Steve Holmes in Blacksburg, Virginia: 'I waited to hear if my friends were safe'

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The Independent US

The snow was spitting out of grey skies yesterday and a high wind whipped across our 100-year-old campus. From my dorm window on the third floor, I could see across the famous drill field where the corps of cadets drill and parade every day.

This is a southern university with a proud military tradition where students come on scholarships and end up as officers of the American armed forces. But yesterday's shooting five minutes' walk from my dormitory was not the practice of future officers that I so often hear.

In building just behind me at 7.15am, the shooter, assumed to be a student, is understood to have opened fire in the dorm. The rumour mill had it that it was all about a girl. Not a lot was known at the time and classes still went on in the college. That, in all likelihood, contributed to the vast scale of the tragedy that was about to unfold.

A lot of people were calling each other to find out the detail of what had transpired in the early hours. Emails were being sent from the university making students aware. Even for a country where there is a lot of gun crime, the morning shooting came a great shock. This is - or should I say was - an extremely safe town.

Then our world turned upside down. About 11am, there were reports of more casualties on a different part of the campus. Although students were advised to stay in their rooms, they started to become aware that something unspeakable had occurred just on the other side of the drill field.

Looking out my window, I could see policemen running around and ambulances racing across the field. These policemen, suddenly thrust into a very dangerous situation were standing behind the plane trees of the avenue that sweeps around the field - their guns drawn.

But behind the police cordon, we had no idea of the true horror that had taken place inside Norris Hall, one of the main engineering buildings. We had to rely, like the rest of the world, on images on our televisions and we were horrified to see a building we walk through every day under siege.

These sorts of scenes were inconceivable, until yesterday morning, in this place of learning. I searched the television images to see if I could recognise friends and students who might have been injured or even killed.

As the awful scale of the tragedy became clear, I fully expected to learn that friends or fellow classmates had been injured or mortally wounded. But the waiting, terrible at it is, continues because the identities of those hit have yet to be revealed.

But it was with considerable relief that I learnt my closest friends had been spared, simply because they did not have classes in the building at the time the killer was running amok.

We are truly in a state of shock from which it seems it will be hard to recover. We are numb with disbelief. How could this happen?

Already the grieving is beginning and the university is sending counsellors to the families of the bereaved.

The faculty have sent us emails showing their concern. But there is nothing they can do for the dead and - in truth - there was little they could have done to stop this lunatic. There is nothing special about this campus that made it a target.

The last thing I ever imagined was that my university would become the target of a mass murderer. My heart goes out to all of those who have suffered.

The writer is an engineering student at Virginia Tech

Voices of the students

* "It was crazy. I heard the gunshot and started running. I made it to my dorm and we started to talk about what really happened, who was dead. Then within two to three hours, we got in touch with all our fraternity brothers, Zeta Psi, to make sure everyone was OK." - YAMAN ATICI

* "I'm still waiting to find out if all of my friends are OK. I was near Norris Hall, location of the second shootings, when the shootings began and the Swat teams were yelling for everyone to clear the area. I then ran across the drill field and watched them evacuate the building. The news that I'm listening to now is questioning why the classes weren't cancelled when the first shooting occurred and they didn't have the suspect in custody. The suggestion is that it was only once the second shootings were happening that all classes were cancelled." - ERIN BURDICK

* "They could have prevented most of this. The shooting was at 7.30am, classes don't start until 8am. Why couldn't they cancel classes? If someone was shot, I think that's grounds to cancel class rather than sending out an email that says use caution and report anything to the police. They could have saved almost 20 lives." - BEN HAIR

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