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Day of mourning begins to mark year since Va. Tech shooting

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KRISTEN GELINEAU
April 16, 2008
— The darkness was broken by the flickering of a white candle, lit at the stroke of midnight. Soft weeping and the solemn strains of “Taps” were all that broke the silence of more than a thousand people gathered around the 32 memorial stones honoring the dead.

And in those first few moments of Wednesday, on Virginia Tech’s main campus lawn, the wounds of a community still trying to heal broke open once again, as a day of mourning at the university officially began.


It has been exactly one year since a mentally ill student killed 32 people and himself in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. And while this close-knit campus has worked hard to move on, the anniversary of the killings has left many struggling to cope.


A ceremony honoring the lives of those who perished during Seung-Hui Cho’s rampage was planned for later in the morning in front of the memorial, where the candle lit at midnight will continue burning for 24 hours.


Other small, reflective gatherings were to take place during the day, with a candlelight vigil scheduled for the evening. One group of students planned to lie down in protest of Virginia’s gun laws in the afternoon.


Gov. Timothy M. Kaine ordered state flags flown at half-staff, and a moment of silence at noon followed by the tolling of bells.


Many people weren’t sure how to observe the anniversary of a tragedy that was as unifying as it was shattering. It drew a university already known for its school spirit even closer as the depth of the loss registered with students and faculty.


“Just in interacting with people, you can tell,” said Heidi Miller, 20, a sophomore from Harrisonburg who was shot three times and was one of six survivors in a French class. “It’s like a big question mark. Should we be in mourning all day, or should we try to do something normal?”


Some of the families of those killed said they couldn’t bear to attend the official events and planned to grieve privately.


Bryan Cloyd, whose daughter Austin was killed, hopes to plant an oak tree with his wife Renee to honor their daughter’s life. It is a way of looking toward the future, he said, rather than reflecting on the horrors of last April 16.


As a Virginia Tech professor and Blacksburg resident, Cloyd has faced reminders of his daughter every day. He feels her presence often, in different spots on campus, and in the butterflies that he believes carry Austin’s spirit and seem to follow him everywhere since her death. He believes Austin would want the community to honor her life, but then move forward.


“I won’t be able to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. I won’t be able to bounce her children on my knee,” he said softly. “And I don’t think it’s helpful to dwell on that, because where that leads is just more sadness. I think what’s helpful to do is to dwell on what can be. What can we do with what we have?”


Commemorations of those who were killed started Tuesday. A small bouquet of white carnations lay outside Norris Hall, where Cho and 30 others died. A dozen white roses ringed Caitlin Hammaren’s memorial stone. A tiara, a note with 21st birthday wishes, and an empty sparkling grape juice bottle were left at Leslie Sherman’s memorial.


At the Blacksburg Jewish Community Center, about 60 people attended an evening ceremony to mark the end of their year of mourning.


A congregant lit a candle in honor of each slain victim, representing the light and power of the person it honored. Following the service, attendees walked around the block, an action meant to symbolize the beginning of their emergence from mourning, Rabbi Zahara Davidowitz-Farkas said.


“The dis-ease that has been our last year is dissolving itself slowly,” she told mourners. “... Each of us grieves in our own way and in our own time. Healing and renewal cannot be forced, nor can it be coerced. It comes only where we are ready.”


The anniversary of the shootings and how it will impact the victims’ families has weighed heavily on Gerald Massengill, who led a governor-appointed panel that investigated the slayings. He has tried to focus his thoughts on the changes that have been made to the state’s mental health system and school security procedures in light of the panel’s recommendations.


“I think a lot of us have been anticipating April the 16th with some reservations as to how it would impact us,” he said. “And I think as it’s gotten closer, what I have tried to consume myself with are those things ... the lessons that we think we could learn from Virginia Tech.”


At the student center Tuesday, visitors meandered through a gallery displaying a few of the many thousands of condolence gifts sent to the university and photos taken after the tragedy.


One photo on display was taken by Caroline Merrey, who escaped death by jumping out a second-story window in the class of engineering professor Liviu Librescu.


Merrey, who has graduated, wrote in a note accompanying her photograph that she often thinks about Librescu, who was killed as he tried to hold shut his classroom door to allow students to escape out the windows.


“That is the motivation I have,” she wrote, “to make it through even the hardest day.”



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