14 Years Later: An April 16th Conversation
14 Years Later...
I remember April 16, 2007 clear as day.
I was a middle school student in Northern Virginia and I had just returned home from school. Both of my parents were at work, so I was alone in the house when the phone began ringing.
I answered and it was a relative calling asking if my sister was okay. I had no idea what they were talking about, so I took a note and went back to what I was doing. Then a few minutes later the phone rang again, this time with a different relative calling and asking about Sarah, who was a sophomore at the time at Virginia Tech. Well, this is weird I thought, so I texted my sister to see if I could figure out why they kept asking me about her safety.
The phone calls continued over the next few hours or so and I still had not heard from my sister. And remember, this was 2007. Social media was in its infancy and as a middle schooler I wasn't watching news channels in the afternoon.
Then I finally hear from my sister with the words in her text: "I'm okay, but turn on the news."
14 years ago today a disturbed gunman was able to easily get his hands on high-powered semi-automatic hand guns and what followed was one of the worst mass shootings in American history.
To explore what it was like being a student on that day I sat down to speak with my sister, along with Justin Cates and Jay Anderson, who were all students at Tech on April 16, 2007.
What follows is a unique and candid conversation:
It’s the morning of April 16, 2007. You wake up and what were your plans that day? How far in your daily routine did you make it before being alerted to the situation?
Sarah - It was a normal school day, and I was on my way to class. I lived off-campus, so I was going to catch the bus. One point of context that usually gets forgotten was that much earlier in the school year an inmate escaped police custody and was running around the Virginia Tech campus, which ended up not being a big deal, but the school alerted all students and we got school off that day and we all partied. So, when we all heard that morning that there was a gunman everyone thought it was a joke based on the guy beforehand. We were laughing about it. I was sitting on the bus waiting to go to campus, but the bus wasn’t moving. I sat there for probably 15 minutes before the bus driver told us it was not safe on campus and told us to get off the bus and to go home.
Justin - I didn't have class until that afternoon in Norris Hall, so I was still sleeping when one of my roommates knocked aggressively on my door. I mumbled some kind of response and he told me I needed to come downstairs to see something that was happening on campus and said that it was on TV.
Jay - I actually had an 8 a.m. class on April 16th, and it was mid-terms, so I definitely remember the day very vividly. There was a Comm exam I had and upon finishing that, I had a class near one of the buildings where the shooting began so I was literally walking across the street and something told me to get on the bus home, as I did that, I got a text from my friend, Chris Lautenschlager, to basically go home.
When you were informed what was transpiring, where did you go? What did you do?
Sarah - After the bus driver told us it wasn’t safe on campus I went over to my friend’s house where we planned to day drink, but then we were all watching the news about what was happening on campus. It went from a gunman on-campus, to 7 injured, to 12 dead, and it kept escalating. We were all stunned watching the horrific numbers climbing. The people on the news were all speculating about what was going on because no one was sure. We were all in shock and I’m thinking thank god I didn’t end up going to campus. To make it even more stressful, all cell phone service was jammed, and no one could reach their families.
Justin - I was pretty groggy but joined my roommate in front of the TV downstairs. We watched the ongoing coverage on CNN. They bizarrely started showing the live feed of WSLS out of Roanoke. We watched and made efforts to contact our friends. Slowly, throughout the day more and more folks gathered at our place and we attempted to comfort each other as the news got progressively worse.
Jay - I lived not far from campus so as everything is happening, I can literally see people jumping from windows as I'm going home, it's a moment ingrained in my mind.
This was a few years before smartphones became common worldwide, so how did you gather information and stay up to date on what was going on?
Sarah - We were watching the local news pretty much all day long, that was how we kept track of what was happening.
Justin - I remember the cell lines being jammed for quite a while. I don’t think I actually was able to speak with my parents until Tuesday afternoon. I was able to get word of my well-being out via AOL Instant Messenger which I think got relayed to them through the parents of a friend in the meantime.
Jay - My friend Chris had a friend in touch with EMS so as I'm sitting at home, he’s telling me how many people initially were killed and it just kept going up...10...16-20...31...
Who did you contact?
Sarah - You! I was able to get a text through to you telling you I was okay and to turn on the news. I was having trouble getting through to our parents with cell phone service being jammed.
Justin - Pretty much everyone I had ever known reached out to me either on Instant Messenger or Facebook, which was still in its infancy. I spoke with quite a few people albeit briefly. It was simultaneously uplifting and more than a bit overwhelming.
Jay - I lived with my sister Britney at the time so we gathered around the TV in her room and just sat in shock.
At what point were you given the “all clear”, meaning the shooter was no longer active?
Sarah - I believe late in the evening we heard the shooter killed himself and that’s when I knew the situation was over.
Justin - I have many vivid memories from that week but I have absolutely no recollection of this. It’s quite likely I blocked it out given the mixed emotions of the moment.
Jay - We weren’t really given an all clear which made the day that much more hectic. The issue was that the shooter had killed somebody in the dorms that morning, but the school didn't cancel class at that point, so a lot could have been prevented.
What did you do at that point?
Sarah - We had anticipated that the shooter was dead because there was all the horrific violence and then there was silence for hours, and then it was finally over.
Jay - I was numb...this was my first year of college and my first week, there was an active shooter on campus after a prisoner escaped from the Christiansburg jail so this just kind of added to the moment.
What was the evening of April 16th like? What was environment like around Blacksburg?
Sarah - Everyone stayed at home that evening, but the days following everyone rallied together and we had a candle vigil on the drillfield. It was the first time everyone came together since the shooting and it was a sea of candles. They had moments of silence for each person that died.
Justin - We watched parts of the national nightly news broadcasts happening just across town. After nightfall, a few of my friends and I went for a drive. I don’t know why. Possibly just to get out of the house. We didn’t say much and the traffic on the streets was fairly minimal with most folks electing to remain huddled indoors. I remember making the turn off of University City Boulevard on to Prices Fork. As we passed The Inn, the entire parking lot was filled with cars with a news satellite truck punctuating the scene every few feet. The entire vibe was unsettling. It was a powerful visual representation telling us that Blacksburg had become the focus of the nation and largely the world in a matter of hours. We quietly headed home.
What were the following weeks like before going home for the summer? I know most exams were cancelled, so what was Blacksburg like at that time?
Sarah - Since it was near the end of the year the school gave everyone the opportunity to go home for a week and the option to skip their finals. I went home and we stopped at JMU on the way to visit some people and everyone was asking if we were okay. It was all still pretty raw.
Justin - It was the first and only time in my life that I didn’t want to be in Blacksburg. I stuck around as long as I had to but I desperately wanted to be back with my family. Most classes gathered in person once to wrap things up. The one I had in Norris obviously never met again. We had the option of taking our current grade in each class or doing more work to improve it. I think I took all of my grades as they stood on the 16th, even the mediocre ones. I just didn’t have the stomach for it and honestly I didn’t feel entirely comfortable on campus. Misplaced survivors guilt asked me, “Why should we get to walk around here when they can’t?” I returned to New York as soon as I could.
Jay - Blacksburg surprised me, the community itself. Everybody stayed around and it kind of kept me going, not going to lie. I expected a lot of folks to abandon their studies but the opposite happened.
What was it like when President George W. Bush arrived? Did you attend the memorial convocation?
Sarah - Yes, I attended that. I remember Nikki Giovanni’s powerful poem and it was somber and quiet and you could hear a pin drop. It was a great moment showing that we can move forward.
Justin - The night of the 16th we made some additions to our maroon VT flag using a stencil and white paint to add the date — 4/16/07 — plus the word, “United”. It was attached to a white pole wrapped with maroon tape resembling a candy cane. We took it with us as we marched down Washington Street toward Cassell Coliseum. Some members of the media happened to notice us and our flag and we were quickly caught in a scrum of press hoping to speak with us — something we wanted no part of.
We politely declined and when a reporter persisted multiple other students who we’d never met quickly stepped in to assist us. Not that we needed the help, but clearly everyone was on high alert and looking to protect each other.
There was a surreal moment standing outside waiting to get in when multiple military jets rocketed low overhead in a piercing blue sky, followed moments later by a helicopter carrying the president. We were let in shortly after where secret service agents surprisingly took no issue with our 10-foot flag pole. Our group got seats along the baseline a few rows up not terribly far from the stage.
Most of the specifics of the speeches made are lost to me now, but of course Nikki Giovanni’s brief but powerful words remain fresh. The chant of, “Let’s Go Hokies!” that spontaneously broke out when she finished was an incredible release and desperately needed. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I’d love to buy a beer for whoever had the guts to start that right then.
Jay - I didn’t attend the memorial convocation but I watched Nikki Giovanni’s speech and I think she was a lot more powerful than George Bush. She has a way with words that allowed a lot of us to come together in a chaotic moment.
Frank Beamer played a large role in the healing of the town and school. How did you feel the athletics world helped Hokie Nation grieve?
Sarah – The sports were largely over at that point in the year when the shooting took place, so for me personally the sports didn’t have the largest impact on helping people come together simply because they were over at the time. It was more the students rallying together to support everyone. I think Beamer’s MO was always to create a sense of community and he did that through the athletic program, so it wasn’t just sports and the athletes with Beamer, the whole school was one community that you were part of, so you felt like you were rooting for more than just football the following season. The sports helped strengthen the bond between Hokies.
Justin - Sports paused like everything else but I remember how cathartic it was when things started back up. The first event was a baseball game against Miami which was already a big deal given the success of that program. It was Friday night I believe and fans packed in to be together and support the team. The Hurricanes presented Director of Athletics Jim Weaver with a check to go towards the victims’ fund that the university had set up. It was a classy move that would become common for many visiting teams.
Jay - Athletics was very open to helping in anyway they could and Coach Beamer, who was always a face on campus, did his part to keep the community in a positive light.
There was an overwhelming outpouring of support from universities and communities all over the country. The “Hoos for Hokies” bridge painting was especially emotional coming from rival UVA. Was there a certain item that you still remember to this day?
Sarah – I think the support from the fellow Virginia schools was really cool. UVA and the other Virginia schools sent artwork that Tech displayed in Squires. The artwork was signed by tons of students at other Virginia schools, it was really neat.
Justin - There were so many tributes from NASCAR teams putting the VT logo on their cars to college football teams wrapping up spring practice and doing the same to their helmets. The New York Yankees did an incredible amount by donating a million dollars, adding Tech’s logo to their game hats, and of course bringing the team to Blacksburg the following year for a spring training game.
Jay - I think Northern Illinois made a similar banner after a similar situation happened on their campus which really touched a lot of the Hokies community.
What did the football season opener in Lane Stadium the following September mean to you after the tragedy?
Sarah – It was a sense that we can move past this and that we are bigger than the tragedy. It showed that Hokies are resilient. It was a big “we are back” type of feeling.
Justin - That was another in a series of emotionally charged days in the months that followed the shooting. I felt kind of bad for the team that day because there was an enormous amount of pressure on them. That game was built up to the point that College Gameday even made an appearance. I was in the press box covering the game and even the most veteran beat reporters seemed emotional. I got a bit misty during the pregame ceremonies but kept it together as best I could. There’s no cheering in the press box and while there’s no explicit rule about crying, I figured it was implied. A tough win against what turned out to be a really talented East Carolina squad (Chris Johnson was the running back) was a relief after yet another exhausting day.
Jay - It felt surreal to have a football game following such a crazy moment, but it reminded us the power of our community.
And lastly, how has being a student at Tech during the shooting impacted you to this day?
Sarah – I’m a very large proponent of gun control. The shooter was able to obtain semi-automatic hand guns, where he kept them in his dorm room, and he wasn’t even 21. I have no idea how he was able to access weapons like that. I’m a very strong supporter of background checks and limiting access to assault rifles. Also, we as a country, must take mental health seriously, there were signs of the darkness within the shooter that were ignored. Mental health is an illness and people who need help should not feel judged by others in seeking assistance.
Justin - I didn’t realize how much it had really affected me until years later. I’ve thought about it in some fashion almost every day for the past 14 years for good or ill. It’s a motivator in some respects. I’ve attempted to fully embrace the idea that we should, “Live for 32” who could no longer do so themselves. It tied in nicely with the “Ut Prosim” motto which I also take very seriously and strive to embody. The extent to which I’ve succeeded in living up to those lofty ideals is debatable, but something I will continue to strive for as long as I live.
I was impacted in other ways as well. I’ve often found myself making note of the exits in new surroundings. You might find that to be an overreaction but I would argue that not doing so is a bit careless. Since the tragedy on our campus there have been far too many mass shootings to really count in the United States — though it’s worth noting that the exact criteria defining “mass shooting” is up for debate and thus the total number remains elusive. Just this week we’ve seen several more painful examples. These have happened in schools and churches and bowling alleys and grocery stores and military bases and so many other public places where people didn’t think they needed to worry about simply surviving. It would seem that nowhere is truly safe from gun violence in America and if you think that’s a political statement rather than an objective fact then I can’t help you.
As gutting as it all is, I have attempted to stay true to the mission, “That I May Serve” and find ways to project good and to positively impact the world around me. I try to live for those who were denied the opportunity to do so fully, and I never forget the awful and intense moments in the days and weeks following April 16th. I also fondly recall the uplifting bits that were sprinkled in too. Above all, I always remember that no matter how dark the world gets, it’s always a great day to be a Hokie.
Jay - April 16 is remembered by me like it was yesterday. I knew a couple people that had been shot too given some were in my classes so it's always a moment to reflect on tragedy.