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Va. Tech marking 5 years since campus massacre

Tuesday - 4/17/2012, 12:09am  ET

Va. Tech massacre brought community together

WTOP's Hank Silverberg

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BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Students returned to class Monday at Virginia Tech, the first year the school hasn't suspended instruction to mark the anniversary of a 2007 rampage that left 32 people and the gunman dead.

The massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Provost Mark McNamee, who chaired a committee that planned memorial events in the years after the shooting, said the return to classes reflects the lives of those slain.

"Their passion for education, their desire to do good in the world, their commitment to their disciplines come through so strongly that we felt being in classes was one special way of remembering them onward," McNamee said. "This is what they did, this is what we do, and it's important to us.

"My sense is that our students and our faculty are ready for it," he said.

The day was remembered in other ways on the Blacksburg campus, in Washington, and by alumni across the country.

An estimated 9,000 gathered in the Drillfield at the heart of campus Monday night to attend a candlelight vigil, similar to one held in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.

The shootings are "almost too terrible to remember," President Charles Steger told the crowd as candles danced in the wind. "But we will never forget. Five years has done nothing to diminish our sorrow."

Former Student Government Association president Sumeet Bagai spoke five years ago. On Monday he said the Hokie Nation rose to the occasion then and would continue to be a source of strength for the community.

"You have carried that legacy on," Bagai told the gathering, according to The Roanoke Times. "There is no stronger bond than the ties of the Hokie family."

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a proclamation recognizing April 16 as Virginia Tech Remembrance Day, honoring the 32 lives that were "hastily taken, leaving absences that will never be filled and a profound sense of sorrow in the lives of those impacted," the proclamation reads in part.

At 9:43 a.m. Monday, McDonnell called for a moment of silence in Virginia. That was the exact time when gunman Seung-Hui Cho began killing 30 students and professors at Norris Hall during the 2007 shootings. Cho also killed two people in a dormitory before starting the rampage in the classroom building.

On campus, events included a community picnic on the Drillfield, a display of memorial items sent to Virginia Tech from other colleges and universities and performances. Several locations have been set aside on campus as "quiet places for reflection."

"It's something we'll always remember, but we've definitely moved past it and this is a beautiful campus and no matter what I feel safe here," Virginia Tech freshman Alexis Craghead told WDBJ-TV during the picnic.

At Norris Hall, where Cho also killed himself, an open house was held. The former classroom building is now home to the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

The center was established in 2009 "to transform a place of pain, suffering and violence that can prevent future violence," director James Hawdon said. The center promotes student volunteerism and "nonviolent compassionate communication" techniques, he said.

Hawdon, a sociology professor who was on campus during the 2007 carnage, said initially some people were hesitant to visit a peace center located in a place that had seen so much death. Once people overcome that, he said, "I think it's cathartic for them."

Hawdon said April 16 anniversaries have evolved from profoundly somber days to "a strong sense of community and a desire to work towards making the world a better place. We hope we can make a difference."

Survivors and parents of students slain five years ago have been part of the planning committee on anniversaries, McNamee said. They were fearful the events of April 16, 2007, would dim with time, so the university has stuck to symbolic remembrances of the day such as the candlelight vigil and a 3.2-mile run over the weekend that attracted 6,800 participants.

While the vast majority of students who were on campus in 2007 are gone, many current faculty members were there. He said he has heard no complaints about the decision to hold classes Monday.

Still, he said, memories of that day "can catch you by surprise."

"It's not too deeply buried," McNamee said. "A faculty member may be teaching and remember that day."

Alumni groups have been sponsoring service-based events leading to and on the anniversary. In Delaware, for instance, the First State Chapter participated in a Habitat for Humanity project Saturday, while members of the Portland, Ore., chapter volunteered for a tree planting.

The Denver chapter sponsored a 3.2-mile "Remembrance Walk/Run" on Sunday, and the National Capital Region Chapter sponsored a blood drive in the Washington suburbs.

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Online:

Virginia Tech: http://www.vt.edu/


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)