(This is the email that I sent to most folks in my address book on April 22. I was not actively blogging at the time, but I wanted to add it to the archive.)
Dear Friends, Family, and Colleagues -
If you are receiving this message, it is either because you contacted me in the aftermath of Monday’s tragic events, or because I simply grabbed your email address from my address book because I thought that you would want to know. I tell only snippets. Thankfully, they are snippets free of blood and gore.
I arrived in my office in Whittemore Hall (about two buildings North of Norris Hall) around 8:30 on Monday morning. I filled my water bottle and took a quick troll through my email – my usual morning routine. I worked on my lecture for my Monday afternoon class. Then I called a colleague in Northern Virginia to talk research. Just before I called him, I think that the administrative assistant down the hall mentioned to me that there had been a shooting in a dorm on campus. I thought nothing of it, but immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was a domestic incident of some sort. (Isn’t that the conclusion that you would draw if someone was shot in their home in a small town – which is an apt description of our campus?)
My colleague and I had been talking for some time when I heard a speaker blaring a message outside my office window. I asked my colleague to hold, and went over to open the window so that I could hear what was being said. I actually didn’t completely understand the message at first, but somehow my colleague on the other end of the long distance line understood the missing pieces. “This is an emergency! This is an emergency! Stay indoors and keep away from all windows.” My first thought was a weather incident – we were having very high winds at the time – but my colleague and I both opened up the university webpage for more information. The webpage informed us that there had been a shooting earlier in the day – in the dorm – and that a gunman was loose on campus. At this point, I pictured police pursuing the armed suspect from the earlier incident across the campus.
I took my laptop and sat down on the floor in the corner of my office – on the opposite side of my desk from the window. I started IMing with a couple of friends online, unable to focus on actually doing work, but trying to occupy myself while waiting for the all clear. I called my wife and told her to stay at home. I was there on the floor for a couple hours. I got email from a couple of people asking if I was safe, and my mom called. At some point, the information came out that a second shooting, a “multiple shooting with multiple victims” had occurred in Norris Hall. Still, the only information that could be had about victims pointed to one or two dead and many (17, if memory serves) wounded – a terrible tragedy, certainly, but nothing compared to what would soon be revealed. Finally, around noon, we were told that a “phased evacuation” of campus was to begin immediately, with faculty and staff on my side of campus to leave immediately, with those in other parts of campus to leave in a half hour. I packed up my belongings, forgetting my laptop power adapter, and headed for home. One of my graduate students usually rides the bus and had been told that bus service was canceled for the remainder of the day. So, I offered him a ride home, which he accepted.
We emerged from the building to find 2-3 dozen ambulances from a 5-6 county area lining the street in front of Whittemore Hall. My student and I were impressed with the scale of the ambulance response, though it seemed a bit out of proportion given the reported scope. I told him that they probably had a incident response protocol for the campus that drew ambulances from around the area. We got in my car and pulled out onto the street to sit in a giant traffic jam of cars leaving campus. As we were sitting in traffic alongside the parked ambulances, I flipped on the radio to NPR. They had just ended a news report, promising more updates when they were available, and gone back to their classical music programming. Within a few bars of starting the next orchestral piece, they interrupted the music to report that 22 people were confirmed dead in the shooting at Virginia Tech. I lost my breath. We sat there in traffic silent for many moments, just reeling. I’m sure the car inched forward, but I remember absolutely nothing of what was going on outside of my own head (and little of what was going on inside it) for several minutes. I know my graduate student and I exchanged some words about the unfathomable magnitude of the news we had just received, but I don’t remember any details. I made it home safely to Becky and Charlie.
I spent the rest of the afternoon tracking the news and answering email and phone calls from people concerned about our safety. I had to use my wife’s laptop, though, as my battery was dead. (Remember that I was using it on the floor in my office for two hours before leaving without the power adapter.) As a result, I missed some of the incoming messages until the next day; I apologize if you were among the unduly frightened. I checked on all my graduate students and we talked to assorted friends in the area. About 3:30, we learned that one of Becky’s close friends, Linda Granata had not heard from or been able to contact or locate her husband. They had been calling around to hospitals, but they still hadn’t located him. We hoped for the best – maybe he was injured and unconscious without ID? – but feared the worst. At about 6 p.m. on Monday evening, our fears were confirmed: Kevin Granata was dead.
Kevin was a faculty member in the Engineering Science and Mechanics Department at Virginia Tech. His office was on the second floor of Norris Hall – where the vast majority of the killings occurred. After hearing the gunshots, an English professor, unable to lock his classroom door, asked Kevin if they could shelter in his office. He agreed. Once the students were sheltered in his office, Kevin left his office to see if he could intervene or get help. He never returned. He is among Monday’s many heros. Kevin leaves behind a wife and three wonderful children. I’m not sure if I have their ages exactly correct, but I think Kevin and Linda’s sons are 13 and 14 years old and their daughter is 11.
I awoke from my fitful sleep on Tuesday morning at about 5 a.m. in a panic. I was worried about a colleague who had told me that his class had been affected by both of the bomb threats earlier in April. I worried that if the bomb threats were related to the massacre, he might have been a target, so I opened up the university course schedule to see which Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) classes were held this semester in Norris Hall. I was relieved that I didn’t find this particular colleague’s name, but shocked and horrified to find another name that I knew well. Another ECE colleague, who received his Ph.D. with me at Cornell in 2003 and had just joined our department in January, was scheduled to teach in Norris 200 on Monday morning at 9 a.m. I was horrified. He and I had tentatively discussed having lunch that day (Tuesday), and I had received neither confirmation nor cancelation from him, despite the fact that I had emailed him first thing Monday morning. Thankfully, I learned on late Tuesday morning that he was okay. He was attending a conference in Texas. He had canceled his class on Monday morning. (During other travels over the course of the semester, he had secured a substitute teacher, rather than canceling his class.) So, this is one story from the week with a blessed ending. I’m a little surprised that this story of a canceled class hasn’t, to my knowledge, been picked up by the media, unlike the stories of those who skipped class that morning; it’s probably just as well, though.
The remainder of the week was been a blur of convocations, memorials, and media circus. I attended the university convocation on 2 p.m. on Tuesday, with President Bush and Governor Kaine, but had to sit outside in the stadium watching the speakers on the Jumbotron. (I arrived at 1 p.m. hoping to get a seat in the colosseum. One of my students got in line at 11 a.m., and he also wound up in the stadium.) On Thursday, I attended a 90 minute meeting during which we were given a crash course in helping our students deal with the tragedy. On Friday, we attended Kevin’s memorial service. I have been in touch with all of the undergraduate students in my class this semester, and thankfully none were injured or killed.
My department, the ECE Department, was spared the worst of the tragedy. (There is no such thing as the “engineering department” that the media keeps yammering about. There are about 12 engineering departments within the College of Engineering.) We lost one freshman student, Henry Lee. One of our seniors was seriously injured, but will recover. He is the bloodied young man being carried from the scene by EMTs and police in the widely published picture. He was hit twice in the leg through his classroom door, one bullet severing a major artery, while helping other students to hold the door closed. He, too, is among Monday’s heros, injured protecting the lives of his classmates. His own life was probably saved by tying an extension cord around his leg as a tourniquet.
I mentioned the media circus, but, on the whole, the media that I have seen and interacted with on campus have been sensitive and respectful. I have been appalled by some of the story-lines, which I have found to be absurd in the extreme, but the people on the ground have mostly been kind and considerate. We sat next to a New York Times reporter at Kevin’s memorial service – she took some notes, but was extremely discreet. (I only know that she was taking notes on a tiny folded sheet of paper because we were sitting beside her.)
I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. Personally, we have been moved by your thoughtful messages. As a community, we have been overcome by the generosity of friends and strangers alike. Yesterday evening there was a community gathering on the Drillfield. There were thousands upon thousands of students, parents, faculty, staff, and community members in attendance. Nevertheless, it appeared to me that there was more donated food than those thousands of people could possibly eat. Becky and I are slowly regaining our bearings. Charlie, blessedly oblivious to the tragedy around him, has continued to be a happy beacon of hope to all who have seen him throughout the week.
Our community will continue to heal for months and years after the media spotlight has gone. I am grateful to each of you for your continued thoughts and prayers for our family, the Granata family, the families and friends of the others who were killed or injured, and our community.
Thanks for reading. It was important to me to share my tiny piece of this overwhelmingly sad story.