Saturday, April 16, 2011

Reflections of a Cold April Day

Four years ago, at around 9:30am, 32 lives were horribly, horrifically taken. It was a lousy day, for a variety of reasons. Before the true horror of what had gone on that morning was generally known, a trying semester was winding down: I, personally, was looking ahead to qualifying exams. For others, final exams loomed only a couple of weeks away. It was a Monday in the middle of April in Blacksburg, virginia, so spring was still testing the waters. On that particular day, it was cold and overcast, incredibly windy, and there was even some snow. By the end of the day, national news services had turned the parking lot of the campus hotel into a veritable circus ground of news vans and satellites, and remained that way throughout the remainder of the week.

Then, across the Drillfield from our second-floor classroom, the sirens started. And, from our vantage point, as the professor continued talking about Cramer-Rao lower bounds (or something of that sort), we could see police cars and ambulances screaming around the drillfield to, forgive me, get to the other side. And then the students. Slowly, buildings were being secured and evacuated, and students were streaming, running full tilt, to get as far away from north campus as possible, as quickly as possible.

Class continued. We wanted to know what was going on; another student opened his laptop and found a brief campus-wide blast about events from several hours before, in a dorm a few buildings over. Class ended, and we weren't allowed outside; campus was in lockdown. Everyone was mad for information, and slowly e-mails from the university started filtering through, hours later. They had clogged the system with their urgency. Police were scattered all over campus, with outdoor PA systems admonishing everyone to "stay indoors, keep away from windows" which, could only be understood from indoors when one stood next to an open window.

Our classrooms had televisions with broadcast channels; we hunkered down and watched the news unfold on TV, news that was truly unfolding only a couple hundred yards away, and would grip the small town for months afterward. The cell phone signals were jammed, with 25,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff trying to get a call out to someone, anyone. I got some tongue-in-cheek texts out to my siblings, before the true scale of the events that day was realized. I got a few tongue-in-cheek texts back.

The newscasters said that there had been 2 fatalities and 12 other casualties, voiced over the images coming from across the Drillfield, of students (bodies?) being carried out, dragged out of buildings, being loaded up into ambulances. Thank goodness, was the general consensus, that it was only two dead.  About 5 minutes later, the newscasters said that there had been 20 fatalities, and as a group, we all yelled "CASUALTIES". How wrong we were; there were 32 lives lost that day, lives of children, brothers and sisters, and parents and grandparents. The newscasters noted how cruelly cold and windy it was, preventing from helicopters from landing to evacuate the most seriously injured.

It was, truly, an awful day. Count your blessings, and remember today.

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