Report from Blacksburg
By Jason Schwartz | “Do you want to go to Virginia Tech?”
I was sitting in The Daily Pennsylvanian office typing out a story when my editor asked me. Startled, I looked up from my computer at him, then at the TV in the middle of the newsroom replaying the same grainy cell-phone video from that day’s massacre, then back at my editor, still looming over me. I didn’t know the answer, but said yes anyway.
In truth, I was conflictedone part of me wanted desperately to go while the other tried to conjure any possible excuse not to. I started writing for the DP my freshman year and knew the toll that emotionally freighted assignments could take. Once I had to report on a rape case involving a family I knew personally. The day after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, I interviewed a freshman who had been forced to evacuate directly to Penn, leaving behind her home and her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who couldn’t be moved. This past fall, I encountered even more sadness when the DP sent me to New Orleans to write a year-after-Katrina series. Covering tragedies is obviously nowhere near as difficult as living through them, but some small piece of each one has stayed with me. Virginia Tech, I knew, would be more difficult than anything I had dealt with yet.
In the end, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. By 11:00 that night, Paul (another DP reporter), Taylor (our photographer), and I were on our way out of Philly in a rented Ford Focus. Seven hours, 400 miles, and one speeding violation laterit was 90 in a 65 and I still have a court date in Woodstock, Virginiawe pulled into our hotel on a highway just outside Blacksburg.
After stealing a few hours of sleep, we headed for the campus. All of the roads leading in were blocked off and, despite a fair number of people walking around, a hollow, vacant feeling hung over the place. Mixed in with the gorgeous April weather, it felt like the day after a hurricane. We soon reached the Drillfield, a large grassy area in the center of campus, where I ran into a couple of students who had a friend waiting for surgery in the hospital. Shuddering at the thought that I could just as easily have been standing on Penn’s College Green, I walked up a path and met a student who recounted for me how he had run across the Drillfield the previous day with gunfire raging in the background. A few minutes later, I talked to someone whose professor and teaching assistant were killed.
By the time we reached Cassell Coliseum, where a convocation to memorialize the victims was scheduled for that afternoon, it was clear to me that nearly everyone on campus had been touched somehow. Virginia Tech enrolls 16,000 students and just 33 were killed, but it seemed that if someone did not know a victim personally, then they had a good friend who did. I interviewed at least 25 people that day, and all of them were affected. “Everyone thinks this school is really big,” Brandon Stumpf, the sophomore I sat next to at the convocation, told me. “It’s not.”
“If this is going to happen here, it could happen anywhere,” he added.
I sat and chatted with Brandon and his friend Mike Woods for about 40 minutes before the ceremony began, and I was thankful for how much they opened up to me. Thousands of students had been turned away at the doors, and I felt guilty for taking the seat of someone who belonged, but Brandon and Mike’s unguarded candor put me at ease. Brandon explained that he had a friend who had been shot in the head and another who’d been shot in the chest, but both had miraculously survived. He and Mike admitted to being scared, both by what happened and by the questions they knew they would face at home. “For the first time ever last night I walked outside and the darkness scared me a little bit,” Mike said.
They expressed surprisingly little frustration with university administrators and police for how they handled the situation, instead focusing on healing and coming together with their fellow students. I had been on campus just a few hours and was already angry that Virginia Tech officials hadn’t done a better job preventing the shootings. Strikingly, though, Brandon, Mike, and most of the other students I talked to passed on assigning blame for the sake of unity.
Togetherness was very much on display during the ceremony. While students wearing Hokie maroon and orange consoled each other in the crowd, President Bush, other politicians, and school officials delivered addresses. The ceremony concluded with a particularly stirring oration by the poet and activist Nikki Giovanni, an English professor at the school. “We are Virginia Tech!” she intoned, sparking rafter-rocking chants of “LET’S GO HOKIES!” The student body’s pulse seemed to have been jolted back into rhythm and just maybe, I thought, things would get better sooner rather than later.
Then I met Nick Wilson and Mary Grace Giles. Leaving Brandon and Mike behind at the end of the convocation, I found the two juniors milling outside the Coliseum. Nick told me that in the middle of the ceremony, a good friend of his received a phone call informing him that a friend had been killed. I knew that all of the victims’ names had not been released yet, but the irony still stunned me. How could the healing begin, I wondered, when the tragedy was still unfolding?
“It’s getting more and more personal,” Mary Grace said. “At first you hear a number and then you hear this person isn’t accounted for, and then you hear names. And it just gets more and more personal, and you know the whole list isn’t even out yet of all the people. And I have personal connections to like three of them already.”
The presence of Norris Hall, the site of most of the shooting, made the tragedy even more inescapable. After talking to Nick and Mary Grace, Paul, Taylor, and I returned to our hotel to write some copy for the next day’s paper, but before long we were headed back to campus for the nighttime candlelight vigil on the Drillfield. The moments of silence, Hokies chants, and words spoken at the brief service sent chills up and down my spine, but what I noticed most during the vigil was just how central to campus Norris Hall is. It sits on the edge of the Drillfield next to Burruss Hall, Virginia Tech’s flagship academic building. The equivalent would be 30 Penn students and professors being massacred in Logan Hall. I don’t think Norris’s central location was clear from the TV news coverage, and I’m not sure it could be made so for anyone who wasn’t physically there.
“We walk by this every day to class,” a freshman girl told me after the vigil. We stopped and talked with a small group of her friends, who all said they could never have class there again. Before long, I wondered how they could ever go back to having class anywhere. Jaryck Daigle, a freshman in the marching band, told me about Ryan Clark, a fellow band-member who had been killed. Initially, Jaryck said, a rumor circulated that Clark had just been shot in the leg and would be alright. The news of his death shocked him, Jaryck said. “It’s scary to imagine. Our campus, you know, this is our home.”
Stepping away from Jaryck and his friendswho had their own stories about murdered friends and hiding from the sound of gunfireI felt completely drained. Almost every student we approached that day welcomed our requests for interviews, spoke eloquently, and held little back. Usually it takes days to get someone to open up to you as much as all the students we talked to did. Their grief and shock was painfully raw, and it cut a giant hole in my stomach. I told Paul that I thought if we had to do another interview I might cry. He agreed.
It was approaching 10:00 p.m. now, so we returned to our hotel for the night to type out more copy. Paul, Taylor, and I drove home to Philadelphia the next morning, but it was well over a week before I could stop thinking constantly about Virginia Tech. Even today, I’m still not sure I’ve been able to completely leave Blacksburg behind.
Jason Schwartz C’07, a history major from the Boston area, was the winner of the 2007 Nora Magid Mentorship Prize (www.noraprize.com). This summer he started a job with Boston Magazine.
|©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/07