In the year prior to Diane Bickel’s graduation from Langley High School, the Washington D.C. sniper was on the loose, shooting innocent victims at random, and the Great Falls high school senior had to endure cancelled after-school activities and sports events, and the ongoing, all-pervasive fear of going out in public. One month before her May 12 graduation from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Bickel seems to be reliving the experience all over again.
"I was thinking about this today," said her mother, Elaine Bickel. "When my daughter was a senior at Langley, it was the year of the sniper and this is kind of reminiscent of that time — just that fear and that feeling of ‘don’t go out in the open.’"
Elaine Bickel found out Virginia Tech shooting spree at about 9:30 a.m. on Monday morning. A friend who lives in Blacksburg called to tell her what was going on.
"I phoned [Diane] as soon as I heard," said Elaine Bickel. "I was able to talk to her for a couple of minutes and she told me that she was at her home and had heard that she should stay there and not go on campus."
Due to jammed phone lines that lasted all day long, that brief conversation was Elaine Bickel’s last communication with her daughter until she received a text message from her at about 3 p.m.
"I think, the phone lines were all jammed up," said Elaine Bickel.
AS A SENIOR, Diane Bickel was fortunate enough to live off campus in an apartment behind the Virginia Tech football field — and was therefore tucked a safe distance away from the violence that erupted Monday morning on campus. But Elaine Bickel said that the worst part of the day for her, was having no idea what was going to happen next.
"What’s horrible about this is the way it unfolds," she said. "You hear one thing, and then you see the rest of it on the news, and as it unfolds, it just becomes more and more horrific. It’s just a terrible tragedy."
Gaku Fujiyama, an 18-year-old freshman, a graduate of McLean High School, was in his dorm when the shootings began.
"I found out about it through an e-mail that Virginia Tech had sent out at around 9:50 a.m.," said Fujiyama. "It didn’t really hit me until a couple hours later, but in the beginning the e-mail said ‘don’t leave your room, stay away from the windows, close all the blinds.’ I was confused, so I was talking to my hall mates until the RA’s forced us into our rooms."
Like most people, Fujiyama was not able to get through to his parents until the late afternoon due to jammed phone lines.
"I got a couple of incoming calls, but a lot of the calls I tried to make didn’t get through," said Fujiyama. "I talked to my siblings through Instant Messenger and e-mail right as the shootings were occurring."
Fujiyama said that as the morning wore on, he became more shell shocked by what was going on around him.
"I still can’t believe this happened," he said. "It happened so fast, it was hard to react … as soon as the news started getting worse and worse, that’s when it hit me that this was happening just five to ten minutes away from where I was.
Afterwards, Fujiyama said the mood on campus was quiet.
"Everywhere you looked, people were on their phones," he said. "But mostly, everyone was shocked and in disbelief."
By Monday evening, the Virginia Tech campus was devoid of people.
"Many people went home right after things got calmer, so right now, the campus feels deserted," said Fujiyama.
Fujiyama said thus far, he knows two people that were killed in Monday’s rampage.
"This is an event that I can never forget," he said. "I’m going to have to live with this memory — knowing that people I knew died so close to me because one person decided to go crazy."
IN THE WAKE of Monday’s events, there were some who spoke out against the university for failing to lock down the campus directly after the early morning shootings in the West A.J. dormitory. However, representatives for the school have said that they had no inkling that what started out as a domestic dispute would turn into the largest mass shooting in the country. Elaine Bickel is critical of the critics.
"What I find dismaying is the constant second guessing and criticism of the school," she said. "It was a madman — you can’t guess his next move. This was just some random, horrible thing, and the people that were there had to have been as devastated as the people in 9-11."
Elaine Bickel, who also has two sons at Langley High School, added that while it was difficult as a mother to spend the bulk of the day in the dark about the details of what was going on, she felt that the police and school administrators were prioritizing and doing the best that they could, given the circumstances.
"The world is not a safe place, and you hope that wherever your child is they are safe, but you can never guarantee that," she said.
For her part, Diane Bickel is refusing to give in to the all-consuming fear that is typically instilled by such random acts of violence.
"It is unbelievably sad that this tragedy befell our school, but I know the Tech community will rally together to pull through," she said. "I have been at Tech for four years and graduate this May. I absolutely love Blacksburg and the Hokie community, and have felt completely safe here for four years — and today won’t change that. Right now, I think everyone’s focus and prayers are just with the families of those who were hurt today."
BACK HOME in Great Falls and McLean, several local churches held special prayer services in honor of those impacted by the tragedy. On Monday evening, John McGowan, director of The Gathering — Frontline’s ministry for college-age young adults — led a special prayer time in the community room of McLean Bible Church.
"Many people who attend McLean Bible Church have students at the school," wrote Debbie Spoehel in an e-mail announcing the special prayer service. "There will be many families in total shock today — please pray for the families of those who have lost loved ones, for those who are injured, and for those who are undoubtedly very upset by this event."
St. Francis Episcopal Church in Great Falls also held a special Monday evening prayer service in light of the tragedy, and remained open for private prayer until 9 p.m.
"We are just beginning to confront the enormity of the tragedy that took place at Virginia Tech this morning," said St. Francis Episcopal rector Rev. Penelope Bridges, on Monday afternoon. "At this point, we don’t even know the names, or even a firm number of the victims … and while we hope and pray that none of the young people of our own community have been hurt, we can be sure that all of our young people and their families are deeply affected by this event."