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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Revisiting the Virginia Tech massacre: Breath-taking new information

Virginia Tech began its fall semester Monday. We're going to mark the return to classes by revisiting that dark hour in April when Seung-Hui Cho roamed the halls, killing 25 students and 5 staff members and wounding over a dozen.

By incorporating vital new information we can correct mistakes in our previous stories and put the events into a better perspective than was possible before.

The Rosetta Stone to the story is a transcript of a 911 call from Virginia Tech which was released to the Washington Post in June. It allows us to orient the happenings at the school and to correlate various time estimates by students. The results are often breath-taking.

Cho's rampage started much later than we thought and took much less time than we imagined. He killed 30 people in four classrooms in the space of only 11 minutes.

And, we now know that the shots caught on a student's videophone and broadcast on CNN were Cho's final rampage, the exact moment when he was killing students in French class. The video ends with the sound of a huge bang, which is the sound of police firing a shotgun to force their way into the school past doors that had been chained shut from the inside. A minute later Cho fired his final shot--- into his own head.


Classes in Virginia Tech's Norris Hall started at 9:05 a.m.

At 9:01 a.m. Cho was at a post office mailing a home-made video of his rants against the world to NBC. A short while later school janitor Pamela Tickle was dusting a hallway on the second floor of Norris Hall when she passed a young man she now knows was Cho. He had a serious look on his face and she figured he was on his way to turn in a paper at one of the offices along the hall.

But what attracted her attention was the noise he made when he walked.

"You could hear stuff jingling," she said. The noise came from his pockets.

About 9:30 a.m. engineering student Zach Vane, 21, left Professor Liviu Librescu's mechanical engineering class in Room 204 and went to the washroom at the end of the hall. That rest stop may have saved his life.

Cho passed Tickle again, looking very intense.

The next time anyone saw him, he was peeking into occupied classrooms, sometimes visiting a classroom twice. The students found it unusual, the professors found it annoying.

Student David Stumpf finished an exam and headed for a coffee shop on campus. He noticed the time on his cellphone read 9:40 a.m.

Tickle kept dusting to the end of the hallway when she saw a student by the exit doors. He couldn't get out because the doors had been lashed together with chains and a gold padlock. The student, David Stumpf, asked her why the doors were chained.

Tickle said she had no idea, and said she would call her boss. At that moment, associate engineering professor Janis Terpenny walked up and showed Tickle a note she had plucked from the door leading to the stairwell on the second floor.

It read: " Bomb will go off if you open the door." The word "Bomb" was underlined. The note was written in red ink on the back of a flier.

Terpenny and Tickle now believe Cho posted the note to discourage people from entering the hallway from the stairwell and interrupting him as he chained and padlocked the doors with the chains that jangled as he walked by the janitor earlier.

* It's becoming more apparent that Cho planned his murder spree meticulously.

Police say that two days before the mass killings, a Saturday, they answered calls about a suspicious man in Norris Hall, and they discovered at least one door had been chained shut. You don't have to be Columbo to guess who that suspicious man was.

Back in Norris Hall, Tickle said she was going to call her supervisor. She was walking toward a closet to get her phone when the first shots rang out.

* Cho began his killing spree in Room 206, Hydrology. The 20 x 30 classroom held 14 people.

Cho stepped into the room armed with two handguns. He shot and killed Prof. G.V. Longanathan, 51. He killed Julia Pryde, 23, who sat near beside the front door.

Then he walked along the front row, shooting everyone in turn. Brian Bluhm, 25, Matthew Gwaltney, 24, and Juan Ortiz, 26, died where they sat.

Guillermo (Gil) Colman, 38, sat in the last chair in the front row to the shooter's right. The second he realized what was happening, he dived to the floor beside a radiator and covered up. Partahi Lumbantoruan, 34, who sat in the row behind him was shot and his body fell across Colman's. Cho shot Colman in the head behind his left ear.

The 9 mm. bullet lodged at the base of his skull, stopped in place by a bone that someone said later just happens to be the hardest bone in the human body. Colman also suffered a bullet wound to his shoulder, which may have been a ricochet. Another bullet grazed his nose leaving a burn. Colman played dead, which was made easy as his head wound bled like crazy.

Cho fired at Park Chang-Min, 27, who sat two rows behind Colman, also near the windows. Park was hit in the chest.

Four others-Jarrett Lane, 22, Daniel O'Neil, 22, Waleed Shaalan, 32, and Jeremy Herbstritt, 27-had been hit and were either dead or dying. Cho reloaded and fired another short burst. Then just as quickly as he entered, Cho left the room.

Only two students were unmarked - Lee Hixon who sat at the back of the class against the wall and Nathaniel Krause, who sat next to Colman in the front row. Krause was to have another brush with death very soon.

The barrage of shots hadn't gone unnoticed.

* In classes throughout Norris Hall students and professors wondered what the noise was, but dismissed it as the sound of the construction that had been going on all year. But some recognized it as the sound of gunshots and worried.

In the next room, Room 204/Mechanics, Prof. Librescu looked into the hallway for the source of the shots. Across the hall, in Room 205/Computer Technology, teaching assistant Cheng Haiyan was doing the same. With her was student Theresa Walsh.

"I looked across the hall at Dr. Librescu's class, and I look at him and he was in the doorway. All of his students were behind him, he was like holding them inside the classroom," Walsh said this week.

"That's when I saw the shooter out of the corner of my eye. He didn't see me at first. He kept walking towards us and when he got two or three feet away he started to raise his gun. A teacher's assistant was standing in the doorway. I was still in the hall. That's when I pushed her into the classroom and he shot and missed and we slammed the door," Walsh recounted earlier.

But Cho may not have been shooting at Walsh.

In Librescu's class, his students had been getting progressively more worried about the noises next door. The New York Times later reported that one student shouted, "That's gunfire, I'm getting out of here."

That student was Jamal Carver. He dashed out the door, with another student, Yank Kim, right behind him, only to run into Cho as he left Room 204. They sprinted toward a stairwell, but they couldn't outrun Cho's bullets.

Carver was knocked to the ground when bullets hit his right arm and left side. Kim helped him up and they ran down the stairs to the exit doors---only to find them chained shut. They took refuge in a main floor classroom and waited for help to arrive.

Back in their class, Prof. Librescu said, "Someone call 911." At the back of the room, Alec Calhoun waved his cellphone in the air to signal he had already called.

* Outside on the second floor, Cho simply walked across the hall to Room 207/German immediately across from Hydrology. There were only a dozen people inside and they had been growing more concerned as the strange noise didn't let up.

"That can't be gunshots, can it?" the professor said.

They had been joking that maybe they should barricade the door in case the sounds they were when Cho walked in and immediately shot Prof. Jamie Bishop, 35, in the head.

"Everyone hit the floor at that moment," said student Trey Perkins, 20. He would later remember looking at the time on his cellphone when he first heard shots. 9:40 a.m.

A girl screamed, setting off a chain of events in Prof. Livescu's class.

Cho methodically walked along the front row shooting people, said one survivor. Lily Habtu was sitting in the centre of the class. She was shot twice, once in the face and once in the right wrist. The bullet went through her jaw and lodged in her tongue. If it had gone even one millimeter further it would have hit her brainstem killing or paralyzing her.

Sean McQuade, 21, was also in the front row. He was shot in the face, the bullet shattering his jaw before splintering into five fragments.

Kevin Sterne, 22, was hit in the right thigh two times. One bullet went right through, the other severed a major artery and he was in danger of bleeding to death. Derek O'Dell was hit in the right arm. "Then I started belly crawling military-style to the back of the room, while he was firing, and hid under another desk." said O'Dell.

Garrett Evans was shot in the left leg. Katelyn Carney was hiding behind a desk shielding her face with her left hand when a bullet smashed through the desk hitting her temple and grazing her temple.

Perkins, who sat at the back of the class, hid behind overturned desks. He was not hit.

Erin Sheehan dove to the ground with bodies piling up all around her. She was covered in their blood, but was not wounded herself.

Cho ran out of bullets. For a second there was quiet as he reloaded. Then he fired another burst of 8-10 shots into the students.

* The gunshots could be heard throughout the building. A girl who had finished an accounting test on the third floor ran back to alert her class.

"(She) was freaking out. She was, like, something is going on downstairs. People are running out of the building. There's gunshots going off," recalled Tiffany Otey. Her professor spoke with a colleague, Kevin Granata, and the class of about 20 was ushered into Granata's office and the door was locked.

Granata went down to the second floor to check out the situation for himself. He bumped into Professor Wally Grant who left his second floor office to do the same. Together they walked toward the room where the sounds were coming from---Room 207.

Granata knocked on the classroom door, Grant told the Charleston Daily Mail. "The shooter opened the door and shot him right away."

Grant, who was standing about five feet away, turned and ran for his life back the way he had come. Cho fired shots at the fleeing man, but missed. Some ricochets, however, hit Grant in the triceps muscle of his right arm and the side of his face. He decided to duck into a bathroom at the end of the hallway.

Inside was Librescu's student Zach Vane who was just leaving to go back to class. Grant called 911 and the pair waited for rescue. The washroom door didn't lock and they knew they couldn't stop the gunman if he chose to force his way in.

Following Grant would have led Cho down the hallway toward the back of the school, back to the door into Room 211/French where 18 people were praying to survive the latest school horror.

(to be continued tomorrow)

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