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Coming To Terms

Arlington mourns for the victims of the VT shootings — and wonders what could have been.

When sermonizing about the tragedies that occurred at Virginia Tech University last week, Rev. Paul de Ladurantaye brought up the Holocaust. It seemed like one of the only valid metaphors to use when discussing such an inexplicably violent act as this.

At a memorial mass held at Arlington’s St. Thomas More Cathedral, the priest brought up a story of the resident of a concentration camp asking during the execution of Jews, "Where is God? Doesn’t he care?"

"God is there in the midst of tragedy," de Ladurantaye replied. "God is present even in the midst of great tragedy and suffering."

THE MASS WAS CELEBRATED last week to honor the victims of the deadliest shooting rampage in the nation’s history.

On April 16, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and himself on the school’s Blacksburg campus in a meticulously-planned killing that shocked the school and the nation as a whole.

None of those killed or injured hailed from Arlington County. But many Arlingtonians attend Virginia Tech and were affected by the events.

School spokesperson Frank Bellavia estimated that roughly 100 graduates of Arlington’s public schools are currently attending Virginia Tech. The Arlington Catholic diocese estimated that 325 graduates of the Bishop O’Connell, Bishop Ireton and Paul VI diocesan high schools attend Virginia Tech as well.

Mary Jo Bean, who graduated in 2005, was one of those O’Connell graduates in Blacksburg on the day of the shootings.

Bean was in her apartment just before 10 a.m. on Monday, getting ready to go to class in Norris Hall where, only minutes prior, Cho had murdered more than 30 students and faculty members.

From her apartment, which is only a ten-minute walk to campus, Bean heard an emergency loudspeaker go off telling students to keep their doors locked and stay away from windows.

"We get really intense wind [in Blacksburg] so I thought it was just a tornado," she said. "I didn’t think twice about it."

But then Bean’s roommate told her to turn on the television. "We stayed there all day," she said.

BEAN’S FRIEND, Emily Flach, also went to Bishop O’Connell and now attends Virginia Tech. She lives within a five-minute walk from West Ambler Johnson Hall, the dormitory where Cho began his rampage by killing two people.

Her father, Michael Flach, is the editor of the Arlington Catholic Herald, the official newspaper of the Arlington Catholic Diocese.

On Monday morning, he was just getting back from vacation and was, he said, "Trying to get out of an avalanche of e-mails and voicemails."

Flach first heard that there was a shooting at Virginia Tech at around 9 a.m. He immediately recalled an incident that occurred several months ago when, on the first day of classes of the fall semester, the Virginia Tech campus was shut down due to an escaped prisoner.

"I thought ‘Great, we’ve been through this before,’" Flach said.

He didn’t start watching television at that point but said that he checked some news stories about the still-developing event on the Internet.

At around 10 a.m., only minutes after the second incident at Norris Hall occurred but before it was made public, Flach received a voicemail from his daughter. She told her father that she didn’t have class and that she was in her dorm, unharmed.

"[At that point], we exhaled a little bit," Flach said.

Flach was fortunate that his daughter was able to contact him before the public became aware of the full extent of the tragedy.

Bean said that, due to the spike in cell phone activity in Blacksburg that afternoon, her phone was working sporadically at best.

"I couldn’t get any calls in or out or any text messages," she said. "It would be like all of sudden I’d have ten messages [on my phone]."

As the day developed and the gruesome details seeped out, Flach found himself glued to television news reports of the incident when he wasn’t inundated with phone calls from friends and relatives wanting to know if Emily was Ok.

"I was riveted the rest of the afternoon," Flach said. "I was back and forth trying to watch what was going on and getting phone calls."

BOTH BEAN AND FLACH went home with their families to Northern Virginia after the Virginia Tech convocation that took place on Tuesday.

"It was probably one of the most moving things I’d ever experienced," Bean said of the ceremony. "After [poet] Nikki Giovanni spoke we started a ‘Let’s go Hokies’ cheer. It was one of the proudest moments ever in my life."

Bean also said that, in a way, the tragedy has brought the campus closer together than ever before.

"They say at Virginia Tech you’re just a number," she said. "But I’ve gotten e-mails from every single one of my teachers [since the shooting]."

But Bean said that, despite having the sympathies of the nation, it is up to those at Virginia Tech affected by the tragedy to begin the healing process.

"It’s something you can get through only with support of people that experienced the same thing you did," she said. "We’re a really close community [but] I don’t think we’ll ever get over what happened."