Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In the Rampage Classroom

April 18, 2007
Inside Room 207, Students Panicked at Rampage and Then Held Off Gunman’s Return

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 17 — “He never said a word the whole time. I’ve never seen a straighter face.”

That is how Trey Perkins, a student at Virginia Tech, recalled the gunman who burst into his German class here on Monday, pointed a handgun at each student and pulled the trigger.

In the end, Mr. Perkins, who crouched behind desks in the back of the classroom, managed to escape uninjured. But he was one of the few. The classroom on the second floor of Norris Hall appears to be where the gunman, a 23-year-old South Korean student identified as Cho Seung-Hui, exacted his greatest toll, as many as a dozen people.

Room 207 was a scene of utter terror and panic, with students trying to escape out windows or cowering under desks as the gunman, dressed in a black leather jacket and wearing a maroon baseball cap, fired, reloaded and then fired again.

At one point, the gunman left inexplicably only to return, with students wedging themselves against the door to block his entry. “The guy tried to come back in, and we were able to hold him off,” Mr. Perkins said.

Before the initial attack, witnesses said, the class of as many as 20 students had been gathered for about an hour as the professor, Christopher Bishop, known as Jamie, delivered a lesson on the rudiments of German.

At that point, there was nothing out of the ordinary, except when someone opened the door and peeked in. The class assumed a lost student was looking for a classroom.

About 10 minutes later, though, the door swung open, the gunman entered and took direct aim at Mr. Bishop, a popular 35-year-old professor known for riding his bicycle around the campus, killing him.

Mr. Cho then quickly turned on the horrified students — who hit the floor and turned over desks to shield themselves — starting with those in the front rows, the witnesses said.

“We got down, tried to get on the ground,” Mr. Perkins, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student from Yorktown, Va., said in an interview. “There were a couple of screams, but for the most part it was eerily silent, other than the gunfire.”

In an interview, Derek O’Dell, a 20-year-old biology student who was in the classroom, said: “He came into our room, he didn’t say anything. He was very calm, very determined, methodical in his killing. He shot as he opened the door.”

Then, for reasons that are unclear, Mr. Cho suddenly stopped firing and left the room, as the students lay bleeding on the floor.

At the time, Mr. Perkins said, he was fearful that Mr. Cho was still nearby and might return if he thought anyone in the classroom remained alive.

“I told people that were still up and conscious, ‘Just be quiet because we don’t want him to think there are people in here because he’ll come back in,’ ” he said.

Then, with gunshots ringing down the hall, Mr. O’Dell, who had been shot in the arm, and other students shut the classroom door and pushed themselves against it to prevent the gunman from getting back in.

A few minutes later, the gunman tried to force his way back inside the classroom, where Mr. Perkins was using his jacket and sweatshirt to stanch the wounds of bleeding students. Mr. Cho managed to open the door a crack, but the students pushed back hard enough to stop him.

“I sprinted on top of the desk to the door, because the aisle was clogged with people, and I used my foot as a wedge against the door,” recalled Mr. O’Dell. “It was almost like you had to fight for your life. If you didn’t, you died.”

Mr. Perkins said he was struck at how Mr. O’Dell managed to help hold back the gunman, given his injury.

“It was just amazing to me that he was still up and leaning against the door,” he said. “Derek was able to hold him off while I was helping other people.”

Mr. ODell said that initially at least he had not noticed he had been shot. “I looked down and realized I was bleeding,” he said. “That’s when I took off my belt and used it as a tourniquet and called 911 on my cell.”

Still, the gunman was determined to get into the room, firing repeatedly at the door. “He tried to shoot through a couple of times, probably six shots,” Mr. Perkins said. “I’m not sure if they went through or not. I mean, there were holes on the other side, like indentations.”

But at least two students were apparently injured by the shots at the door. Kevin Sterne, a senior, suffered a pierced artery when he was struck twice in the right thigh, doctors and his mother said. Mr. Sterne, an Eagle Scout, had the sense to grab an electrical cord and fashion a tourniquet to stem the bleeding until help arrived, they said.

The other was Katelyn Carney, a junior from Sterling, Va., majoring in international business, who was shot in the left hand.

Mr. O’Dell said others helped him block Mr. Cho from re-entering. “Trey and Erin helped keep the door closed,” he recalled, referring to another student. “One helped while the other went to the window and yelled for help. There was also another student who was shot in the hand who helped keep the door closed.”

Eventually Mr. Cho left. He was later found dead, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, in another Norris Hall classroom, alongside the bodies of some other victims.

Looking back, Mr. Perkins said he could not get over how methodical Mr. Cho had been. “He was just disgusting; he just had no facial expression, showed no signs of emotion or anything,” he said.

“I don’t understand how someone could do that and not have any——” he said, searching for the right word. “I guess there has to be something terribly wrong with you to do something like that in the first place.”

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