Washington: At least 33 people were killed Monday on the campus of Virginia Tech University in what appeared to be the deadliest shooting rampage in American history, according to federal law-enforcement officials. Many of the victims were students shot in a dormitory and a classroom building.
”Today the university was struck with a tragedy that we consider of monumental proportions,” said the university’s president, Charles Steger.
Witnesses described scenes of mass chaos and unimaginable horror as some students were lined up against a wall and shot. Others jumped out of windows to escape, or crouched on floors to take cover.
There were two shootings on the campus in Blacksburg, Va., and in both instances there were fatalities with ”multiple shooting victims,” Steger said.
The attacks started early in the morning, with a call to police at 7:15 a.m., as students were getting ready for classes or were on their way there. As the rampage unfolded over nearly three hours, details emerged from witnesses describing a gunman going room to room in a residence hall, and of gunfire later at a building where classes were held.
When it was over, sidewalks were stained with blood. Among those dead was the gunman.
The identification of the gunman was proving difficult, because the suspected shooter did not have identification among his effects and because of the severity of an apparently self-inflicted wound to the head, according to a federal law enforcement official. He said investigators were trying to trace purchase records for two handguns found near the body.
At least 22 people were injured. At least 17 Virginia Tech students were being treated for gunshot wounds and other injuries at Montgomery Regional Hospital, and four of them were in surgery, according to a hospital spokesperson. At Lewis-Gale Medical Center, in Salem, Va., four students and a staff member were treated. Two were in stable condition, and the conditions of the other three were described as “undetermined”.
Officials said there could have been more injured and taken to other medical facilities.
The university has more than 25,000 full-time students on a campus that is spread over 2,600 acres. It was not clear how many of the victims were notified of the dangers.
Kirsten Bernhards, 18, said she and countless other students had no idea that a shooting had occurred when she left her dorm room in O’Shaughnessy Hall shortly before 10 a.m., more than two hours after the first shootings.
”I was leaving for my 10:10 film class,” she said. ”I had just locked the door and my neighbor said, ’Did you check your e-mail?”’
The university had, a few minutes earlier, sent out a bulletin warning students about an apparent shooter. But few students seemed to have any sense of urgency.
Bernards said she walked toward her class, preoccupied with an upcoming exam and listening to music on her IPOD. On the way, she said, she heard some loud cracks, and only later concluded they had been gunshots from the second round of shootings.
But even at that point, many students were walking around the campus with little if any sense of alarm.
It was only when Bernhards got close to Norris Hall, the second of two buildings where the shootings took place, that she realized something had gone wrong.
”I looked up and I saw at least 10 guards with assault rifles aiming at the main entrance of Norris,” she recalled.
Until Monday, the deadliest campus shooting in US history was in 1966 at the University of Texas, where Charles Whitman climbed to the 28th-floor observation deck of a clock tower and opened fire, killing 16 people before he was gunned down by police. In the Columbine High attack in 1999, two teenagers killed 12 fellow students and a teacher before killing themselves.
A police official at Virginia Tech, Wendell Flinchum, said some of the victims were shot in the classroom. News of the number of the fatalities sent up an audible gasp in the news conference, said one television reporter in the broadcast.
While few confirmed details about the gunman and the motive were clear, students told reporters at WTKR, a local television station, that the gunman had been looking for his girlfriend, and at one of the locations he lined up some students and shot them all, according to Mike Mather, a reporter for the station.
President Bush offered condolences on Monday afternoon to relatives of the victims, and said federal investigators would help the Virginia authorities in any way possible. ”We hold the victims in our hearts; we lift them up in our prayers,” Bush said at the White House.
One student captured partial images, broadcast on CNN, using his cell phone video camera showing grainy dark-clad figures on the street outside of campus buildings. Popping sounds from the gunfire were audible.
”This place is in a state of panic,” said a student who was interviewed on CNN, Shaver Deyerle. ”Nobody knew what was going on at first.”
He said the shooting reminded him of the Columbine High School killings in Littleton, Colo., outside Denver.
The shooting Monday at Virginia Tech came in the same week, eight years ago, as the April 20 shooting at Columbine.
The police were slowly evacuating students from campus buildings and all classes have been canceled.
Families were told to reunite with students at the Inn at Virginia Tech, a facility of conference space and hotel rooms. The university community was told to assemble Tuesday at the Cassell Coliseum to start to deal with the tragedy, a campus statement said.