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Somber Va. Tech Marks Tragic Anniversary

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

At Virginia Tech, classes were canceled today so students and faculty could commemorate what happened there one year ago. On April 16th 2007, a gunman opened fire in a dormitory and a classroom building. He killed 32 people before taking his own life. Here is how one survivor, student Clay Violand, described the scene in his French class when the killer walked in.

CLAY VIOLAND: He just started picking people off with the gun. I kind of heard it more than I saw but I just kind of expected, like, after every bullet I just prepared myself for the hit, you know, but it never came for me.

NORRIS: Today on campus there was a moment of silence and quiet memorials for the dead.

NPR's Adam Hochberg is in Blacksburg.

ADAM HOCHBERG: On the anniversary of America's most deadly campus shooting, the mood at Virginia Tech is one of remembrance and resilience for a college community that took pride in pulling together after last year's violence. Today marked another step in the healing process - a chance to move forward from the tragedy while at the same time, grieving for those who were lost.

DEREK O: These are pictures of all 32 students who were killed last April - all 32 students and faculty. Five were in my class.

HOCHBERG: Virginia Tech junior Derek O'Dell displayed those photos on the wall of his college apartment. O'Dell himself was hit with the bullet when gunman Seung-Hui Cho opened fire in a classroom. O'Dell was fortunate, his physical wounds were minor and he was able to return the school. But he says he still feels the mental effects of what he's been through. And this week has been especially tough.

O: There's definitely sadness and grief that comes out of the one year anniversary. It's difficult and it's hard to return to classes and continue study. But it's something that I feel like I need to continue on to, sort of, honor those classmates.

HOCHBERG: O'Dell was writing a book about his experience. An exercise he calls incredibly healing, and one that he says has helped him see the positive things that have come out of a very negative event.

DELL: Blacksburg is such a great place and won't be marked or defined by a school shooting but as some place that has prevailed, that has continued on but not forgetting those that we lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOCHBERG: O'Dell was among about 14,000 people who gathered at the center of campus this morning where the university held a simple and somber service. A wind ensemble played, a memorial candle flickered, flowers adorned the monument that was erected last year to honor the dead. Virginia Tech president Charles Steger called today's anniversary a stirring and sober reminder of what might have been.

CHARLES STEGER: And while the passage of time has helped us in many ways, we remain deeply and profoundly saddened by the events of that tragic day. Neither the heat of summer nor the winds of winter has relieved our pain.

HOCHBERG: Faculty members briefly eulogized each of the victims. One student was remembered as a jazz musician, another loved shopping for shoes. A French language instructor was cherished for her joie de vive. And after listening to those 32 eulogies, Virginia governor Tim Kaine said the world was cheated.

TIM KAINE: If Virginia Tech wanted to be represented by 32 people that would tell the story of who this university is and more importantly aspires to be, those 32 descriptions make us mourn the lost promise.

HOCHBERG: A separate private memorial service was held on campus this morning for family members. And Blacksburg's churches and synagogues opened their doors to the public for worship and meditation throughout the day. The Reverend Scott Russell, who chairs a multi-denominational group of more than 40 local religious leaders, says there's a lot a variation in how people here are coping.

SCOTT RUSSELL: There are people who are feeling some, I think, flashbacks. I've spoken with students who are being treated for anxiety attacks. But then there are also students who really want to move on and not be in the same place we were last year.

HOCHBERG: Russell says there's a degree of self healing that takes place in the university community. As students who was closed to the tragedy graduate each year and new ones take their place. He says Virginia Tech will always remember what happened last April. He hopes with time, those memories won't feel so raw.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Blacksburg Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Adam Hochberg
Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Adam Hochberg reports on a broad range of issues in the Southeast. Since he joined NPR in 1995, Hochberg has traveled the region extensively, reporting on its changing economy, demographics, culture and politics. He also currently focuses on transportation. Hochberg covered the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, followed candidates in three Presidential elections and reported on more than a dozen hurricanes.