U.S. News

Gunman Kills 33 at Virginia Tech University

State and local police wait for a building to be cleared by police on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., Monday, April 16, 2007, following a shooting incident. Police said the shootings have left at least 20 people dead and a similar number injured. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)
Don Petersen

A gunman killed 33 people at a Virginia university on Monday, calmly gunning down students attending class and then killing himself in the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history.

Most of those killed were students attending classes at a hall at Virginia Tech, where the gunman apparently used chains to lock the doors and prevent the victims from escaping, university and police officials said.

Fifteen people were wounded, included those shot and students hurt jumping from windows in a desperate attempt to escape the gunfire, officials said.

One student told the media that the killer was an Asian male, about six feet tall, who walked into his German class and shot a student and professor before systematically shooting nearly all of the other students in the room.

"I hid under the desk and he proceeded to shoot everybody else in the class, practically," said Derek O'Dell, who suffered an gunshot wound in his arm. "There were probably 15 to 20 people in the class and he shot 10 to 15 of them."

He said the gunman, who was wearing a black leather coat and maroon hat, fired several shots from a handgun, reloaded and resumed shooting. The man left the room, but returned and fired into the door before leaving again, O'Dell said.

By the time police reached the second floor of the building, the firing had stopped and they later found the gunman lying dead in a classroom.  "It was probably one of the worst things I've seen in my life," said campus police chief Wendell Flinchum.

Television images of terrified students and police dragging bloody victims out of the building revived memories of the infamous Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and is likely to renew heated debate about U.S. gun laws.

The rampage began two hours earlier at a dormitory a half-mile away where a male and a female student were shot dead as other students began crisscrossing the sprawling campus for morning classes.

Police said they had thought it was an isolated incident and believed the gunman had left the campus, drawing criticism that they were slow to warn other students of the danger.

Flinchum said police had a preliminary identity of the gunman, but disclosed only that he was a male.

He said two unspecified weapons had been recovered by police, and that there was a male "person of interest" connected with the first shooting who police had been questioning when the second shooting occurred.

"We are trying to determine if the two incidents are connected. Part of that will be the ballistics test."

Flinchum earlier said it appeared there was only one gunman. The Washington Post said law enforcement sources told it that one person was responsible for both incidents.

The death toll was worse than a massacre at the University of Texas in Austin on Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old student, killed 13 people and wounded 31 in a 90-minute spree.

"Today our nation grieves with those who have lost loved ones at Virginia Tech," President George W. Bush said.
Two Hours Between Attacks

The first shooting was reported to campus police at about 7:15 a.m. local time in West Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory housing some 900 students. It was followed by more shooting at Norris Hall, site of the science and engineering school.

During the two hours after the first shooting some students had ventured out again. University police were still investigating the first shooting at the dormitory when they got word of gunfire at the classroom building.

"I'm really at a loss for words to explain or understand the carnage that has visited our campus," Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said at a news conference.

Steger, facing questions over the university's initial response, stressed that its efforts to alert students could not possibly reach the thousands of people moving around the campus at the start of the school day.

"We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur," Steger said of the first shooting.

But some students expressed anger that e-mails warning about a possible gunman were not sent out until more than two hours after the first attack.

An emotional prayer service was held Monday night and among those attending was emergency room physician Joseph Cacioppo, who said the wounded were shot multiple times.

"This guy was just, he was out to kill everyone he came in contact with, not just to shoot the gun, he was out to kill them," Cacioppo said. "... Everyone that we saw in the emergency room had more than one wound. Most of them had three."

More than 30,000 people die from gunshot wounds in the United States every year and there are more guns in private hands than in any other country. But a powerful gun lobby and support for gun ownership rights has largely thwarted attempts to tighten controls.

In 1999, two student gunmen killed 12 other students and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine High School in Colorado.

"We live in a society where guns are pretty well accepted," said Jim Sollo, of Virginians Against Handgun Violence. "There are 200 million guns in this society and obviously some in the wrong hands."

Virginia Tech, with 26,000 students and some 100 buildings on 2,600 acres, is located in the town of Blacksburg and set in lush rolling hills in the southwest corner of the state, about 240 miles from Washington.