte
Henry J. Lee
Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan
Lauren Ashley McCain
Daniel Patrick O’Neil
Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz
Minal Hiralal Panchal
Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva
Erin Nicole Peterson
Michael Steven Pohle, Jr.
Julia Kathleen Pryde
Mary Karen Read
Reema Joseph Samaha
Waleed Mohamed Shaalan
Leslie Geraldine Sherman
Maxine Shelly Turner
Nicole Regina White