Tech massacre, as told in government emails

Noura Bayoumi
Capital News Service

Emails sent to Gov. Tim Kaine in the aftermath of the April 16, 2007 school shooting as Virginia Tech in which 32 people were killed. Photos courtesy of CNS

Then-Gov. Tim Kaine had just arrived in Tokyo for a trade mission. Back in Richmond, it was Monday morning. Bill Leighty, Kaine’s chief of staff, wrote an email to members of the governor’s inner circle at 8:48 a.m.: “There is a preliminary and unconfirmed report that a student was shot and killed on the Virginia Tech campus this morning. Campus Police have reportedly called in the VSP to investigate.”

If only that had been the extent of the bloodshed. But this was April 16, 2007 — the date of the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S history.

Over the next several hours, state officials would come to realize the horrific nature of the event: 32 people at Tech were killed by a deranged student, who then killed himself. Kaine abruptly canceled his trip and returned to Virginia. That night, his staff prepared for his arrival.

“I would stick to the message of grief and the healing of a community and nation,” Marc Cheatham, the governor’s director of constituent services, wrote to colleagues at 8:59 p.m. “Focus on the families and friends of the victims while praising the law enforcement and many medical heroes that work to get this tragedy under control. I’m sure the G may turn to the bible on his own but here are some biblical suggestions.”

Cheatham then offered passages such as Proverbs 3: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.”

The gubernatorial staff’s emails of April 16, 2007, offer a unique window on how state government operates in a crisis. The emails are part of a special collection at the Library of Virginia.

Roger Christman, a senior state records archivist, culled the messages from 1.3 million emails that the Kaine administration turned over to the library for posterity.

“I remember creating the collection because of the ‘historic’ nature of the shooting. I confess that I initially viewed that day’s events with the emotional detachment of an archivist/historian,” Christman wrote when he put them online in 2012.

“But what made it ‘historic?’ The number of people killed? The 32 people who died that day are not numbers — they had names, families, hopes and dreams — a future. The biographies captured in the Tragedy at Virginia Tech collection quickly shattered my impassiveness. What I saw as ‘historic’ in 2007 is an ever present tragedy for the families who lost their loved ones. It is a wound that time cannot heal.”

Here are excerpts from a sample of those emails, in chronological order on that tragic day eight years ago.

At 8:55 a.m., John Marshall, Kaine’s secretary of public safety, responded to Leighty’s initial email. Marshall cited a report by Col. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, that two students at Tech had been found shot in their dorm room.

William Murray, the governor’s legislative director, chimed in at 10:19 a.m. He quoted a Tech administrator as saying that authorities believe they had the suspected gunman in custody. Murray said officials were trying to ascertain if there were any more victims.

At that point in time, no details on the victims or a motive for the shooting had been released.

Less than an hour later, Marshall sent an unconfirmed report that 12 students were dead. He also wrote that there may have been more than one shooter.

At 11:14 a.m., Marshall reported that 25 students were dead.

At 1:04 p.m., Leighty said arrangements had been made for Kaine to fly back from Japan, “hopefully” in time for the convocation planned for the next day in Blacksburg.

Kaine released a statement at 1:24 p.m.: “It is difficult to comprehend senseless violence on this scale. Our prayers are with the families and friends of these victims, and members of the extended Virginia Tech community.”

At 1:45 p.m., Marilyn Harris, deputy secretary of public safety, received word from Kaine that he planned to declare a State of Emergency so that “the state could incur all costs such as housing and families.” Harris’ email said the governor “strongly recommends that we identify a facility off campus for the families so they will not have to deal with the press.”

Kaine announced the State of Emergency at 4:50 p.m.

Then-President George W. Bush released a statement at 4:30 p.m.: “It appears that more than 30 people were killed and many more were wounded.” He vowed that the federal government would do “everything possible to assist with the investigation.”

Leighty sent Marshall one of the final emails of the day. It was about the shooter — Seung-Hui Cho: his Social Security number, date of birth and address.

“We’ve got it,” Marshall replied at 10:51 p.m. “FBI should be at the Centreville address now.”

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