Virginia Tech, the Hope and the Sorrow
09/03/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT
Back on the Virginia Tech campus to begin his junior year, Derek O'Dell thought he was fine—until he walked into his first class. Four months earlier, Seung Hui Cho, a 23-year-old senior, had burst into O'Dell's Elementary German class, killed the professor and four students and injured many others, among them O'Dell. Now, in a classroom in a nearby building, O'Dell, 20, felt anxious as he took his seat in Intermediate German. Formerly independent, he no longer likes to be alone, so he'd made sure to schedule classes with friends. "The more people around you, the safer you feel," he says. But every sound outside the classroom caught his attention. "Every little thing sends you into a heightened sense of awareness," he says. Several times he wanted to leave the room and check the hallway for possible dangers. But O'Dell says he made himself stay put: "I thought, 'If I get up and leave before class is over, then everything I've achieved since April 16 is over.'"
And so O'Dell acted like any other student—just as Virginia Tech looked like any other university campus last week as it opened for the new school year. Returning "Hokies" greeted each other with hugs and tears, even as wide-eyed freshmen roamed the campus, seemingly oblivious to the presence of so many who had lived through the rampage that claimed 32 lives and injured 25 others before Cho turned a gun on himself. "My parents knew this is a safe school, and it could've happened anywhere," says freshman Nicole Hansinger, 18. "I mean, it's even safer now." Other students and parents must have felt the same way. This year's freshman class of 5,215 is Virginia Tech's largest ever. As for the upperclassmen, many expressed relief to be back on campus, safe from the ubiquitous questions and expressions of concern that hounded them all summer. "I'm not scared to be back at all," says Lindsey Bryant, a junior. "We just have to move forward."
Still, there are reminders across the 2,600-acre campus of what happened. One opening-week tent had large signs reading, "Need Assistance?"—a safe haven for those who might be overcome with grief. Room 4040 of West Ambler Johnston Hall, the site where the first two students were killed, stands empty, its number removed. Norris Hall, where the worst carnage unfolded, remains closed to classes. Elsewhere, classroom walls have posters instructing students what to do in an emergency, and doors are equipped with locks on the inside to keep intruders out. For many, the sense of fear is ever present. "You walk into a bathroom and you look to see who's there," says English professor Nikki Giovanni. "I hear footsteps when I'm in my office and I listen to see if they keep going."
Moving forward, of course, is hardest for the families of those killed. Still angry that President Charles Steger didn't lock down the campus in the two hours between Cho's first shooting and his second rampage, several parents attended the Aug. 19 dedication of a new campus memorial—but declined Steger's brunch invitation. "I have nothing to say to the man," says Marian Hammaren, whose daughter Caitlin, 19, was killed. "We feel the leadership has let [the deceased] down."
So much so that some parents are calling for Steger's resignation. Parents are angry they weren't represented on the eight-member commission that plans to issue its final report about the massacre on Aug. 31. And they're angry they had little say in the recently announced terms of a victims' fund that divides more than $7 million worth of private donations into denominations ranging from $180,000 for families of the slain to $10,000 for those who faced Cho but weren't injured. What galls isn't the amounts—it's the university's demand that families submit a claim for the money by Sept. 15. "Why do they have a deadline?" asks Vincent J. Bove, a spokesman for several families. "It takes time for people to grieve."
No one knows that better than the students who survived the massacre. "A lot of people my age think that bad things happen to everyone but them," says Emily Haas, 19, a junior who suffered minor head wounds. "I know now that stuff like this can happen." Kristina Heeger, 20, a junior who was shot in the back, says she can't wait to eat pasta at the West End dining hall and attend the first football game. But the greatest value of being back? "Talking to the people who were in the classroom with me is the best form of counseling and therapy."
Derek O'Dell similarly says he feels an "odd sort of bond." He finds solace in visiting the memorial, where each of the 32 victims is represented by an Appalachian limestone rock weighing 300 lbs. Mostly he "visits" his favorite professor, Christopher James Bishop, who was teaching Elementary German that day. "I need them with me; I need their strength," says O'Dell. "I will carry their memories around forever."