April 16, 2008
BLACKSBURG Graduate student Greg Slota was in a lab on the first floor of Norris Hall when he heard the crack of gunshots.
In moments, a lab mate would grab a cell phone to dial 911, another would huddle in a corner in alarm, and a wounded, bleeding student would stumble through the door in shock.
And yet Slota, who spent long minutes wondering whether the next person to come through the lab door would be a police officer or a killer, said the April 16, 2007, massacre, the deadliest campus shooting rampage in U.S. history, hardly will be the most significant memory he takes with him when he leaves Virginia Tech.
"For me, this won't be the defining moment," said Slota, 31, whose advising professor was killed in the shootings.
"I have a lot of friends here and I've had a lot of experiences. For me, it's just one event at Tech. It's not going to be THE event at Tech."
Across the vast and verdant campus this month, as work crews rolled out new sod at the memorial to the 32 slain, students echoed Slota's words: Memories of roommates, favorite professors, weekend parties, football triumphs and downtown Blacksburg dinners, they said, will be what they recall when they think back on their days at the school.
With a year now separating the students from the tragedy, they said it seems somehow a smaller piece of their overall experience.
Students are not mired in grief. A year after Seung-Hui Cho's attack, students are enjoying the sunshine and hitting the books. They are affirming that their years at Tech one day will far outweigh the significance of a single, deadly day.
"All my friends that I've met will be what I remember," said Chris Anger, a 19-year-old sophomore from Queenstown, Md. "The mass shooting hardly defines what it's like at Tech."
If anything, Anger said, the murders brought students closer together, creating a society of shared suffering and loss.
"They're more proud to be a Hokie now than ever," Anger said as he opened his jacket to reveal his orange-and-maroon Tech T-shirt.
"I'd say it's definitely strengthened the community," Brian Worrall, a 21-year-old junior from Virginia Beach, said in agreement.
And, like Anger, Worrall said friends and good times, "the relationships, classes, professors and sense of community," always will have dominion over April 16.
Laura Klene, a 19-year-old student from Herndon, said she fields questions about the massacre when she goes home for visits, but students at Tech don't dwell on it or consider April 16 the backdrop against which all other moments at Tech must be viewed.
"I do get a lot of questions — sometimes it bothers me, sometimes it annoys me," she said, adding, "I feel that friendships and classes define me more here."
Stephen Rong, a 21-year-old senior from Midlothian, said he anticipates occasionally hearing the question, "Were you at Tech when that guy killed all those students?" wherever he goes in life.
But like other students, Rong said the massacre will be just one of many memories: "I don't think it's going to dog me — it's just going to be a part of who I am."
On a recent sunny day, groups of students sold cookies outside the Squires Student Center, solitary scholars prowled the stacks in the Newman Library, and some of those finished with classes for the day went for jogs across the bucolic campus.
Except for the presence of the memorial, 32 gray stones arranged in a semicircle, the post-April 16 world of Virginia Tech appeared no different from the pre-April 16 world.
"They're still playing Frisbee, and research is being done," said Tech spokesman Larry Hincker. "We're moving forward."
The scene will stand in contrast to today, when satellite trucks will swarm Blacksburg and reporters will upset the calm to pour across campus to ask about one thing: last year's massacre.
Some students said they plan to stay off campus as long as possible, even forgoing the candlelight vigil, to avoid the commotion.
Said Slota: "I want to avoid the hustle and bustle."