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‘Anything Could Have Happened’

Virginia Tech students from Potomac, Md. recount last week’s shootings and their aftermath.

Ryan Haggerty is now grateful that he totaled his car. A Virginia Tech junior and ‘04 graduate of Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md., Haggerty was returning to college last winter when his car fishtailed on an icy highway and crashed. He wasn’t injured, but the accident left him without a car this semester.

Thus Haggerty was waiting for the bus to get to campus around 9:30 a.m. on Monday, April 16. He’d received e-mail from the university about a shooting in the West Ambler dorm on Virginia Tech’s campus earlier that morning. Students were advised to be cautious, but classes were not canceled.

While waiting for the bus, one of Haggerty’s neighbors came out and told him classes were cancelled. Haggerty returned to his apartment, went straight upstairs turned on the TV. From there, he watched the news developing about additional shootings in Norris Hall. On the campus that had been Haggerty’s second home for nearly three years, the worst mass shooting in United States history was taking place.

“I was blessed that I didn’t have a car,” Haggerty said. “If I had a car, I would have been on campus at 9:30 or 9:45.”

“I wouldn’t have been in [Norris] but I would have been walking by,” Haggerty said. Who knows if he would have crossed paths with the shooter Seung Hui Cho? “Anything could have happened.”

AFTER THE SECOND shootings, Virginia Tech was making public address announcements that the school was in lockdown. With her iPod blasting, Churchill ‘04 graduate Katie Russo never heard the announcement. She passed Norris Hall and kept going.

“I was walking by like nothing’s wrong,” Russo said. A police SWAT team came up to Russo and told her about the lockdown, and she went to the athletic facility on campus. Like Haggerty, she watched the news through the afternoon as the confirmed death toll increased.

Betsey Morser, a Churchill senior, was visiting James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., when she received a text message from her sister Mary Morser, a Virginia Tech sophomore. There was a gunman loose on campus, Mary said, but added that she was safe.

Betsey drove two hours to be with her sister in Blacksburg. Lockdown was over by the time Betsey arrived.

“It was such a surreal feeling being there,” Betsey Morser said.

Katie’s father, Charlie Russo, said he initially wanted Katie to come home right away. But Katie Russo wanted to stay on campus.

“It probably was better that they all grieve together,” Charlie Russo said.

Russo and Haggerty attended the convocation ceremony on campus on Tuesday. “It was sad, but it was good to see everyone come together,” Russo said.

“The convocation was really amazing,” Haggerty said. “It was nice to see the support … and to see the whole student body was there to represent the school.”

After Tuesday, both Russo and Haggerty returned home to be with their families for several days.

NONE OF THE 33 people who died in last weeks’ shootings at Virginia Tech were from Montgomery County. But every student on the campus was affected. They had personal brushes with death, they know somebody who was killed, or they know close friends of the victims.

Clay Violand, a ‘05 graduate of Walt Whitman High School (Bethesda, Md.) from Potomac, was in one of the Norris Hall classrooms where Cho shot and killed most of the students. (See story.)

Haggerty and some of his fraternity brothers helped freshmen move into their dorms just before classes began last summer. One of the freshmen they’d helped was killed in the shootings.

Russo said that one of her lacrosse teammates had a class in Norris, but was running 15 minutes late that morning. She went to the door of the building, couldn’t open it because Cho had chained it from the inside.

THE ALL-TIME leading scorer for Churchill’s girls lacrosse program, Russo now plays for Virginia Tech’s women’s lacrosse team. The Hokies hosted the University of Maryland last weekend, and the game, originally scheduled for Saturday, was rescheduled for Sunday. It was one of the first intercollegiate athletic contests held on campus since the shootings.

Virginia Tech players wore commemorative patches on their uniforms, a black oval with the school logo, the date 4-16-07, and the word “Remembers.”

Maryland’s players made T-shirts for the Virginia Tech players, and presented them to the Hokies before the game. On the front, the shirts had the VT logo, and they had the word “Strength” on back. Maryland’s players also donated $3,000 to the Hokie Spirit Fund, a memorial fund that will go to the families of the shooting victims.

The Terps, ranked No. 2 in the country, beat the Hokies 21-17.

Russo was proud of the way her team played on such an emotional day. “We know how to pick ourselves up,” Russo said. “It wasn’t necessarily about playing a game, it was about getting back into a routine.”

RUSSO AND HAGGERTY were both back on campus when classes resumed on Monday. The university gave students the option to complete their courses and take final exams, or to accept the grades they had before the shootings.

Neither Russo nor Haggerty feels as though they are in any unusual amount of danger. Russo was emphatic in her support for the school and its president, Charles Steger.

“I don’t think for a second that my school has put me in danger,” Russo said. “It could have happened anywhere.”

“The students still think of Virginia Tech as a very safe school,” Haggerty said.

“We have always, always had a sense of unity,” Russo said. “Now that this has happened, it’s even stronger than it was before.”