Virginia Tech Shooting Report: University Staff Warned Their Families Before Campus
At least two Virginia Tech administrators told family members about a double shooting in a dorm – the prelude to the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history – well before the rest of the campus was notified a gunman was on the loose.
Those details were revealed in a revised state report released Friday and prompted bitter reactions from some victims' relatives who have been demanding the resignation of President Charles Steger ever since the 2007 massacre that left 33 people dead.
"He's got to live with himself," said Dennis Bluhm, who lost his son. "If he's got any heart at all, and I'm not sure he does, he's got a long life to live with this on his brain."
The report adds to the long list of apparent missteps by university officials before, during and after the 2007 rampage by Seung-Hui Cho. The mentally ill student shot two students to death in the dorm, then three hours later chained the doors of a classroom building and killed 30 more people before committing suicide.
The two administrators notified their families about the dorm shootings around 8:05 a.m. – an hour and 20 minutes before a campus-wide e-mail warning was sent to staff members, faculty and students. The massacre in the classroom building began at 9:40 a.m.
One of the administrators who notified a family member was Steger's chief of staff, Kim O'Rourke, said Phil Schaenman, the president of TriData, the outside firm that put together the report. She often called her son, a Tech student, to make sure he went to class. She told him about the dorm shootings but still told him to go to class, which he did.
"I did tell him what had been happening, and I told him to go to class," O'Rourke told The Washington Post. "He was in class at the time of the shooting in Norris Hall."
"It's been taken that their families were given advance warning," Schaenman said. "But in her case, she said it was safe to come to school."
The other administrator, then-assistant vice president of administration Lisa Wilkes, was dropping off her children at her mother's house when she got a phone call about the dorm shootings and telling her to come into work. She then told her mother about the shootings.
The two administrators' actions clearly "do not comprise a concerted effort by University staff to notify their own families of danger in advance of notifying the campus community," school spokesman Mark Owczarski said in a statement.
Gov. Tim Kaine said if there was an effort by the school's administration to notify family members before anyone else, it would be "inexcusable."
"There is almost never a reason not to provide immediate notification," Kaine told the Associated Press. "If university officials thought it was important enough to notify their own families, they should have let everyone know."
Later, Kaine spokeswoman Linda Tran said his office had spoken with Tech and TriData officials about the report's findings and it "does not sounds like there was wrongdoing" by the two administrators.
Steger's office said Friday he was unavailable for comment and referred questions to the university spokesman, Owczarski. Calls by The Associated Press to multiple phone listings for O'Rourke and Wilkes rang unanswered Friday.
On campus Friday, Student Government Association president Brandon Carroll said he does not think the revised report damages the administration.
"Hindsight is 20/20," he said. "It really upsets me that they're trying to bring back something bad that really hurt our community."
The updated report includes additions and corrections requested by family members along with new information, including details from Cho's mental health records. Those records had been missing from the school counseling center even before the massacre, but the center's former director found them in his home in July.
In other new findings in the report:
_ It took 17 minutes for the chief of the Virginia Tech Police Department to get through to the executive vice president's office after he learned of the dorm shooting.
_ Virginia Tech's government affairs director ordered Steger's office locked around 8:52 a.m. Two classroom buildings were also locked down well before the notification went out. But Owczarski said the office was never locked.
_ One student killed in the dorm, Emily Hilscher, survived several hours after being shot, but no one bothered to notify her family until she had died. A call to her parents Friday wasn't immediately returned.
_ An administrator who was a member of a policy group dealing with the shooting mailed a colleague in Richmond around 8:45 a.m. that a gunman was on the loose, but warned the colleague to make sure that information didn't get out because it was not yet "releasable."
_ Campus trash collection was canceled 21 minutes before students and teachers were warned.
_ Virginia Tech had two different emergency-alert policies in effect at the time, and that led to the delay in issuing the university-wide alert.
The original report criticized the university's failure to act on warning signs from Cho that included violent, twisted writings and sullen, hostile behavior. It also criticized the communications failures and other problems that allowed nearly two hours to elapse between the first gunshots and the campus-wide notification.
The updated report did not revise the original report's conclusions and recommendations.