The prelude to the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history began with the shootings of two students in a dorm room at Virginia Tech.
New details revealed Dec. 4 about the university’s response — from the time the victims were found to when they alerted the campus of a gunman on the loose — brought angry reactions and questions from some victims’ families about leadership during the massacre that ended with 33 people dead.
At least two administrators told family members about the dorm shooting well before the rest of the campus was notified about the gunman. Even garbage service was canceled before that.
The report adds to the long list of apparent missteps by university officials before, during, and after the 2007 rampage by Seung-Hui Cho. The mentally ill student shot two students to death in the dorm, then three hours later chained the doors of a classroom building and killed 30 more people before committing suicide.
Dennis Bluhm, whose son was killed in the rampage, laid the blame on President Charles Steger, who has faced calls to resign from Bluhm and other families.
"He’s got to live with himself," Bluhm said. "If he’s got any heart at all, and I’m not sure he does, he’s got a long life to live with this on his brain."
The two administrators notified their families about the dorm shootings around 8:05 a.m. — an hour and 20 minutes before a campus-wide eMail warning was sent to staff members, faculty, and students. The massacre in the classroom building began at 9:40 a.m.
One of the administrators who notified a family member was Steger’s chief of staff, Kim O’Rourke, said Phil Schaenman, the president of TriData, the outside firm that put together the report. She often called her son, a Tech student, to make sure he went to class. She told him about the dorm shootings but still told him to go to class, which he did.
"I did tell him what had been happening, and I told him to go to class," O’Rourke told the Washington Post. "He was in class at the time of the shooting in Norris Hall."
"It’s been taken that their families were given advance warning," Schaenman said. "But in her case, she said it was safe to come to school."
The other administrator, then-assistant vice president of administration Lisa Wilkes, was dropping off her children at her mother’s house when she got a phone call about the dorm shootings and telling her to come into work. She then told her mother about the shootings.
The two administrators’ actions clearly "do not comprise a concerted effort by University staff to notify their own families of danger in advance of notifying the campus community," school spokesman Mark Owczarski said in a statement.
Gov. Tim Kaine said if there was an effort by the school’s administration to notify family members before anyone else, it would be "inexcusable."
"There is almost never a reason not to provide immediate notification," Kaine told the Associated Press. "If university officials thought it was important enough to notify their own families, they should have let everyone know."
Later, Kaine spokeswoman Lynda Tran said his office had spoken with Tech and TriData officials about the report’s findings and it "does not sound like there was wrongdoing" by the two administrators.
Steger’s office said he was unavailable for comment and referred questions to the university spokesman, Owczarski. Calls by the AP to multiple phone listings for O’Rourke and Wilkes rang unanswered on Dec. 4.
On campus, Student Government Association president Brandon Carroll said he does not think the revised report damages the administration.
"Hindsight is 20/20," he said. "It really upsets me that they’re trying to bring back something bad that really hurt our community."
The updated report includes additions and corrections requested by family members along with new information, including details from Cho’s mental health records. Those records had been missing from the school counseling center even before the massacre, but the center’s former director found them in his home in July.
In other new findings in the report:
— It took 17 minutes for the chief of the Virginia Tech Police Department to get through to the executive vice president’s office after he learned of the dorm shooting.
— Campus trash collection was canceled 21 minutes before students and teachers were warned.
— Virginia Tech’s government affairs director ordered Steger’s office locked around 8:52 a.m. Two classroom buildings were also locked down well before the notification went out. But Owczarski said the office was never locked.
— One student killed in the dorm, Emily Hilscher, survived several hours after being shot, but no one bothered to notify her family until she had died. A call to her parents wasn’t immediately returned.
— An administrator who was a member of a policy group dealing with the shooting mailed a colleague in Richmond around 8:45 a.m. that a gunman was on the loose, but warned the colleague to make sure that information didn’t get out because it was not yet "releasable."
— Virginia Tech had two different emergency-alert policies in effect at the time, and that led to the delay in issuing the university-wide alert.
The original report criticized the university’s failure to act on warning signs from Cho that included violent, twisted writings and sullen, hostile behavior. It also criticized the communications failures and other problems that allowed nearly two hours to elapse between the first gunshots and the campus-wide notification.
The updated report did not revise the original report’s conclusions and recommendations.
- Top trends: Improve graduation rates and retention - August 8, 2019
- Learn how this university adopted a successful data-driven strategy for inclusive learning - June 17, 2019
- Stunning: 56 percent of institutions will struggle to meet recruitment targets due to visa, travel restrictions - September 29, 2017