BLACKSBURG, Va. - A gunman killed 32 people in two shooting incidents Monday at a Virginia university in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The gunman also was killed, and at least 15 other people were injured.
The shootings, which rang out just four days before the eighth anniversary of the Columbine High School bloodbath near Littleton, Colo., spread panic and confusion at the college, where students and employees angrily asked why the first e-mail warning did not go out to them until the gunman had struck again.
Nearly 50 victims
Federal law enforcement officials said the gunman killed himself after he shot dozens of people at two locations at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, in southwest Virginia. Thirty-two people plus the shooter were confirmed dead.
In addition to the 33 dead, hospitals reported that 15 people were injured. Five were in stable condition; the conditions of the others were not immediately reported.
It was not immediately clear that all of the injured people had been shot. Some may have been injured when they leaped to safety from the fourth floor of a classroom building.
Investigators told NBC News that they had so far been unable to positively identify the gunman, whose face was disfigured when he was killed. He carried no ID or cell phone, and an initial check on his fingerprints came up empty.
Witnesses described him as a man in his 20s, wearing a maroon cap and a black leather jacket. A spokesman for the FBI in Washington said there was no immediate evidence to suggest that the incident was a terrorist attack, “but all avenues will be explored.”
“Today the university was struck with a tragedy that we consider of monumental proportions,” said Charles Steger, the university’s president. “The university is shocked and indeed horrified.”
President Bush said in a brief televised statement: “Schools should be places of sanctuary and safety and learning. When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community. Today, our nation grieves with those who have lost loved ones at Virginia Tech.”
Warnings came too late
Steger and law enforcement authorities gave this account of the day’s events in public statements and comments to NBC News:
The rampage began about 7:15 a.m. ET at West Ambler Johnston, a coeducational residence hall that houses 895 people. The gunman, armed with a 9-mm pistol and a .22-caliber handgun, killed two people there before making his way to Norris Hall, an engineering classroom building on the opposite end of the 2,600-acre campus.
About 9:15, the gunman chained the doors of the classroom building so his potential victims could not escape and police could not enter. There, he shot as many as 46 more people.
Not until 9:26 did the first warning to students and employees go out by e-mail, according to the time stamps on copies obtained by NBC News. By then, the classroom shooting was well under way.
The first e-mail had few details. It said: “A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating.” The message warned students to be cautious and contact police about anything suspicious.
Maurice Hiller, a student, told The Associated Press that he went to a 9 a.m. class just two buildings away from the engineering building and that no warnings were coming over the outdoor public address system on campus at the time.
Steger said at a briefing for reporters that administrators and police initially believed the first shooting was an isolated domestic incident and did not see a need to close the university. Steger said they believed the gunman had fled the campus.
“We can only make decisions based on the information you had on the time. You don’t have hours to reflect on it,” he said.
Inside the engineering building, an “unreal” and bloody scene was unfolding.
“None of us thought it could have been gunshots,” a student who identified himself as Trey Perkins told MSNBC’s Chris Jansing in a telephone interview. “... I’m not sure how long it lasted. It seemed like a really long time.”
Perkins said the gunman never said a word. “He didn’t say, ‘Get down.’ He didn’t say anything.” He just started shooting.”
The gunman left that classroom and then tried to return, but students kept him out by bracing the door closed with their feet. “He started to try to come in again and started shooting through the door,” Perkins said, but hit no one.
“I got on the ground and I was just thinking, like, there’s no way I’m going to survive this,” Perkins said. “All I could keep thinking of was my mom.”
Until Monday, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history was in Killeen, Texas, in 1991, when George Hennard plowed his pickup truck into a Luby's Cafeteria and shot 23 people to death, then himself.
The deadliest previous campus shooting in U.S. history took place in 1966 at the University of Texas, where Charles Whitman climbed to the 28th-floor observation deck of a clock tower and opened fire. He killed 16 people before he was gunned down by police.