VIRGINIA TECH TRAGEDY
Ten years ago, Seung-Hui Cho aimed at Theresa Walsh inside Norris Hall and fired a bullet that went past her ear.
Walsh's life was changed by the shootings that took place on the Virginia Tech campus April 16, 2007, when Cho killed 32 people and wounded more than a dozen others before taking his own life.
But Walsh, a former Hokies softball player, returned to campus this weekend as Tech marked the 10th anniversary of the shootings.
"We're all Hokies," she said in a recent phone interview. "During this time, you just want to go back and be with your family and friends.
"It's almost a weekend of healing, even if it takes 10-plus years."
Sunday also is a significant anniversary for Frank Beamer and Beth Dunkenberger, who were Virginia Tech coaches 10 years ago, and for Drew Weaver, who was a Hokies golfer at the time.
"I don't think there's a person that has any association with the town of Blacksburg that it hasn't had a lasting impact on their life," Dunkenberger said.
'It's like a movie'
Walsh was a Hokies outfielder from 2003-06, but she remained at Tech for the 2006-07 school year to finish work on her degree.
She was in Norris Hall on the morning of April 16, 2007, for a numerical analysis class in Room 205. She went into the hallway to investigate what the class assumed was construction noise.
Instead, she saw Cho. She felt a bullet graze past her head. She pushed a teacher's assistant back inside the room.
Walsh and the others in the room attempted to close the door. Cho pushed and got his gun through the doorway. He fired a shot inside the classroom, but no one was struck. Walsh and others slid a table against the door to close the door shut. They dropped to the floor. Cho shot at the door, but no one was hit.
Walsh called 911. As they heard shots ring out, the 11 people inside the room called family members to quietly say good bye. Walsh was unable to reach her parents, so she called one of her sisters and told her to tell their parents she loved them.
The events of that day are hard to shake.
"It's like a movie," she said. "It's like your favorite movie you see and at any moment you can recall any point in it and quote it. It's like that. But it's not a really fun movie."
Walsh graduated from Tech in May of 2007. But she chose to live and work in Blacksburg for three more years.
"I didn't want to have any bad feelings... for the school that I fell in love with, the school that gave me mybest friends," she said. "So I stayed local.... I didn't want to run away."
Walsh, 32, now lives in Fauquier County. The gunshot that just missed her left her with diminished hearing and constant ringing in her right ear.
Certain things bring her back to that day. A banging noise. A strong sulfur smell. A rare steak.
When she goes to a restaurant, she sits where she can see everyone.
"PTSD is basically what you get," she said. "You learn to do certain things so you don't have any freak-outs in public, if you ' will. But I go to therapy, and that's amazing."
Walsh is the chief financial officer for an IT company. She has an office with a window.
"I don't want to be in a cubicle where my back is to everybody," she said.
But coping with the shootings has had positive effects on her life.
"It's made me a stronger person," she said. "It's made me open up more to people."
On Saturday, Walsh threw out one of the first pitches at the Hokies' home softball game against Louisville. She plans to take part in the candlelight vigil Sunday.
She has returned to her alma mater many times over the years.
"I absolutely love Tech," she said.
Ten years ago, Weaver was a sophomore on the Virginia Tech men's golf team. He was about 100 yards from Norris Hall that day when he heard gunshots. A police officer told him to run away, so he raced to the library and called his parents.
Weaver had a class scheduled in Norris Hall for the very next morning.
For a long time after the shootings, he did not sleep well.
"This time of year, I always think about April 16th," Weaver said. "It's something that will always be a part of me.
"It was certainly very terrifying, being that close and hearing the gunshots and seeing the police officer run up and telling us to get away.... Sitting in the library, watching all the ambulances and the police cars and SWAT come in - just those three or four hours of incredible [uncertainty] and disbelief, that's probably etched in my mind more than anything."
The following weekend, Weaver helped the men's golf team tie for the ACC title at the conference tournament in North Carolina.
In June 2007, Weaver became the first American since 1979 to win the British Amateur. He earned berths in the 2007 British Open and the 2008Masters.
Weaver became an international symbol of Virginia Tech as he played in the British Open in Carnoustie, Scotland, in July 2007. He was the subject of media attention at both that tournament and at the Masters the following spring.
"Every spectator, every team, every official, they were so supportive of our university and everything that we were going through," he said. "To be able to carry the torch for our university for those big events...was an honor. It's something I'll always remember. Across the sea in Scotland at the British Open, hearing people yell 'Go Hokies!'...was awfully neat.
"It was great to be able to wear the colors and carry the golf bag and may be bring a little positivity to a pretty dark time for our school."
Several times before the 2008 Masters, Weaver played practice rounds at Augusta National. One of the locker room attendants had become a Hokies fan after the shootings, and asked Weaver to get him a Tech golf bag.
"It was just a cool moment to see somebody that probably never had any interest in Virginia Tech [before], but he felt inspired from how we reacted to this tragedy," Weaver said.
Weaver, 29, now lives with his wife in Atlanta. He is a conditional member of the Web.com tour. He played in 11 events on that developmental tour last year, earning $44,221. He will play in the Web.com tournament in Indiana later this week.
"I'm enjoying chasing my dream," he said.
Weaver, who graduated from Tech in 2009, cherishes the way those at the university came together after the shootings.
"Our university and the community, the town of Blacksburg, was just so much stronger than the one person that decided to do what he did," Weaver said. "We all came together.
"It was very scary to be that close to something, but more than anything else it just makes you realize there's a lot of people in this world that are willing to ...be there for people that are in tough circumstances."
'It's hard to talk about'
Dunkenberger, who served as the Hokies women's basketball coach from 2004-11, is from Shawsville.
"I grew up going to Virginia Tech football games, basketball games. That's home for me," she said. "[The shootings] are a tragedy that you can't begin to wrap your hands around or understand. The families and friends of all those people that were lost or injured, I can't imagine how they continue to go on.
"The terrible sadness,...we try to erase the memories from our mind, but they'll obviously never go away."
The tragedy was not the first time she and members of her team became aware of Cho.
Dunkenberger has said Cho harassed two players on her team during the 2005-06 school year.
"I'm probably the only coach in America that's ever kicked a mass murderer out of practice," she said in a 2012 interview.
The two players had been in a fall 2005 writing class taught by professor Nikki Giovanni. Dunkenberger advised the two players to talk to Giovanni about Cho.
Cho was removed from the course because Giovanni was concerned about violence in Cho's poetry and his behavior to ward women in the class.
"It's hard to think about," Dunkenberger recently said about how Cho affected her team. "It's hard to talk about.
"I'm not good about talking about it now, but certainly 10 years ago, it was almost impossible for me to discuss it without becoming really, really emotional."
Dunkenberger resigned from her Tech job in 2011 after going 110-104 in seven seasons. She is now an assistant coach at Tulane.
The 2005-06 school year and the 2007 shootings have made her more protective of her players - and more sensitive to the importance of treating the mentally ill.
"You certainly try to reach out and make sure people that look like they may be in need of help ...get the help that they need," she said.
Dunkenberger has been at Tulane for six years. She loves being at the New Orleans school.
"My ego's not so big that I have to be the head coach to feel like I can make a difference," she said.
Dunkenberger said the shootings helped her realize how precious life is.
"We were very slightly touched [on the women's basketball team by Cho], and it was more than anybody [should]...have to go through, but then there were so many people really impacted and my prayers go out to all those people as they continue to heal," she said.
'We got closer'
As Virginia Tech's football coach from 1987 to 2015, Beamer was one of the better-known representatives of his almamater. He filled that role the week of the shootings.
That week, he was among the Tech coaches and athletes who attended the memorial service for the victims at Cassell Coliseum. He visited the injured at Montgomery Regional Hospital.
He also met that week with some of the parents who lost a child in the shootings.
"I had to walk to the front [of the room]...and when I turned around and saw those eyes and the hurt and the pain and the suffering, it just made an impression that I'll never forget," he said. "They sent their kids off to college...and then all of a sudden it ends up it's the saddest day in their life.
"You're telling them, 'We're never going to forget you and you're always going to be a part of Virginia Tech,' but you just wish you could do more to take some of that load off their heart."
Beamer canceled his team's spring practice sessions that week, as well as the annual spring intrasquad game that was scheduled for that weekend.
On Sept. 1, 2007, the Hokies beat East Carolina in the first football game at Lane Stadium since the shootings.
"We needed that game," Beamer said. "A lot of games, I don't remember all the details. But I remember that one.... I remember running out of the tunnel. And it's always been exciting - the crowd jumping and all - but it seemed like it was louder and more together that day than any time I ran out of that tunnel.
"A football game, everybody's going in the same direction. Everybody wants the very same thing....And I like being part of that....We all needed that to take another step past the terrible tragedy that happened on our campus."
Beamer retired after the 2015 season, but he and his wife did not move from Blacksburg. He has been traveling the country, helping the Tech athletic department with its fundraising efforts.
"It's been a big part of my life," Beamer said of Virginia Tech. "I told them when I... retired that anything I could ever do to help Virginia Tech, I'd do it....Because it's been very good to me."
Beamer is proud of how the campus coped with the shootings.
"We weren't going to let this one sick individual define who Virginia Tech was," he said. "I've always thought Tech was a caring place....But after that day, I think it became even more that way. We got closer. We cared about each other more.
"People would come up and say, 'You're probably going to be remembered for all those people that got shot on your campus,' and I'd say, 'No, I think we're going to be remembered by how we responded to that incident, how Tech got closer together.'"
"The terrible sad-ness,...we try toerase the memories from our mind, but they'll obviously never go away."
- Beth Dunkenberger, former Tech women's basketball coach
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