On April 16, 2007, an undergraduate student named Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and injured 17 others when he brought 2 semi-automatic pistols onto campus at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Other students were injured indirectly from running away or jumping out of windows to escape.
Police stormed the hall he was in, and Cho committed suicide. Up until the Orlando nightclub shooting, this was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
The shooting received international media attention and U.S. gun culture was criticized, sparking a debate about gun control and the U.S. systems for treating mental health. (And, 13 years later, these same debates happen after each and every shooting to nearly no avail.) Cho had been diagnosed with various mental health issues, but still was able to purchase guns legally.
THE HISTORY OF SEUNG-HUI CHO
Seung-Hui Cho, originally from South Korea with U.S. permanent resident status, was a 23-year-old senior at Virginia Tech studying English.
His history was troubled. At the young age of 3, he was described as "shy, frail and wary of physical contact", which didn't appear to change much as he grew up. In middle school, he was diagnosed with severe depression, and selective mutism, a disorder that inhibited him from speaking to certain people or in certain situations. Some believe he had autism, but there is no direct link between selective mutism and autism currently identified.
Throughout middle school and high school, his parents tried to get him into therapy and treatment, but (uncorroborated) reports indicate that kids bullied him for his speech issues, and also for his height and race and various other things. Though his school counselors tried to support him through the end of high school, he chose to discontinue treatment.
Once in college, "numerous incidents of aberrant behavior" were reported, beginning in his junior year, the beginning of his mental health deterioration. His professors reported that his writing was disturbing, as well as his classroom behavior. He was also investigated on stalking and harassing charges from 2 female students. In 2005, a Virginia special justice declared him mentally ill and ordered outpatient treatment.
Many different entities were held, in some way, responsible for the opportunity Cho had to commit the mass shooting, according to The Virginia Tech Review Panel Report. They faulted University officials for failing to share important information about the seriousness of Cho's issues. They faulted Virginia Tech's counseling center and Virginia's mental health laws in general for inadequate services, but did conclude that Cho was the biggest reason he was unable to stabilize his mental health. The Report also claimed that, had he been told to seek inpatient treatment, he would have been legally prohibited from purchasing a gun, but because he went to outpatient treatment, he was able to.
But despite potential failures along the way, Cho was able to get 2 killing machines and head to campus. His diagnosis at the time of the shootings is a matter of speculation to this day.
Some early reports claimed that the killings were a result of a romantic dispute between student Emily Hilscher, one of the first people he killed, but her friends said she had never even spoken to him before the murders. In the investigation after the shootings, police found a suicide note in his dorm room with comments about "rich kids", "debauchery" and "deceitful charlatans".
2 days after the shootings, NBC News received a package from Cho that was time-stamped in the middle of the shootings. It contained an 1,800 word manifesto, photos, and 27 videos where Cho said he was like Jesus Christ and expressed how much he hated the wealthy. (As a rule of thumb, stay away from anyone who writes their own manifesto.)
THE VIRGINIA TECH SHOOTING
The shooting occurred in 2 separate incidents: The first in a residence hall where he killed 2 students, and the second in an academic building across campus where he took 30 other lives, and his own.
At about 6:47 AM, Cho was seen near the entrance of the residence hall, West Ambler Johnston Hall, which housed 895 students. Typically, before 10:00 AM only residents with key cards were allowed in, so it is unclear how he was able to get in the building. His student mailbox was in the lobby, but even then, his key card didn't work until 7:30 AM.
At around 7:15 AM, he entered the dorm room of 19-year-old freshman Emily Hilscher. The RA, Ryan Clark, came to see what was going on after hearing the gunshot, and even he tried to help Emily, he shot and killed Clark. Clark was a 22-year-old senior. He died immediately, but Emily remained alive for 3 hours.
Cho left the scene and returned to his room while police responded to the shootings across the way. He changed out of his bloody clothes, and then 2 hours later, walked to the post office to mail his manifesto.
After his stop at the post office, he headed over to Norris Hall, an academic building for Engineering Science and Mechanics, and some other classrooms. He brought with him chains, locks, a hammer, a knife, his 2 guns, 19 10 and 15-round magazines, and 400 rounds of ammunition. He used the chains and locks to close the 3 main entrance doors and placed a note saying that any attempt to open the doors would cause a bomb to explode. By the time a faculty member found the note and went to notify school administration, he had begun shooting. A 911 call was made at 9:42 AM.
Several students said that Cho looked into several classrooms before the shooting began, as if he was lost. His first shot was at 9:40 AM. His first attack was in an advanced hydrology engineering class. He shot and killed the professor, and then continued firing and killing 9 of the 13 students in the room. He went across the hall to introductory German, where Cho shot a student, the professor, and then the rest of the students, killing 4 of them and injuring others.
The next room he attempted to enter, the professor, a Holocaust survivor, prevented Cho from entering, holding the door closed with his body, allowing the students to escape through the window. He was killed after being shot multiple times through the door. Though 1 student was killed in this classroom, the professor's bravery saved the rest of them.
He moved onto an intermediate French class where he killed a teacher and student who were trying to barricade the door. When he broke through. He was met with a student, a trained ROTC cadet, who charged him in order to save his classmates' lives. He died, and was later awarded the Airman's Medal for his brave actions. 11 of the 16 students in the class died, and all of the survivors had gunshot wounds.
He reloaded, and went back to several of the classrooms he had already been in. He went back to introductory German, where the surviving students were barricading the door and tending to the wounded. He also went back to advanced hydrology engineering where he found a wounded student, and shot him again, killing him. He tried to get into another room, taught by a substitute professor, but the table they barricaded the door with worked, and no one on that room was wounded or killed.
A professor from the 3rd floor took his students and locked them into his office where they could lock the door. He and another professor went downstairs to investigate, but both were shot in the stairwell. The second professor survived, but the one who had locked his students in his office did not survive. None of the students he locked in his office were hurt.
About 10 minutes after the shooting had started, Cho returned back to the intermediate French class and shot himself in the head and died instantly right as police were coming.
Ultimately, he killed 5 faculty members and 27 students before ending his life. 17 others had gunshot wounds that they survived, and 6 others were injured from jumping out second story windows.
The victims are as follows:
Jamie Bishop, 35 // German Instructor
Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, 49 // French Professor
Kevin Granata, 45 // Engineering professor (locked students in office)
Liviu Librescu, 76 // Engineering professor (Holocaust survivor)
G.V. Loganathan, 53 // Engineering professor
Ross Alameddine, 20 // Sophomore
Brian Bluhm, 25 // Master's student
Ryan Clark, 22 // Senior (RA from residence hall shooting)
Austin Cloyd, 18 // Freshman
Daniel Cueva, 21 // Junior
Matthew Gwaltney, 24 // Masters student
Caitlin Hammaren, 19 // Sophomore
Jeremy Herbstritt, 27 // Master's student
Rachel Hill, 18 // Freshman
Emily Hilscher, 19 // Freshman (shot in her dorm room)
Matthew La Porte, 20 // Sophomore (charged the shooter)
Jarrett Lane, 22 // Senior
Henry Lee, 20 // Freshman
Partahi Lumbantoruan, 34 // PhD student
Lauren McCain, 20 // Freshman
Daniel O'Neil, 22 // Masters student
Juan Ortiz, 26 // Masters student
Minal Panchal, 26 // Masters student
Erin Peterson, 18 // Freshman
Michael Pohle Jr., 23 // Senior
Julia Pryde, 23 // Masters student
Mary Read, 19 // Freshman
Reema Samaha, 18 // Freshman
Waleed Shaalan, 32 // PhD student (the one he went back in and shot)
Leslie Sherman, 20 // Junior
Maxine Turner, 22 // Senior
Nicole White, 20 // Junior
RESPONSES TO THE SHOOTING
Though police arrived within 3 minutes of the emergency call, it took about 5 minutes to enter the building that had been closed off with chains and locks. They ultimately could not break the chains, but entered by shooting out a deadbolt into a lab. By the time they got inside, Cho had taken his final shot. High winds that day prevented evacuation via helicopter for the injured, and they were transported via ambulance to various area hospitals.
Students were notified via email at 9:26 AM about the first shooting, which was assumed to be isolated and domestic. After the full extent of the shooting was known, classes were cancelled for the week and a candlelight vigil was held. Norris hall was closed for the rest of the semester. Counseling was available, and students were allowed to abbreviate their coursework. A memorial was held that included a speech from George W. Bush, and the space quickly reached capacity.
Within a day, the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund was set up to help remember and honor victims, to raise money for victims and their families, memorials, and grief counseling. In June, they announced they had raised $3.2 million, and $7 million by July. By October, families of the deceased and surviving victims received between $11,500 and $208,000 from the fund.
The dorm where the student and RA were shot was closed and renovated. The wing of Norris Hall where the shootings took place was also renovated and now houses the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.
Makeshift memorials were set up across campus for those who had been killed, placing flowers and items of remembrance throughout campus. Later, 32 pieces of stone, each labeled with the name of a victim, were put in the center of campus.
The South Korean government expressed shock and shame after finding out about the citizenship of the shooter, and held a candlelight vigil outside of the Embassy of the United States in Seoul. The President expressed condolences. Though he had not lived in South Korea since 3rd grade, the country still felt guilt and mourned the losses of the deceased.
Two other noteworthy responses were, as always, in the form of a terrible Halloween costume and in the form of something that is intended to make money. The first was when 2 Penn State students dressed up as Virginia Tech shooting victims for Halloween and posted the images to Facebook. Both Penn State and Virginia Tech, and anyone who is a not horrific person in general, were appalled.
And, in the video game industry, an amateur company created a game called V-Tech Rampage and after outrage, said he would only take it down for payment. The same creator also made a video game based on the Sandy Hook shooting, so I think we are dealing with one of the most horrible people imaginable, here.
A kid with a documented history of serious mental health issues was able to get 2 semi-automatic weapons and killed 32 students in a few minutes. That happened in 2007. It has been 13 years, and this still happens on a regular basis. After the shooting, the President traveled out to speak at the memorial. Now, tweeted thoughts, prayers and condolences are all we get due to the sheer amount of mass shootings experienced in the U.S. in the year.
How does that happen? How did we allow a severely mentally ill person get access to guns that he used to take 32 human lives and then let it happen again? And again? And again? Just 5 years later, another shooter took the lives of 26 people, this time 20 of them were between 6-7 years old and still, almost nothing has changed.
A lot of times when I write about disasters like this, I focus on the reforms that came from it. Not that anything makes the loss of 32 people better, but if their deaths could mean this never happened again and many students and movie-goers and concert-goers would be safer because of it, it could mean something. But that doesn't apply here. Because this didn't spark widespread change that could save the next university or high school or church. It just became another line in the long list of events where people senselessly lost their lives to a crazed man with a gun.
The list of mass shootings is so long that it is nearly impossible to keep track of now. And sadly, the response has changed so much from 2007. It is no longer united criticisms of gun control and an outpouring of sadness. It is people claiming the shootings are hoaxes. Taking senior pictures with assault rifles. Making fun of and expressing hate for children who survived shootings who have tried to become advocates so it doesn't happen again. Making it abundantly clear that you believe your right to bear arms trumps a person's right to be alive.
I hope common sense gun regulations go into place someday, but it seems like fighting a losing battle. 13 years ago today, 32 college students with bright futures ahead of them were murdered for no reason at all, and still, nothing has been done about it. So in a world where you may actually scroll past a story about a new mass shooting because you can't keep track anymore, let's remember those 32 people today.