In the Suburbs / A day when angels wept
Published 7:15 pm, Thursday, April 14, 2011
One remembers little details on days when tragedies strike. I do, at least. I remember sipping coffee at my desk in New York on a Tuesday morning in September 2001 and thinking that a plane flying overhead sounded like it was right there in my office. Later, more than 2,000 people would be dead.
And I remember a day four years ago this week when a day-long rain seemed endless, falling in buckets as I drove home on the Wilbur Cross Parkway from Hartford. As I reached North Haven I saw a sea of red lights and recognized that the road was pretty much flooded. I knew traffic wasn't going to be moving for a while, so I flipped on the radio.
That was a day when angels wept. That was the day Virginia Tech became a river of blood and 33 innocent people paid with their lives for nothing, as a deranged student staged a horrific, one-man massacre.
But I was already hours late when I started listening to the news broadcasts. This event had unfolded early in the morning with the murder of two students in a dormitory room on the Virginia Tech campus. That was when the communications broke down and no warnings were sent to the rest of the student body.
Months later, after the innocents were lain to rest and families continued the grieving process, would investigations prove that the warning systems had failed or never been used. Unwarned, 31 more victims met their fate in classrooms and common areas across the Blacksburg campus.
Only after this quiet, small-town campus had become swamped with reporters and television cameras did quiet mentions of the murderer and the murdered reveal a twisted web of paths crossed.
But on that evening, I simply sat in my car, rain pelting the windshield, tears flowing easily as I listened in disbelief to updated news of the tragedy at Virginia Tech.
By evening, the sharing had begun.
There was a vignette of a professor remembered for helping his students escape while he blocked the door from the gunman's entrance.
There were touching stories of students, each of whose dreams and lives ended with a bullet. And there were reflections of beloved professors who were gifted poets and scientists, some of whom were in the twilight of their own lives and would never share their sunset with a spouse or companion.
Why did this particular tragedy grab me so hard? I mean, there were other horror stories before -- Columbine, Northern Illinois University. And others since -- Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords group in Arizona.
I can't really answer the question, except to say that as I listened, I recalled the writer's conference I had been to the weekend before in Hartford and how one of the speakers had said, "When you are caught up in a tragedy, don't just listen to descriptions, get out there and feel the pain that others are feeling.
But regrettably, I couldn't get to Blacksburg.
I couldn't really feel what so many were feeling. So I wrote a column about it for that Friday and tried to capture as much that was real as I could. A lot of readers told me I succeeded. I still didn't believe it.
Then, over Thanksgiving weekend, we traveled to Roanoke to be with my brother-in-law and his family. Roanoke is within an hour of Blacksburg, and my sister-in-law and my nephew are alumni. One stayed in the dorm where the murders began.
We all took a ride. My brother-in-law drove slowly around the quiet campus, closed so that students could be home giving thanks to just be alive.
When we arrived at an open area that looked across the campus, I noticed a crowd.
My brother-in-law parked, and my wife and I bundled up as we walked toward the crowd, the biting wind feeling like needles.
And there they were. Thirty three markers had been erected in a circle to memorialize the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre. Suddenly there was no conversation. We had entered a holy place. I was there where I had wanted to be months before.
Now there was only the sound of the wind giving these silent markers a voice and reminding us never to forget that these were wonderful human beings with so much to live for, who had been snuffed out like candles.
Today there was just a peaceful place to reflect.
I knew none of these people, but somehow I knew all of them through this experience.
I had come to Blacksburg and could finally appreciate what must have happened here.
Four years later, as I'm writing this piece, it's raining again and I'm remembering that night when angels wept and lives were washed away.
And I'm grateful that I got to Blacksburg.
I certainly wasn't in the moment, but I was definitely in a defining moment over that Thanksgiving in 2007.
We should not forget that day and how a campus turned upside down in a hail of bullets fired by a student whose angry, disjointed behavior and earlier rantings were dismissed or not taken seriously enough.
But, as always, there were no explanations or solutions and few accounts of erratic behavior patterns. I doubt if we'll ever know how the day of tragedy evolved.
Steven Gaynes "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org