Revisiting the Virginia Tech massacre Part Two
Review, rethink and revise
Blame our obsessive need to know the truth. To achieve our goal of providing the very best account of what happened April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech we've had to constantly review our source material and, if necessary, rewrite our story to incorporate new information.
We have to do it again.
The transcript of a 911 call from Room 211/French class gives us a rough timeline to what happened in the last eight minutes of the massacre. While preparing this piece, we came across an obscure first-hand account by a student in Room 205. The story ( 'It was the most horrifying sight', April 19, 2007, Times News Network, Times of India) was attributed to "a computer engineering student at Virginia Tech who was present in the Norris Hall that day. He wants his name to be withheld because the university has barred students from talking to the media."
A little bit of detective work matching quotes identified the student as Zach Petkewicz, whose suggestion to barricade the door to his classroom saved the lives of everyone in Room 205. In his anonymous account he wrote:
One of the girls ( The Black Rod has determined this is Theresa Walsh ) went into the hallway to see what was happening. The moment she saw the gun, she ran back inside the room and slammed the door. All of us got down on the floor immediately.
After that we heard continuous shooting for one whole minute. I asked, "Shouldn't we barricade the door because we are sitting ducks with no way out of that room if he opened the door?"
A couple of more people also suggested the same thing. But all of us were too scared to move, forget about moving the teacher's desk.
Finally, one of the guys in the front of the classroom was brave enough to get up and move the desk in front of the door to prevent outside entry. About 20 seconds later, the shooter rattled the doorknob trying to get in.
We realized that his timing of events more accurately put Cho's visit to Room 205 near the beginning of his shooting spree rather than near the end where we had it.
As a result we've revised our moment-by-moment account of the Virginia Tech massacre:
* Cho started his killing spree in Room 206/ Hydrology class about 9:40 a.m.
* Leaving the room with guns in hand, he was spotted by Theresa Walsh and the teacher of Room 205/Computer Engineering and Prof. Liviu Librescu of Room 204/ Solid Mechanics who were looking into the hallway to see where the gunfire sounds were coming from.
* Cho was distracted by two students who ran out of Room 204 and made a break for the exits. Cho shot at the boys, hitting one of them.
* Cho then went across the hall to Room 207 where a German class was in session. Cho had scouted out Room 207 earlier in the hour.
* He was in Room 207 when Professors Kevin Granata and Wally Grant knocked on the door. Cho shot Granata in the face and fired shots at Prof. Wally Grant who ran for his life.
* We now believe this is when Cho went to Room 205 and couldn't force his way in.
* He walked down the hall to a French class in Room 211. It's possible French Professor Couture-Nowak attracted his attention if this was the moment she glanced into the hallway as we'll recount.
* From French class, Cho went back to Room 207/German, but the surviving students kept him out.
* He went across the hall to Room 204/Solid Mechanics, finding few left to kill.
*Then he returned to Room 206/Hydrology.
* And finally he went back to Room 211, where he eventually killed himself.
We can now pick up the story where we left off:
As Seung Hui Cho approached Room 211/Intermediate French class, the 18 people inside already knew of the demonic force coming closer with each step.
In a scenario repeated in every classroom on the second floor of Norris Hall, the professor and students had at first tried to explain away the staccato noises they heard.
"Please tell me that's not what I think it is, is it?" Prof. Joceyln Couture-Nowak said. Initially she had been reassured it was construction noise, exactly what every class thought. Then, like other teachers, she looked into the hallway to see for herself.
"It got louder and it got closer, and it was very, very rapid in succession," recalled student Colin Goddard. "So [the teacher] poked her head out. Immediately she pulled it back in with a terrified look on her face, told us all to get on the ground, call 911."
Goddard grabbed his cell phone and dialed. But for some reason the 911 operator couldn't understand him. She kept asking where he was calling from, then repeating the wrong location back to him.
"A lot of us hit the ground and covered our heads," said Allison Cook, who sat in the middle of the classroom, three rows away from the door. The 19-year-old sophomore shut her eyes and prayed. Hillary Strollo curled up in a fetal position.
Student Clay Violand told Couture-Nowak, "Put that desk in front of the door, now."
The professor and some of her students pushed her desk over to block the door. Then they stacked some of the students' plastic desks around it.
Couture-Nowak told her students to get to the back of the room. She backed up against a wall.
"...we really were trying to be very quiet." said Emily Haas, who was huddled against the back wall with four other students. " ... I think it was Clay (Violand) said, keep quiet. Keep quiet, so he wouldn't think there was anybody in the room." They didn't have to wait long.
"I could hear him jiggling the door handle. I had my eyes closed," Haas told CNN.
Then the door began to splinter as Cho fired into it."It looked like he was trying to shoot the lock out. When he started firing at the door, I hit the floor," Goddard told Newsweek.
Cho kicked the door in. He shot Couture-Nowak point blank.
We believe it was at this point that Matthew LaPorte, a 20-year-old Air Force ROTC sophomore, jumped Cho in the only known incidence of defiance during the entire shooting spree. LaPorte's usual seat was in the front by the door.
But Cho, armed with a gun in each hand, shot LaPorte in the head and killed him.
He then began a slow counter-clockwise walk through the classroom, methodically shooting the remaining students.
"It sounded rhythmic - like he took his time in between each shot and kept up the pace, moving from person to person." said survivor Clay Violand.
"He just started walking down the rows of desks, shooting people multiple times. He didn't say anything. He didn't demand anything. He was just shooting." said Goddard, who was in front of Violand, trying to hide his 6-foot-3 body under a desk.
Goddard dropped his cell phone when he saw Cho shoot his way into the room.
He kept his eyes on the ground, refusing to look at the gunman. "I saw his boots, I saw his pants, I saw his shirt, and I saw two holsters over each of his shoulders, pistol holsters, and then that's as much of him as I wanted to see. I didn't want to make eye contact," he says. "I thought if I looked at him, then he would know I'm here."
But the 911 operator was still on the line.
"I think he heard the police on the phone," Goddard said. "He shot some people near me, he shot the girl across from me in the back."
That girl, Ukraine-born Kristina Heeger, 20, was shot in the lower back. Doctors would later remove two-thirds of one of her kidneys. Before the morning was over Heeger would be hit two more times, in the lower body and once in the foot from a ricocheting bullet.
As Cho made his circuit around the room, he found his path through the rows blocked by backpacks and overturned chairs. This factor may have saved the lives of six people who survived the rampage, almost all of whom were huddled at the back of the class.
"I couldn't believe what was happening," said Alison Cook. Then she heard shots almost on top of her, and felt "a searing sensation."
"My chest started to get tight, and I couldn't breathe," she said. She had been shot in the shoulder and the bullet lodged in her ribs.
"After every shot I thought: 'OK, the next one is me. Shot after shot went off and I never felt anything. I played dead and tried to look as lifeless as possible," said Violand. "I was under a desk. He shot the person to my left and to my right. He didn't shoot me."
Colin Goddard flinched when he was hit in the left leg, but, he told Newsweek he "did his best to stay still, to play dead."
Emily Haas saw Goddard drop his phone. She picked it up, and it's here that one of the last mysteries of the Virginia Tech shooting begins.
A transcript of the 911 call was released, without authorization police said later, to the Washington Post in June. It provides the only official times for the events at Norris Hall.
Inexplicably, the Virginia Tech police department claims this was the first 911 call they received about the mass murders taking place. But by so doing they don't explain why the police failed to respond to earlier calls and why it took them twice as long to arrive at Norris Hall than they say it did.
As we have shown, there had already been at the very least four previous 911 calls.
* After Cho left Room 206/Hydrology class, Gil Colman told another survivor, Nathanial Krause, who was uninjured, to go into his backpack, get Colman's phone, and call 911.
* Seeing Cho leave Room 206, gun in hand, Theresa Walsh in Room 205/Computers called 911.
* At the same time Prof. Librescu in Room 204/Mechanics called for someone in his class to call 911. His student Alec Calhoun did.
* And in Room 211/French, Colin Goddard made the first 911 call, which technically was the same call Emily Haas was making.
But as far back as April 25, Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell R. Flinchum was claiming that the Haas call was the first. He held a news conference where he talked about "a 911 call reporting gunshots being heard in Norris Hall is received by police at 9:42 a.m."
"Officers respond immediately to Norris Hall and attempt to enter the building. However, the doors had been chained from within. Virginia Tech and Blacksburg officers breach the doors and move inside by shooting the lock. As they move through the building they hear shots being fired from a floor above them. They hear the last gunshot as they are going up the stairwell to the second floor.
Cho Seung-Hui's shooting rampage inside Norris Hall lasted approximately nine minutes. From the first 911 call at 9:42 a.m., it took the officers only about three minutes to arrive in the area of Norris Hall. Just five minutes later the entry team officers had reached the doors, breached the chains, and made it to the second floor."
On April 20, 2007, Emily Haas told CNN anchor PAULA ZAHN why she picked up the phone.
"And I picked it up, so they would know we were still there. And the 911 operator wanted me to keep talking. And I said, no, I want to be quiet, so he doesn't know we're here. And she was in my ear the whole time, saying, just breathe. Just breathe."
The transcript of that call (or at least the Washington Post story "Eight Minutes after 911 Call, A Rescue From Madness, By Sari Horwitz Washington Post Staff Writer, Friday, June 22, 2007; Page A01) says it came in at 9:43 a.m. (one minute later than Chief Flinchum said at his news conference.) Haas talks to Virginia Tech Police Lt. Debbi Morgan.
Haas: "We've been hurt"
The sound of gunfire is so loud it's as if someone was shooting into the receiver, said the Washington Post.
Morgan: "Where are you?"
Haas: "Two-Eleven Norris Hall."
Morgan can be heard shouting to two dispatchers. There's a shooting! 211 Norris Hall! Happening now.
Morgan: "Are you still there?"
Gasping for breath.
Haas: "I can't talk"
Morgan: "Keep yourself safe," "We're sending people."
Haas: "Please hurry,"
Morgan: "Try to stay calm," "Ease your breathing."
Morgan asked Haas whether she still heard the gunshots.
Yes, Haas said, but they were farther away.
Cho was gone, leaving the room awash in blood and bodies.
Unknown to Haas, he was retracing his steps. He had gone back to Room 207/German class.
Of the 13 people in the room, almost everybody was already either dead or seriously wounded following Cho's first attack only minutes earlier. They could still hear shots but they sounded farther and farther away.
Garret Evans, shot in both legs, looked around the room and saw the most severely wounded fighting for life.
Lily Habtu had been shot in the wrist and in the face, the bullet passing through her jaw and stopping in her tongue a hairsbreadth from her spinal cord. She passed out, came to, then passed out again. "She was bleeding bad," he said.
Sean McQuade had also been shot in the face, his jaw shattered. A came to rest at the base of his skull, and severed eight nerves, paralyzing the right side of his face. He had passed out. Evans watched him come to, breathing heavily, then fall out of his chair.
Kevin Sterne had been shot twice in the leg and was literally bleeding to death. One of the bullets had torn his femoral artery. An Eagle Scout trained in first aid, he knew what he had to do to stay alive. He found an electrical cord and tied it around his leg as a tourniquet. Then he passed out.
"There were maybe four of us coherent enough to do anything," said Derek O'Dell.
As soon as the gunman left the room, those four went into action. O'Dell and Katelyn Carney had been shot; Trey Perkins and Erin Sheehan had miraculously escaped injury. O'Dell, Carney and Perkins rushed to the door and threw themselves against it to act as a human barricade. They braced the door with their feet while Sheehan went to the windows to call for help.
O'Dell was bleeding from a through-and-through gunshot to his right arm. He used his belt as a tourniquet, pulling it tight with his teeth. He was calling 911 when the gunman returned."
The door came open about 3 inches," recalled Evans. "I saw his face. I thought he would put the gun through and shoot."
But Cho just kept pushing on the door, trying to get in. Carney's head was banged by the door a few times, but the students held him back.
Frustrated, Cho fired four or five shots into the door. The door splintered, but the bullets didn't penetrate. And just as suddenly, he was gone.
Cho had moved on---to Room 204. But for the first time, the students on the second floor of Norris Hall had hope of rescue. The police had arrived.
Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell R. Flinchum said police arrived about three minutes after the Haas 911 call, i.e. about 9:46.They didn't immediately try to enter Norris Hall.
State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller, explaining police response time, said officers needed to assemble the proper team and clear the area before breaking through the doors.
We have no accounts of any of the first police at the scene. But a Newsweek story, which may have only appeared online as a Web Exclusive, provides some a clue to what police knew or didn't know when they arrived.
The story, dated April 23, 2007, by Pat Wingert, is about Virginia State Police Sgt. Matthew Brannock, who attended the shooting scene and helped carry some of the wounded students out of the building.
He tells how he was listening to the police scanner in his Salem, Virginia, office when he heard Virginia State Trooper Ken Kozar say that "a suspect had barricaded himself" in a campus building.
Knowing of the double murder on the Virginia Tech campus that morning, Brannock decided to head over.
"A few minutes later, Kozar was back on the scanner, his voice now clearly betraying stress. 'There was a chance the suspect was armed.' Brannock flipped on his sirens and picked up speed. Moments later, Kozar was yelling into the scanner. Shots were being fired. 'Get me some help up here!' he hollered." (Newsweek Web Exclusive)
At first glance, this doesn't appear to be the account of a policeman responding to any of the 911 calls that came in as Cho went from room to room killing people.
Did the police delay dispatching police to Norris Hall for 3 minutes because they thought they were dealing with a routine man-with-a-gun report instead of a mass murder?
Whatever the reason for the delay, they were there now.
Tomorrow: the conclusion
And Cho was heading for Room 204. And a big disappointment.