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Scenes From the Campus: the Day After

April 18, 2007

On the morning after the deadliest shooting rampage in American history, the media saturation here was intense. Minutes before the day's first news conference was to start, 49 satellite trucks, their dishes all pointed the same direction, sat outside Alumni Hall. Some 500 reporters tried to crush themselves into the tiny two-story building.

A little after 9 a.m., Wendell Flinchum, the campus police chief, stood before the television cameras and spoke the words everyone was waiting for. "We have been able to confirm the identity of the gunman," he said. "That person is Cho Seung-Hui ... a 23-year-old English major at Virginia Tech."

After the news conference ended, the TV lights turned to a handful of students who had gathered outside the building. When they had finished speaking, 20 to 30 reporters would run and form big circles around them. Some students cried as they answered questions.

Near the center of the campus, students had put up a makeshift memorial, where people had written comments all over two giant cutouts of the VT logo. One said, "Can't keep a Hokie down." Another said, "You were taken too soon." People had started signing a binder because there wasn't any more room left on the letters.

Jeff and Lorraine Watkins, two of the many parents who came here to be with their children, stood by the memorial on Tuesday with their daughter, Lauren, who was sleeping in the dorm where the first shooting happened. Her parents described their frustration with the university's response to the shootings.

"I can understand that this was a hard thing for campus officials to deal with," Mr. Watkins said. "But back in the war days, you could warn anyone anywhere about some kind of danger with air-raid sirens. I don't know why they don't have something like that."

Mrs. Watkins said sirens might sound like a primitive technology, but they could have spared lives. "All I know is that someone walked into the dorm when my daughter was asleep and started shooting people," she said. "Yeah, he killed two people in my daughter's dorm, but I don't understand why that wasn't the end of it."

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Across the campus, students in Harper Hall, where the shooter lived, were poking their heads out of second-floor windows and giving interviews to British, Asian, and American journalists. The students said agents from the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives had walked down their hallways around 10 o'clock Monday night, knocking on doors and showing residents a photograph of an Asian man wearing glasses.

None of the students knew the man in the photo, nor did they have any idea that there was a "murderer down the hall," as one student put it.

One of the victims was C. James Bishop, an instructor in the department of foreign languages (see a profile). His wife, Stephanie Hofer, is an assistant professor in the same department, but she was not hurt.

On her office door, Ms. Hofer had left a note for her husband, which was still taped up Tuesday. The note was in German, and it was written in pencil. Translated, it said: "Jamie, I've left campus and I am at home. Your Stefie 12:15".

* * *

By 2 p.m., Cassell Coliseum, Virginia Tech's basketball arena, could not hold all of the thousands and thousands of students, faculty members, and Blacksburg residents who came to remember the victims at a convocation, where President Bush was to speak. So the overflow crowd marched next door to Lane Stadium, an imposing structure known for its deafening football crowds. But on Tuesday the orange and maroon masses were nearly silent as they took seats in the stands and fanned out onto the field.

As the spectators waited, the wind blew hats off heads and made the metal goalposts creak. When the image of Virginia Tech's president, Charles W. Steger, finally appeared on the stadium scoreboard, the crowd applauded as if cheering a touchdown. A few moments later, the sight of President Bush drew everyone to their feet. But it was the final speaker, Nikki Giovanni, a poet and distinguished professor at Tech, who stirred the crowd with the refrain, "We are Virginia Tech. We will prevail."

As her words came through a muffled public-address system, the stadium finally rang with Blacksburg's most familiar chant: "Let's go, Ho-kies. Let's go, Ho-kies. Let's go, Ho-kies."

Standing near the middle of the field in a crisp white Hokies marching-band uniform was Gerald Goad, a junior majoring in communications. Mr. Goad said he was a friend of Ryan Clark, a fellow band member killed in Monday's shootings.

"The way he said my name, it always brought a smile to my face," Mr. Goad said of Mr. Clark. As the applause continued, Mr. Goad, who plays the cymbals, honored his friend by doing one of the things he says he does best: making a lot of noise.

* * *

Shortly after 8 o'clock Tuesday night, 10,000 students, faculty members, and local residents packed the Drillfield, a large grassy area in the center of the campus, for a candlelight vigil.

Near the makeshift stage sat a dozen wooden pyramids, waiting for mourners to write messages on them with pens and markers. One student wrote: "It will only make us think harder ... play longer ... run faster ... live stronger."

Adeel Kahn, the student-body president, said, "With the entire country watching, the Virginia Tech community looks not to dwell but to heal." As he spoke, the crowd, in unison, raised their candles overhead.

Zenobia Hikes, vice president for student affairs, urged students to "take care of yourselves, look out for each other."

After the few speeches concluded, the crowd grew silent. Candles were again raised in the air. The only sound heard was the clicking of camera shutters. And then, for nearly 10 minutes, silence.