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Echoes of 2007 color reactions to Va Tech shooting

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Four and a half years ago, the sound of horns and alarms did not have the same effect on Jerzy Nowak.

On the morning of April 16, 2007, the Virginia Tech horticulture professor was at his desk in Sanders Hall, writing research grant proposals, when the wail of sirens split the crisp, snowy air. It would be hours before he learned that a gunman was loose on campus — and more than half a day would pass before university officials arrived at his home to confirm that his wife, French professor Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, was among the 32 slain.

So when the alarms again sounded Thursday morning, Nowak was immobilized.

“I froze ... like my life just stopped for a split second,” he said in his thick Polish accent. “I actually reacted ... much stronger than last time. Because, last time, I was not aware what was going on.”

For those who were there in 2007, the shooting death of a campus police officer in a school parking lot and the apparent suicide of his killer brought back harrowing memories of what remains the worst mass killing in United States history. But the police and university response to the incident were also proof that the painful sacrifices of “4/16” were not in vain.

“There have been a lot of people that have been working REALLY hard since 2007 to make sure that there are systems in place to prevent what happened in 2007 and the miscommunications that could have saved people’s lives from EVER happening again,” said Fred Cook, 26, who broke his ankle jumping from a second-floor window of Norris Hall, where student Seung-Hui Cho killed 30 of his victims and eventually took his own life.

“So it pays tribute to the work that some of the survivors and some of the groups that have come out of this have done in that time, what the university has done in that time, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” he added.

Officer Deriek W. Crouse was making a traffic stop when police say Ross Truett Ashley, a 22-year-old student at a nearby college, walked up to his cruiser and shot him. Within minutes of the 911 call, an alert went out and the campus was locked down. Police have found no connection between the two and are trying to find a motive.

Cho shot his first two victims around 7:30 a.m. on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall. Campus officials, believing this was a domestic shooting, didn’t lock down the campus or issue an alert.

It wasn’t until 9:26 a.m. that the university sent out the first email to students and faculty. The subject line read, “Shooting on campus.” But it wasn’t until nearly a half hour later that a second email warned everyone to “stay put” and said a gunman was on the loose on campus.

Coincidentally, this latest shooting occurred the same day university officials were in Washington to appeal a $55,000 fine by the U.S. Department of Education for notification delays during the 2007 rampage. Derek O’Dell thinks an alert immediately after the first shootings four years ago might have changed his life.

That day, O’Dell arrived on campus around 8 a.m. for an exam. He was blissfully unaware that anything was amiss as he strolled over to Norris for his 9 a.m. German class in Room 207.

O’Dell, then a sophomore, was sitting in the second row when the black-clad Cho burst into the room and began firing. He dove under his desk but was shot through his upper right arm.

When Cho moved on, O’Dell and other students ran to the door (none of the classroom doors in Norris had locks) and closed it. Cho returned, but O’Dell and his classmates wedged their feet against the door and prevented him from re-entering.

Now in the third year of a four-year veterinary doctoral program, the 24-year-old Roanoke native was in his apartment about two miles off campus Thursday, studying for an ophthalmology exam, when he received a “VT Alert.” There had been false alarms before, and he was hoping this was one of them.

Then he turned on the local news and realized this was the real thing.

“I never thought that I would see a school shooting at Virginia Tech while I was still a student here,” he said.

Four and a half years ago, sociology professor James Hawdon was watching out the window of his sixth-floor office in McBride Hall as ambulances and SWAT vehicles swarmed the Drillfield. He stared in disbelief as officers carried bleeding students and colleagues from Norris, just 100 yards away.

On Thursday, he was again on that sixth floor, though in a different room. He and about 30 members of his department were going over strategies for next semester when the time and date reading on the wall-mounted digital monitor — like that now in nearly every other classroom and office on campus — flashed news about the shooting.

After a few moments of “I can’t believe this is happening again,” Hawdon said, people got up and went back to their respective offices to work. The only reason Hawdon didn’t do the same is that his office is in the Center for Peace Studies & Violence Prevention — which occupies the remodeled Norris rooms where most of the 2007 victims perished.

“In terms of my personal safety, I did not feel particularly threatened on either incident, to be honest with you,” said Hawdon, who took over as the center’s chief when founding director Nowak retired this summer.

While Thursday’s events may have been traumatic for some, Cho’s rampage was extraordinary.

“In 2007, it was obvious that the community was attacked,” Hawdon said. By comparison, he said Crouse’s death seems more “like a horrible, horrific event that just happened, happened to happen here.”

From the windows of his office in McComas Hall, Christopher Flynn can see West AJ across the street. The director of the Cook Counseling Center also has a clear view of the Cassell Coliseum parking lot where Officer Crouse died.

About a dozen students were there for meetings when the lockdown order came. As he stood at the door ushering students inside, Flynn knew something serious was happening, but there was not the overwhelming feeling of dread that permeated the atmosphere four years ago.

Unlike April 2007, he said, “I wasn’t worried that someone was coming towards us with a gun, ever. Or that our lives were in danger. The police presence was massive and quick.”

During the lockdown, students calmly studied for exams — Friday was “reading day” — or followed news coverage on phones, laptops and tablets, Flynn said. The center has fielded a few calls from distressed students, but not the rush that outsiders might expect.

“I’d say the mood on campus is one of deep sadness, but not anxiety,” Flynn said.

This time, advances in technology made a big difference in how people dealt with the crisis.

In 2007, Facebook was still relatively new to campus and Twitter was less than a year old. Cell phone towers were quickly overwhelmed, and streaming news coverage on a smartphone was not yet commonplace.

But when the campus website crashed Thursday, students were still able to send and receive tweets — particularly on a feed maintained by The Collegiate Times, the student newspaper.

Despite the 2007 massacre, Blacksburg and Virginia Tech somehow haven’t completely lost their innocence. Flynn notes that Business Week magazine recently ranked this Blue Ridge foothills town of about 41,000 residents the best place in America to raise children.

If this latest tragedy had happened at just about any other school, university vice president Ed Spencer said, “it might have been a bullet point in the news.”

“The April (2007) tragedy here was way out of the ordinary, bizarre, horrendous, whatever adjective you want to use, and you have to put that in a category by itself,” said Spencer, who was standing with officers at West AJ when they learned of the shootings at Norris.

But try as some might, it’s impossible to eliminate April 16, 2007, from the picture.

Cook was in professor Liviu Librescu’s solid mechanics class on the second floor of Norris when the shooting began. He and the others flipped over desks in a vain attempt to hide from the fusillade of 174 rounds Cho fired inside the building.

The diminutive Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, held the door shut while most of his students escaped. He died after being shot several times through the door.

Fred Cook, now 26, left Virginia Tech in 2009 after getting his master’s degree in engineering mechanics. But he has been back in Blacksburg since the summer working on a business venture, and was just about a quarter-mile from campus when he got the VT Alert on his phone.

While his reaction to the alert was “visceral,” it was just a more vivid reminder of a pain that is always with him and other survivors.

“I think about it every day, you know? The way I’m living my life, and how I should be living it compared to how I was before,” he said. “The emotions around it are never far from the surface for anybody.”

The day after Officer Crouse was killed, things were peaceful and quiet on campus. Exams, originally scheduled to begin Friday, were pushed back just one day.

Nowak, now a professor emeritus, went back to his third-floor office in Sanders on Friday and tried to stay busy with meetings. But he admitted that seeing things return so quickly to something akin to normalcy “was a little like walking on the moon.”

Despite his initial shock, the 65-year-old widower said he never felt in any danger Thursday.

“The alert system was so good and efficient,” Nowak said softly. “I only wish we had such an alarm system, alert system, four and a half years ago.”

———

Sampson reported from Blacksburg. Breed is a national writer based in Raleigh, N.C.

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