BLACKSBURG, Va. -- As students and faculty struggled to understand why one of the worst mass shootings in US history took place on their campus, police, FBI agents and authorities at Virginia Polytechnic Institute last night focused on the identity and motives of a young man who apparently opened fire inside a dormitory and several classrooms, killing 32 people before committing suicide.
Though the gunman had no ID cards, police said last night they had a preliminary identification of him but did not release a name and would not speculate about a motive. Several witnesses described him as tall, apparently in his 20s, dressed in a black jacket and maroon hat; others said he had at least one semiautomatic weapon and several spare ammunition clips. Some said he never spoke a word as he gunned down his victims.
"He just started shooting," student Derek O'Dell told MSNBC-TV, speaking from his hospital bed while being treated for an arm wound he received when the gunman shot inside his classroom about 9 a.m., two hours after police found two gunshot victims in a residence hall across campus. "He just shot and left."
WHDH-TV last night identified one of the shooting victims who died as a man from the Boston area, Ross Alameddine .
The scope of the shootings rocked the picturesque, sprawling campus tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the state's southwest corner, about 270 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
"Today, the university was struck with a tragedy that we consider of monumental proportions," said Virginia Tech's president, Charles Steger. "The university is shocked and indeed horrified."
"It was the worst thing I've ever seen," said Wendell Flinchum, the campus police chief.
The carnage began about 7:15 a.m., when police answering a 911 call discovered two people shot dead in West Ambler Johnson Hall, a co ed campus dormitory. It continued two hours later when a gunman burst into Norris Hall, an engineering building across campus, and opened fire inside several classrooms.
Some students leaped from windows after realizing the gunman had apparently chained shut two exit doors.
A student near one of the buildings when the shooting happened recorded the scene outside on his cellphone video camera; 27 shots popped in the background as police officers scrambled to the area. The recording was provided to CNN last night.
Another student described the scene in a phone interview early this morning: "I walked outside and saw people running across the Drill Field. I . . . saw the cops swarm the area so we turned around and went inside. My dorm looks out on the academic buildings and my friend and I saw them loading bodies into the ambulances," James Carty, a sophomore communications major, told the Globe.
In the aftermath, students and staff huddled , wiping away tears, as Virginia State Police locked down the campus and blocked off the entrances. State and federal investigators descended on the site in Virginia's New River Valley to begin their work.
Montgomery Regional Medical Center in nearby Christiansburg was overwhelmed by the Virginia Tech victims; throughout the afternoon, ambulances, their lights flashing, raced down Interstate 81 toward three hospitals in Roanoke .
President Bush interrupted his schedule yesterday afternoon to make a brief statement on the shootings. He said the nation was "shocked and saddened" and he pledged to make all federal resources available to investigate and help the campus recover.
As students and authorities tried to come to grips with the tragedy, Steger and Flinchum faced harsh questions from students and others about whether campus police did enough to prevent the shootings. Students and parents wanted to know why school authorities didn't shut down the entire campus after discovering the dormitory killings -- and determining that the gunman was still at large.
Last year, as the fall semester was about to start, an escaped convict allegedly shot and killed two people before fleeing across the Virginia Tech campus, an episode that prompted a campus wide lockdown.
Pressed at an afternoon press conference yesterday, Flinchum, the police chief, said officers initially believed the dormitory shooting was an isolated event and that the assailant had fled. Based on what he knew at the time, Flinchum said, classes were allowed to continue.
"You can second-guess all day," he said.
Steger added that it would have been impractical to shut down the campus and alert tens of thousands of students.
"We can only make decisions based on the information you had at the time," Steger said. "You don't have hours to reflect on it."
Because the shootings happened two hours and some distance apart, Flinchum said he was awaiting ballistic test results before he would say whether the same person was responsible for both shootings. But he would not say whether police sought a second suspect.
"I'm not saying someone's still out there, I'm not saying someone is not," he said. Police, he added, had been investigating a "person of interest" believed to be connected with the first shooting when the gunshots in the Norris Hall classrooms erupted.
In interviews yesterday, Virginia Tech students described glimpses of the violence they had witnessed.
Courtney Dalton, 18, a Virginia Tech student from Narrows, Va., told the Globe that she saw emergency medical technicians working furiously on one of the victims shot in the dormitory.
The police "were pumping his chest awful hard," Dalton said. "And they told us that a woman was in critical condition. Then we heard they had both passed away." Police immediately cordoned off the dormitory but did not make a campuswide announcement.
O'Dell, the student wounded in Norris Hall , said that after killing a number of students, the shooter "reloaded his clip and nobody could stop him." After leaving the classroom, O'Dell said, the gunman tried to return, but O'Dell and other students had barricaded the door.
By the time police arrived, witnesses said, the assailant had shot himself in the head.
As of early this morning, only one victim had been officially identified: Ryan Clark, a senior from Augusta, Ga. He was shot in the dorm.
According to students interviewed by The
Also, students identified another victim as Emily Hilscher, a freshman.
A student in one of the classrooms, Erin Sheehan, was quoted by the Collegiate Times newspaper as saying the gunman was "a normal-looking kid," with clothing resembling a Boy Scout uniform and a buttoned-up vest, possibly to hold ammunition.
"He peeked in twice, earlier in the lesson, like he was looking for somebody before he started shooting," Sheehan told the newspaper.
A convocation was scheduled for 2 p.m. today in the university's Cassell Coliseum.
Globe correspondent Michael Naughton contributed to this report. Bender reported from Blacksburg; Kranish from Washington.