Once Again, the Community Grieves

Once Again, the Community Grieves

Westfield High grads killed in Virginia Tech rampage.

Just last spring, Westfield High students showed their support after two police officers were shot and killed by a teen gunman from their school at the nearby Sully District Station.

NOW, LESS than a year later, its Wesfield that's grieving — along with the whole country — after 2006 grads, Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson, both 19, were slain Monday by a gunman at Virginia Tech.

"Both were excellent students at Westfield High and tremendous assets to the school," said Westfield Principal Tim Thomas. "Erin was a key player on the girls varsity basketball team, and Reema distinguished herself as one of the shining stars of Westfield Theater."

Calling them "unique, special and outstanding individuals in so many ways," Thomas said the impact their loss will have on the community and school is immeasurable and will be felt for a long time.

The shooter, identified by authorities as Cho Seung-Hui, 23, also killed 30 other students and staff members at the Blacksburg college before taking his own life. His home was in Centreville's Sully Station community and he was a 2003 Westfield High grad.

Virginia Tech freshman Sarah Crossett, another 2006 Westfield grad, knew both Erin and Reema and was in class as the violence unfolded. But before the shootings hit the news, she called her mom in Centreville's Pleasant Hill community to let her know she was all right.

"She was in English class near the Norris building [where most of the shootings took place], when the students heard yelling outside and saw lots of policemen run by their window with guns," said Sarah's mom, Meg Crossett. "They closed the blinds, got on the floor and called their parents. Sarah also started text-messaging her roommates and other friends to stay put."

Samaha and Peterson took French together in the Norris Building. By late Monday night, word spread through the Westfield High community that Samaha was among the dead. But, said Meg Crossett, Peterson's parents were told their daughter was alive and in surgery. So, said Crossett, "They rushed to the hospital, but it wasn't her."

She said they waited in the parent lounge all night for news about their child — only to discover Tuesday morning that she was one of the shooting victims who'd died on Monday. Heartbroken, Peterson's father was quoted on national TV Tuesday as saying, "My baby didn't make it."

SARAH CROSSETT, 19, said there's "no sane reason" why such an unthinkable tragedy happened or who lost their lives. "I was sitting in class, a couple buildings away," she said. "It could have been anyone."

The Crossett and Samaha families have been friends for 15 years. As children, Sarah and Reema played soccer together, as did their brothers. Later, both were involved in Westfield Theater.

"Reema always made people smile," said Sarah. "And Erin was smart and funny and had a lot of energy. If you ever needed anyone to get you pumped up, she was the person to go to."

With all that's happened, Sarah doesn't know how she'll be able to focus to pass tests next week and finals the following week. But she'll "absolutely" return next semester.

"I love this school and everyone here," she said Tuesday. "Until yesterday, I never felt unsafe."

Her family's also no stranger to tragedy. Sarah's younger sister Rachel died of a neuroblastoma in July 2001 at age 6. After that, she said, "Life changed for me; every day means something. And I hope everybody gets that out of this."

Tuesday, a stunned and hurting Westfield community went through the motions of a school day, but it wasn't easy. The overwhelming sadness was palpable.

"I feel very bad about it," said junior Rajeev Rawat. "It's depressing; the mood of the whole school is down," added freshman Marc Jones. "It's very sad, and it's horrible that it happened."

Theater Director Scott Pafumi, himself a Virginia Tech grad, said Samaha was "an amazing girl — the best of who we are at Westfield Theater." Noting her performance in the school's production of "Fiddler on the Roof" that earned her a 2004 Critics Choice nod for female dancer, he said "probably her defining role" was in March 2006 as one of the comic aunts in "Arsenic and Old Lace."

"She was well-liked by everyone — a perfect kid, perfect grades and a beautiful spirit," said Pafumi. "She was a wonderful dancer and a gifted performer, and that makes it hard for everyone. We've been gathering, sharing memories and watching old videos of the plays she was in."

JUNIOR ALEX SHIM, also a drama student, said he "saw everybody crying in the [black-box] theater [Tuesday] during sixth period and wondered what was going on. I didn't know who'd gotten shot 'til now. Then I went in and tried to comfort people; I never expected this."

"It's a terrible loss," said Assistant Theater Director Zoe Dillard. "I've worked with Reema for the last two years, and she's just an incredible and wonderful young lady."

Theater mom Yvonne Henry choreographed the Westfield musical "Oklahoma" with Samaha. "She was my dance captain for "Oklahoma" and was a beautiful dancer who helped us out immensely with that show. I couldn't have done it without her."

Henry said Samaha will be remembered for her passion for dancing and the arts, plus her humor. "We love her and we'll all miss her and always remember her," said Henry. She couldn't believe it when she heard Reema had died. "It was surreal," she said. "She had no enemies and was a positive force for the whole school; she kept us laughing."

"I'm just numb," said Henry. "And I'm most sorry for her parents, who are lovely people. Our hearts and prayers are with her family."

Theater mom Lori Knickerbocker also worked with Samaha on several Westfield shows. For "Oklahoma," she said, "Reema helped translate the dances to the students and created a lot of the moves herself — especially the 'dream ballet,' which she created with Mrs. Henry."

Knickerbocker said she'll always picture Samaha "wearing the red dress and doing the high kicks in the dream ballet. She was a delight to work with — smart, funny and mature — and never had a bad word to say about anybody."

Westfield junior Garrett Henson, also a theater student, said both Peterson and Samaha were "absolutely amazing people, and what happened to them didn't deserve to happen. Whoever knew them was privileged to be touched by them and their souls and great spirits."

Throughout Tuesday, said Henson, "We gathered in the black box and mourned and remembered them. We're trying to get through it and are supporting each other."

Peterson was a three-year starter on Westfield's girls varsity basketball team. Head Coach Pat Deegan described her as "the kind of person who made everyone around her feel important. She made you feel special for knowing her."

A fierce competitor, "Erin loved to win," said Deegan. However, he added, she also "loved to hug whomever she played after the game. She was an excellent player and, more importantly, a better person. She was the kind of kid that made everyone around her better — before, during and after practice and games."

FORMER WESTFIELD Principal Mike Campbell knows Peterson's whole family and said her grandmother is a bus driver for the school system. "Erin always had a smile on her face; she was always bubbly," he said. "Watching her on the court, she'd put her 'game face' on for a competition but, afterward, she was smiling again."

Freshman Gary Beal was shocked that the tragedy happened so quickly. And a female student who declined to give her name said it was "kind of unnerving — last year with the police shooting and this year with this happening. It's really disappointing that it's coming out of this school because people are nice here and it feels like home. [The shooter] could have come from any high school."

Still, junior Ryan Maltese was amazed "that somebody from this school would do anything like that. People here seem kind and good-hearted. But after this, it gets me thinking, and I'm hoping nothing like this happens again."

Alex Shim said he doesn't know "what's going on" with the students at Westfield: "For the past year, it's been the center of attention" — and for a reason that's "scary."

But, said Campbell, with around 3,200 students, "Westfield is the largest high school in the state. So when you have that many students, the more the likelihood of things happening. But it's not indicative of the school, at all. It's still a good school."

He knew both Peterson and Samaha and said they're "good kids and good families. I think about their families, and you couldn't ask for better people. My heart goes out to them right now. I can't imagine what they're going through, losing a child."

Campbell said the tragedy "makes you think about your own kids, and you really appreciate everything you have. It puts it all in perspective."