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Two Hours Forever Changed Virginia Tech

April 21, 2007

By Jim Nolan & David Ress

BLACKSBURG — Rachael Hill didn't want her parents to worry.

At 7:15 a.m., gunfire crackled down the fourth floor hallway of West Ambler Johnston dormitory where the Virginia Tech freshman from Glen Allen lived.

Two students — a popular resident adviser named Ryan Clark, and a freshman, Emily Jane Hilscher of Rappahannock County — had been shot to death outside Room 4040.

Their killer was gone, leaving only discarded bullet shell casings and a trail of blood leading down the carpeted hallway.

Like many that Monday morning in Blacksburg, Hill picked up the phone to call home.

"She called her mom and said there was a shooting," recalled Hill's roommate, Maria Gillian, 19. Gillian and Hill graduated in 2006 from Grove Avenue Christian School and headed to Tech together last fall.

"She just wanted to tell her mom that she was OK."

But Hill would not be OK. Two hours later, nobody would.

"See ya later," said Maria Gillian as she headed off to chemistry lab.

"Good luck on your presentation," Rachael Hill called out to her best friend and roommate, looking up from the Bible she was reading.

A short time later, Hill gathered her own books and began the 10-minute walk to Norris Hall and Jocelyne Couture-Nowak's intermediate-French class.

Across the sprawling 2,600-acre campus, thousands of other Tech students were also making their way to 9:05 a.m. classes, fighting a blustery, cold Blue Ridge Mountains wind and thumb-size snowflakes as they scurried to gray stone buildings and past trees sprouting the first buds of spring in Southwest Virginia.

Graduate civil engineering student Guillermo Colman was due in professor G.V. Loganathan's advanced-hydrology class in Room 206 of Norris Hall.

Derek O'Dell had arrived early for his German class with professor Christopher "Jamie" Bishop in Room 207.

Junior engineering sciences major Richard Mallalieu headed for professor Liviu Librescu's course on solid mechanics in Room 204.

And sophomore Allison Cook was running behind schedule after oversleeping at her off-campus apartment. She skipped breakfast and hustled to Norris Hall just in time for Couture-Nowak's French class in Room 211.

Another student arrived at Norris that day along a different path.

Seung-Hui Cho showed up about 9:15 a.m.

The 23-year-old English major had no class scheduled and carried no books — just a set of chains, two semi-automatic handguns and enough anger and ammunition to write his rage against the world with the blood of his schoolmates.

Within a half-hour, well before the classes were due to end, 30 people lay dead in Norris Hall, many of them shot several times.

Rachael Hill was among them.

As police closed in, Cho put one of his guns to his own head and fell dead among the innocents he had just killed.

Two days later, a rambling, multimedia manifesto made by the killer would showed up at NBC News in New York, apparently having been mailed by Cho after the shootings in West Ambler Johnston and less than an hour before he carried out his death wish in Norris Hall.

"You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today," he said on one videotape.

Officials are still trying to figure out what Cho meant. What signs were missed? What actions weren't taken?

They're trying to solve the profound mystery behind what triggered — at that time, in that place — the lone gunman's horrifying slaughter, the worst in modern U.S. history.

But from the moment the sleepy campus awoke that morning, it appears only one person knew what was coming.

And none of his victims had a chance.

Cho's day began well-before dawn in Harper Hall Suite 2121.

After pulling an all-nighter, student Karan Grewal ran into Cho about 5 a.m. in the bathroom they shared with three others in the three-room, pale-yellow cinderblock suite. They said nothing to each other.

Roommate Joseph E. Aust said Cho returned from the bathroom between 5:30 and 6:00, got dressed silently and left. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to him.

"He'd been getting up earlier and earlier," Aust recalled, adding that on that Monday morning, Cho took his medicine, though Aust did not know what it was.

Cho kept a lot to himself.

A South Korean national who moved to the United States in 1992 with his parents and older sister when he was 8, Cho had speech difficulties and was socially isolated from most of his classmates and bullied by others while attending Westfield High School in Fairfax County.

He was the target in dodgeball games. He was the kid who ate alone in the cafeteria.

"I probably passed him a million times," said former Westfield student Joanna Bell. "We would make fun of a few kids, just when we were freshmen. You have to wonder if you ever did that to him."

Cho's sister, Sun-Kyung Cho, released a statement Friday: "My brother was quiet and reserved, yet struggled to fit in."

Cho's social isolation carried over to his days at Virginia Tech.

Grewal said he never knew what to call his suitemate. Cho never introduced himself and never talked.

And Aust thought his roommate was a business major, instead of an English major. He didn't know Cho wrote disturbing plays with themes of violence, rape and pedophilia that had alarmed teachers and fellow students.

In one of those plays, "Mr. Brownstone," a character accuses a high school teacher of molestation. "He lives off of the misery he inflicts on us," the character says. "I wanna kill him."

Cho's classmate Stephanie Derry, 21, of Manakin-Sabot, recalled when the class read portions of Cho's plays aloud. "I remember a kind of awkward pause, and someone said, 'I don't know how to read this,' " Derry said. The class couldn't tell if Cho was trying for a kind of black humor, or if his writing reflected something more sinister.

The only response from him was silence or a shrug. It was disconcerting but not alarming, she said — she thought he was just shy. Teacher Ed Falco described Cho's plays as adolescent.

Neither his classmates nor his roommates considered Cho hostile. Aust said on a number of occasions, he'd enter the room they shared and see Cho "sitting at his desk, just staring at nothing.

"It seemed a little odd, but I would pass it . . . off like he was just weird," Aust said.

Cho was sometimes seen taking photos of the women's basketball team practicing, sources said. Women's basketball practices at Tech are open, and observers are able to come and go at will.

But in late 2005, his actions crossed the line from odd to troubling.

Two women filed complaints about his unwanted advances, and Virginia Tech police took them seriously enough to confront Cho.

In one instance, sources said, Cho was sending instant messages using the screen name "Question Mark" and leaving notes on the message board outside a dorm room.

On Dec. 13, 2005 — the day after the second woman complained — campus police who talked to Cho became so concerned he might be suicidal that they asked for a temporary detention order to send the troubled student to a mental-health center.

The doctor who examined Cho wrote he "denies suicidal ideations. He does not acknowledge symptoms of a thought disorder. His insight and judgment are normal."

A special justice ruled that Cho was a danger to himself because of mental illness and ordered him to seek outpatient help. There is no evidence that Cho did that.

Two of his teachers that year felt there was something wrong with Cho. He rarely spoke in poet Nikki Giovanni's class, hiding behind dark sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled down low.

After the incidents in 2005, Cho fell off the official radar at Tech — until Monday.

Montgomery County records show that he received two speeding tickets there in the two weeks before the shootings.

And they also show that earlier in 2007, Cho purchased a .22 caliber Walther pistol. In March, he paid $571 for a 9 mm Glock semi-automatic handgun and 50 bullets. Before Monday, he would buy many more rounds.

"A nice, clean-cut college kid," said John Markell, owner of Roanoke Firearms in northwest Roanoke, where Cho picked up the Glock.

His roommates never saw Cho's weapons.

They did not know what authorities learned only after Monday's massacre — that Cho had in the past six weeks been practicing his marksmanship at a range in the nearby Jefferson National Forest; that for the past week, he had been working on a multimedia package of himself to send to the media, posing with his weapons and memorializing his rationale for the carnage he was about to carry out as a form of martyrdom.

At 7:15 a.m. Monday, while his roommates slept, the silent, disturbed senior left Harper Hall and made his way to West Ambler Johnston Hall. It's just a minute's walk, past puffballs of white lilac bushes and the long, fortress-like stone wall of Cochrane Hall. He went up to the fourth floor, stopping in front of Room 4040, where Emily Jane Hilscher lived.

Practice was over.

Authorities are still trying to determine why Cho decided to stop at the room of Hilscher, a 19-year-old freshman from Woodville who wanted to be a veterinarian and her roommate, Heather Haugh.

Haugh would later tell investigators that she had recently accompanied Hilscher's boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, to a nearby firing range to shoot guns, opening up the possibility of an encounter with Cho before Monday morning.

Whatever the circumstance, the commotion at her door that morning was enough to stir the student living next door. Resident adviser Ryan Clark, 22, a senior and trombone player in the Tech band who was working to complete a triple major, went to see what was going on.

Freshman Connor Miles, a former roommate of Clark's, said he was told that Clark said something like "Keep it down. Take it easy."

The burst of gunfire that followed killed Clark and Hilscher.

"I thought it could have been doors slamming, but it seemed like shots," said Tim Tracy, 21, who heard the gunfire below his fifth-floor room. "It was close," he said.

Jesse Paul, 20, of Warrenton said a friend who lives in the dorm told him she heard an argument, then shots, then saw a man run past along a hallway. A call went out to campus police.

Cho's roommates say they believe he never returned to Harper Hall. But by 9:01 a.m., he was apparently at the downtown Blacksburg post office, mailing a package of pictures, an 1,800-word essay and video clips to NBC News under the name "A. Ishmael." Some of the videos appeared to be filmed in his room; another was filmed in a van.

The last update to his manifesto was made at 7:24 a.m. Monday, just minutes after he had shot and killed Hilscher and Clark.

"I didn't have to do this," he said in one of the videos. "I could have left. I could have fled. But no, I will no longer run."

Within 20 minutes of leaving the post office, he entered Norris Hall and chained the doors shut so no one could get out.

Few students knew that two people had been killed two hours earlier in the dorm. Then, at 9:26 a.m., Tech officials sent a campuswide e-mail about the 7:15 a.m. West Ambler Johnston shooting.

"Police are on the scene and investigating," it read. "The University community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case," it stated.

Classes were already under way when Cho, in a tan ammo vest stuffed with clips for his weapons, silently walked down the second-floor hallway and entered Room 206 — G.V. Loganathan's advanced-hydrology class.

Guillermo Colman remembers the shooting starting about 9:20.

A stranger pushed open the windowless, solid wooden door and swung into a shooter's stance. Without saying a word, he began firing his 9 mm at the front row of students, moving from his left to his right, according to an account posted on a Shenandoah Valley news blog by a friend and fellow church member of Colman's.

Colman was in the last chair in the front row, and he dove for cover. Moments later, he felt the student next to him, 34-year-old doctoral candidate Partahi Lumbantoruan, land on top of him.

Cho emptied one 15-round clip, ejected it and inserted another. He moved around the room and its 14 students, shooting. Colman felt a bullet strike Lumbantoruan, then he felt a searing pain in his own neck.

Cho left the room.

Colman gestured to another student, who reached into his book bag, took out Colman's cell phone and dialed 911.

"I don't recall having fear," Colman told his friend, who visited him in the hospital afterward. "I only recall praying and thinking about my wife and my son, and that I didn't want to die here."

Still, Colman lay motionless beneath Lumbantoruan, as if dead, fearing Cho would return.

He did.

At one point, Cho stood next to him. Colman felt three or four more shots slam into the still body scissored across him. Then a pause, before he heard more shots, but no longer in Room 206.

The killer had moved on.

By the time Jamie Bishop's German class recognized the muffled popping sounds for what they were, the shooter had stepped through the door of their classroom, 207, and was firing.

Cho's first two shots killed Bishop and a student in the front row.

Student Derek O'Dell said Cho never uttered a word as he methodically mowed down students, some as close as 2 feet.

In a panic, he said, students tried to cram themselves into the exitless rear corner of the classroom. Cho stepped out for minute, and O'Dell — with help from Katelyn Carney, 21, of Sterling, Kevin Sterne, from the Pittsburgh area, and another student — raced to the door to hold it shut.

"There was an anger in his eyes. He was very angry and absolutely determined to kill," O'Dell said.

Cho couldn't push in, but one of the bullets he fired through the door struck Carney's left hand. O'Dell was shot in the arm. Sterne was hit in his femoral artery — he managed to stanch the flow of blood and save his life with a tourniquet made from electrical cord.

Cho moved on to Room 204. That's where 76-year-old engineering science and mathematics professor Liviu Librescu was trying to hold the door to keep the students in his solid mechanics class safe as the 5-foot-8, 150-pound gunman pushed in on the other side.

"When the shooting started, he [Librescu] looked concerned, but he never panicked," said Richard Mallalieu, a junior engineering sciences and mechanics student from Luray. He was among those who sought safety by the only other way out of the room: a leap from the second-story window.

"When I went out the window, he was guarding the door," Mallalieu said.

Librescu, who as a boy in Romania survived internment in a World War II labor camp, was overtaken and shot in the head.

Cho fired more shots at students and then left abruptly.

"That's not what I think it is," professor Jocelyne Couture-Nowak told her class in disbelief, moments before Cho came to the door of her French class in 211.

"Somebody call 911!"

It was about 9:40 a.m., and sophomore Allison Cook was seated in the middle of the classroom, three rows away from the door.

"A lot of us hit the ground and covered our heads," said the 19-year-old former basketball player at Henrico County's Mills Godwin High School.

Cook said she shut her eyes and prayed.

The gun came in first. Students pushed a desk to the door, trying to barricade themselves, but Cho broke through.

"He then began methodically and calmly shooting people down," said Clay Violand. "It sounded rhythmic — like he took his time in between each shot and kept up the pace, moving from person to person."

Cook said, "The only thing I could hear was gunshots going off."

They got louder and louder, as Cho waded deeper into the room, getting closer and closer to her.

"I was in shock," Cook said. "I couldn't believe what was happening."

Then she heard bangs at close range, and felt a searing sensation.

"My chest started to get tight, and I couldn't breathe," she said.

Cho left the room briefly.

Sometime during his rampage on the second floor, he encountered Kevin Granata, a 46-year-old engineering science professor who had come down from the third floor to stop Cho. Granata was shot dead in the hallway.

Cho returned to Couture-Nowak's class to unload what Violand believed to be "a second round into everyone again. It had to be the same people. There were way more gunshots than there were people in that room," said Violand, who managed to avoid being shot by playing dead.

Colin Goddard, shot once when Cho first broke into the room and twice more when he returned, remembers lying beneath his desk and hearing one or two more shots after he was hit.

And Cook lay wounded with gunshot wounds to her side, shoulder and lower back.

Then suddenly, silence.

Cook opened her eyes. Near her on the ground was classmate Emily Haas, a fellow Henrico County student who had come to Tech from St. Gertrude's School. She was on her cell phone, talking to police.

Across from Cook on the floor was Violand.

"You're going to be OK," she said he told her. "You're going to get through this."

A few minutes later, five officers cautiously entered the room.

Haas, who had been grazed by a shot to her head, got up and walked toward the door. So did Violand.

"Is there anyone else?" an officer called out into the silent room, where just minutes before the 20-some students and their teacher had been sitting at their desks reviewing French grammar.

"I'm here," Cook said weakly, raising her hand.

"C'mon," said the officer. And Cook got up from the floor and walked out with three bullets in her.

"Getting out of that room was the only thought on my mind," she said. "I knew safety was on the other side of that door."

That fact was confirmed within moments of police arriving. An officer on the floor sent out the message: "Shooter down."

Cho lay dead of a single gunshot wound to the head that officials said rendered his face almost unrecognizable. Officials said he carried no identification.

By 9 p.m., however, investigators would be searching the suite he occupied at Harper Hall and interviewing his roommates in a desperate search for answers to explain the bloodshed.

Family, friends and classmates would spend anxious hours wondering whether their loved ones were among the 32 people Cho murdered and the 15 he wounded.

Some survivors, like Cook, were able to make contact quickly. She borrowed a cell phone at the hospital.

"Mom, I've been shot, but I'm OK," she said.

For others, though, tragedy was revealed by the excruciating absence of contact — of cell-phone calls not returned and Internet messages unanswered.

"Please call me asap," one of Hampton junior Lauren McCain's friends wrote on her MySpace page at 10:44 a.m. Monday, about an hour after the shootings at Norris Hall. "I'm worried about you with all the news I heard this morning."

Less than three hours later, at 1:24 p.m., another message was posted: "Call your parents asap."

By Tuesday, the posts turned into expressions of grief.

"Lauren I love you and I'll miss you, you were such a great role model," wrote a friend around noon. "Hope your family is okay. We all know your [sic] in a better place now."

Yesterday, family and about 800 hundred mourners said goodbye to Rachael Elizabeth Hill at Grove Avenue Baptist Church on Ridge Road.

Her classmates described her strong faith in God. "We can let Rachael leaving us tear us further from God, with guilt or anger or whatever it may be, or we can allow this to draw us closer to him," said Andrew Cannada. "Rachael knew God's peace, and I know that if she was here today she would want to encourage everyone listening to never forget the peace that God can give us."

Over the coming days, there will be more funerals and memorial services to honor the victims:

Ross Abdallah Alameddine, Christopher "Jamie" Bishop, Brian Roy Bluhm, Ryan Clark, Austin Cloyd, Daniel Pérez Cueva, Kevin P. Granata, Matthew G. Gwaltney, Caitlin Hammaren, Jeremy Herbstritt, Rachael Elizabeth Hill, Emily Jane Hilscher, Jarrett Lane, Matthew J. La Porte, Henh "Henry" Lee, Liviu Librescu, G.V. Loganathan, Partahi Lumbantoruan, Lauren McCain, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, Daniel O'Neil, Juan Ramón Ortiz Ortiz, Minal Panchal, Erin Peterson, Michael Pohle, Julia Pryde, Mary Karen Read, Reema Samaha, Waleed Mohamed Shaalan, Leslie Sherman, Maxine Turner and Nicole White.

The wounded will take weeks and months to recover from their physical injuries. As of Friday, all but eight had been released from the hospital.

But no one knows the timeline for healing the emotional scars of that Monday in Blacksburg.

"I haven't really had a lot of time to think about how, but I know my life has changed," said Cook, who still carries three bullets in her body. She will recuperate at home for the rest of the semester and plans to return to Virginia Tech in the fall.

"I just can't imagine going to any other school,' she said. "The Virginia Tech community has been so great in supporting me and my family and the rest of the victims. I have to go back there — I'm a true Hokie."

Maria Gillian plans to return to Blacksburg tomorrow to a rearranged dorm room that no longer has her best friend's clothing or bed or hair dye or posters. She and Hill were supposed to watch the Jack Nicholson movie "As Good As It Gets" last Monday.

"It's going to be challenging," Gillian said of the coming weeks. "I'm just so hurt right now because my best friend is gone. I just can't imagine what would make anyone pick up a gun and do something like that."

Thirty-two dead.

"This is someone that I grew up with and loved," said Cho's sister, Sun-Kyung Cho in her statement Friday. "Now I feel like I didn't know this person. . . . We have always been a close, peaceful and loving family," she added.

"We never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence."

Contact staff writer Jim Nolan at jnolan@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6061.

Contact staff writer David Ress at dress@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6051.

Staff writers Rex Bowman, Greg Edwards, Frank Green, Kiran Krishnamurthy, Bill McKelway, Michael Martz, John Packett, Carlos Santos, Calvin Trice, Jeff White and Paul Woody contributed to this report.