(This is an update of things I’ve written over the past few years ago on the anniversaries of the Virginia Tech shooting. I was News Director at two radio stations in Danville, Va. at the time. It is the one day a year that this Hokie gets a little maudlin.)
(April 16, 2007) — It was a little after 9AM in the newsroom when the AP Alert went off. Nothing unusual there. The damn thing goes off every time there’s a thunderstorm in Eastern North Carolina. I dutifully moved to my computer screen and looked. There was a slug.
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.
“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 coverage reserved only for events like 9-11 hit me like a thunderbolt. 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 decades you learn to keep stories at arms length. Many of the stories we tackled had 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).
The days that followed produced a full range of emotions. There was the obvious sadness. There was white-hot anger at the shooter, which quickly evolved into utter indifference. It took several years but I was finally able to forgive the shooter. Evil takes many forms and envelops people. Such it was with Cho. I hope his tortured soul is finally at peace. His final resting place is not my call.
The most effective coping mechanism I’ve come up with has been learning as much as I could about the 32 people who were killed that day at Virginia Tech. These were winners! A Holocaust survivor who held the door while students escaped through a second-story window; begin 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.
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 fifty-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 (pictured, right). 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; 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. I wished I had e-mailed him more often.
But mostly, I’m bursting with pride today at MY school! It’s said that it takes our worst to bring out our best. We certainly saw the worst humanity has to offer on 4-16-07, but we also saw us at our best. God Bless all Virginia Tech Hokies everywhere today! Those with and without diplomas. Ut Prosim!!!