BLACKSBURG Va. – Memories of the worst mass school shooting in U.S. history at Virginia Tech came flooding back when the campus locked down after reports of a man with a gun, although some who were told to stay indoors treated the warnings with a shrug.
The university on Thursday issued the longest, most extensive lockdown and search on campus since the 2007 massacre. It came after three teenage girls attending a summer camp on campus reported to university police that they saw a man with a possible gun as they walked to the dining hall.
The school lifted the lockdown more than five hours later after a search for such a man was unsuccessful and police had no real leads.
Mohammed Al-Halali, a sophomore taking a summer architecture design lab, said the shootings that killed 33 people were “the first thing that came to mind” when he got the emergency alert and he received many texts from friends to make sure he was all right.
Still, he said he never felt unsafe and he thought the police would have things under control. He said the news media was hyping it.
University spokesman Larry Hincker said all voicemail, text-messaging, e-mail and social-media alerting systems worked without a hitch, and that issuing such a warning was necessary. Still, some continued to stroll about the 2,600-acre campus, despite requests to stay indoors. Several thousand students and the school’s 6,500 employees were on campus for summer classes.
“People have the right to do what they want to do,” Hincker said. “People have their own free will.”
Police searched some 150 buildings on the square-mile campus and issued a composite sketch of a baby-faced man who was said to be wearing shorts and sandals, but they found no sign of him. They continued to patrol the grounds as a precaution even after the lockdown was lifted.
“We’re in a new era. Obviously this campus experienced something pretty terrible four years ago,” Hincker said. He added: “Regardless of what your intuition and your experience as a public safety officer tells you, you are really forced to issue an alert.”
It was the first time the entire campus was locked down since the shooting rampage by student Seung-Hui Cho, and the second major test of Virginia Tech’s improved emergency-alert system, which was revamped to add the use of text messages and other means besides email of warning students.
The system was also used in 2008, when an exploding nail-gun cartridge was mistaken for gunfire. But only one dormitory was locked down then and it reopened two hours later.
Peggy Newsome was driving her 17-year-old daughter, Paige, and two of Paige’s friends, Emily Oliver and Lauren Mackey, to Blacksburg for an afternoon admissions tour when the group started getting text messages from friends about the lockdown.
“We were just talking about (the massacre) on the way here, and I swear to you it wasn’t five minutes and we heard about what was going on,” said Newsome, of Hanover County in suburban Richmond.
When they reached the undergraduate visitors center they saw a sign on the door reading: “Please vacate immediately.”
Because all tours Thursday were canceled, they drove around campus and got out to see the memorial to the 2007 victims in front of Burruss Hall. They felt safer after seeing police cars stationed at several spots. After the lockdown was lifted, they took their own walking tour and visited a dining hall and several other buildings.
“In all the classrooms they had emergency-information posters and some electronic tickers,” Newsome noted.
The girls took the day’s events in stride, and said it’d make a good story to tell their friends.
But in many minds, Virginia Tech and the 2007 mass slayings always will be linked, and criticism of the university’s response to that event led to an overhaul of emergency-notification procedures. Authorities said they took abundant caution and opted to issue the lockdown because they had what they regarded as credible evidence of a threat.
Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said police from several law-enforcement agencies would continue to patrol the grounds in marked and unmarked cars and search buildings.
Earlier this year, federal authorities fined Virginia Tech $55,000 for waiting too long to notify the campus after a gunman killed two students at a dorm during the 2007 rampage. An email alert went out more than two hours later, about the time student Cho was chaining the doors to a building where he killed 30 more people and himself.