WASHINGTON -- Warning signs about Seung-Hui Cho came early in his life, but in their first public statement on his shooting rampage, family members said yesterday that they "never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence."
The Chos released a statement to the Associated Press through an attorney, saying they feel "hopeless, helpless, and lost."
Cho was unusually quiet as a child, other relatives said in interviews. He did not respond to greetings. He did not want to be hugged. But when Cho fought with his older sister, he would punch her with shocking intensity.
Kim Yang Soon, a great-aunt in Korea, said Cho's mother told her the boy had autism. After the family immigrated to the United States in 1992, when Cho was 8, Kim would call his mother and ask how the boy was doing. "She only talked about her daughter," Kim said. "We knew something was wrong."
Because Cho did well in school, his mother did not seem very determined to get treatment for him, Kim added.
It is unknown what, if any, help the parents sought for their son before he attended Virginia Tech, where this week Cho killed 32 of his schoolmates and teachers.
The Chos left their home in western Fairfax County the day of the shooting and are staying at an undisclosed location. Only a few friends are in contact with the family, and most have declined to talk, upon the request of the Chos.
"We are humbled by this darkness," Cho's sister, Sun-Kyung, 25, wrote in the statement released yesterday. "This is someone that I grew up with and loved. Now I feel like I didn't know this person. . . . My brother was quiet and reserved, yet struggled to fit in."
"He has made the world weep. We are living a nightmare," she wrote.
"Our family is so very sorry for my brother's unspeakable actions. It is a terrible tragedy for all of us," said Sun-Kyung Cho, a 2004 Princeton University graduate who works as a contractor for a State Department office that oversees American aid for Iraq.
"We pray for their families and loved ones who are experiencing so much excruciating grief. And we pray for those who were injured and for those whose lives are changed forever because of what they witnessed and experienced," she said. "Each of these people had so much love, talent, and gifts to offer, and their lives were cut short by a horrible and senseless act."
From corporate conference rooms to churches and college campuses, Americans draped themselves in burnt orange and maroon and became a united Hokie Nation yesterday, as a national day of mourning honored the people massacred at Virginia Tech.
President Bush put on an orange-and-maroon tie to show support. Churches across the country, from California to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington, D.C., rang bells and held vigils and prayer services.
At noon on a sidewalk in front of Norris Hall in Blacksburg, where the gunman from Fairfax County, Va., shot 30 of the victims Monday, a somber group of Virginia Tech students stood silently as bells across the campus tolled 32 times and a bouquet of 32 orange and maroon balloons was set free, disappearing into the clouds.
"They are wending their way to heaven, and I know they got there today," senior Katie Wilson said, sobbing as she released the balloons, on which the victims' names were etched.
Governor Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia, who declared yesterday a day of mourning in his state, spoke at a noon memorial service at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where several thousand people gathered. Similar events took place in 40 other states, Kaine said.
"Sometimes in the midst of tragedies, it's easy to forget the things that matter most and become distracted by other things," Kaine said. "But we won't allow that to happen. The thing that matters most today is to remember the family and friends who lost loved ones."
Before Monday, the Cho family's story shared similarities with that of other Korean immigrants.
Seung-Tae Cho and his wife, Hyang-In, told friends they came to America for the sake of their children's education. They settled in a townhouse in Centreville, Va., near good public schools. The father worked long hours pressing pants at a dry cleaner in Manassas, Va. The mother occasionally went to church.
And when their firstborn, Sun-Kyung, got into Princeton in 1999, it seemed as if all their sacrifices had paid off. The parents, once adrift in poverty in South Korea, now had an anchor for the good life in America through their Ivy League daughter.
Beyond these broad brush strokes of Cho's life in Fairfax, only bits and pieces have emerged from relatives. The local ethnic organizations that typically gather Korean immigrants -- churches, social clubs, and civic associations -- say the Chos were largely unknown and disconnected in the Washington area, which is unusual for the tightknit community.
Cho, likewise, was difficult to know, his classmates in Fairfax said. He often seemed to be in a world of his own. Students who knew him as far back as middle school remember a dramatically uncommunicative boy who never spoke, not even to teachers.
"Teachers would call on him, and he wouldn't respond," recalled Sam Linton, 21, a freshman at New River Community College near Virginia Tech, who attended classes and shared a homeroom with Cho at Stone Middle School in Centreville.
James Duffy, 21, a Virginia Tech junior who also attended Stone, said the first time he ever heard Cho speak was on television Wednesday night, when NBC aired the recordings he had mailed in the middle of the rampage.
"That was also the first time I ever saw an expression on his face," Duffy recalled.
Other students recalled that he carried violent writings in his notebooks.
David Gearhart, 21, a junior at Virginia Tech who attended Stone Middle with Cho, remembers a friend seeing a paper fall out of Cho's notebook. "It had all kinds of hate writing," he said.