'I Played Dead'
Four students describe the horror at Virginia Tech, in their own words
Clay Violand, 20, an international relations major, was in French class in Norris 211 when Seung-Hui Cho began his shooting spree that eventually left 33 people dead. In an e-mail, Violand tells PEOPLE the chilling details of the attack. (He e-mailed his story because, “I don’t have a cell phone – it’s still in my backpack in the class where we were.”)
‘Okay, The Next One Is Me’
About halfway through class we heard the noises. Someone said something like, “It’s probably just construction.” The noises didn’t stop. The teacher stiffened up and said, “That’s not what I think it is, is it?” That’s when I remember going into a panic. I pointed at the teacher and said, “Put that desk in front of the door, now.” She did it, and then said “someone call 911.” … At that point, the door was nudged open aggressively, and I saw a gun emerge into view. It was surreal. Following the gun was a man. He … had a lot of ammunition and gun gear on – like a big utility belt or something for ammo. That was the only glimpse I got.
I quickly dove under a desk – that was the desk I chose to die under. He then began methodically and calmly shooting people down. It sounded rhythmic – like he took his time in between each shot and kept up the pace, moving from person to person. After every shot I thought, “Okay, the next one is me.” Shot after shot went off, and I never felt anything. I played dead and tried to look as lifeless as possible. Sometimes after a shot, I would hear a quick moan, or a slow one, or a grunt, or a quiet, reserved yell from one of the girls. After some time (I couldn’t tell you if it was 5 minutes or an hour), he left. The room was silent except for the haunting sound of moans, some quiet crying, and someone muttering, “It’s okay, it’s going to be okay. They will be here soon.” I was propping my head up just enough to mutter in a harsh whisper, “Play dead. If he thinks you’re dead then he won’t kill you.”
Shortly after, the gunman returned. My head was down the whole time. I continued to play dead. He began unloading what it seemed like a second round into everyone again – it had to be the same people. There were way more gunshots than there were people in that room. I think I heard him reload maybe three times. I think it was the sound of reloading – they were long pauses. He continued to shoot everyone over and over. After every shot I braced myself for the next, thinking, “This one is for me.”
I remember having stray thoughts, like, “I wonder what a gun wound feels like. I hope it doesn’t hurt. I wonder if I’ll die slow or fast.” I had come to accept my death, but the fear was still there. I was terrified that my parents weren’t going to be able to go on after I was gone. I kept thinking about my parents. There was a girl in front of me – I didn’t know her well. I didn’t know her name. We kept eye contact from time to time. She was brave. I don’t think she cried. We just stared at each other under the desks.
When the gunman finally left, I heard the police barge in the hallway doors and yell, “Get down! Get down!” The cops pounded on the door and asked someone to open it. I think eventually they just came in and told us to walk out if we could. I got up and put my hands up. Just me and that one girl next to me got up. She had a gunshot wound – I hope she is okay. I think she is. She was walking. I am so proud of her for staying calm. She would have been the last person I had made eye contact with on this earth if I had died.
‘Did You Go to Class Today?’
Molly Pearl, 18, a freshman international studies major and French minor, was supposed to be in French class in Norris Hall – but overslept, she told PEOPLE in an interview.
I woke up to the sirens and I heard my roommate, she read her email out loud on the phone and I just heard about West AJ. So I watched the news all morning – it never occurred to me that it was in Norris – that was my classroom. And then a friend called me and asked, “Did you go to class today? Where was your class?” And I was like, “Oh my god, Norris, 211.” I kind of freaked out. I was really nervous – that could’ve been my class, and then I heard it was the class across the hall. So I was really worried about all my classmates, and I was kind of hoping that it wasn’t – it was the class across the hall, and they were okay. So I went to my sister’s apartment… and we kind of just sat there and watched the news all afternoon. I can’t describe what was going through my head. Just nervous – I was really worried.
I don’t know all their last names. They were all great people and that teacher was the best teacher I could’ve ever asked for. They were all such great people. There’s no other word for it. She never had us sitting in the same spot so we all worked with different people, and since it was such a small class, everyone got to know each other on a really friendly level. Clay [Violand] and I are pretty good friends. But everyone else is on a first-name basis.
I can’t describe it – the thought of what would’ve happened if I hadn’t slept in.
Clay instant messaged me around, oh, I don’t know, it was late afternoon. I had left a message on his Facebook. I was like, “Please tell me you skipped class today.” He instant messaged me later as I was waiting. I just sat by my computer all day. He said, “Thank god you didn’t come. I was the only one in class not shot.” Then it hit me, and I started crying, and I was all over the place. My sister was there with her roommates, and I’m glad they were there. He said he walked out with one girl who was shot in the back, and it was a minor injury. I don’t know how minor, but she walked out and everyone else was down. He only didn’t get shot because he played dead. Hearing that is so crazy because I know I would have been shot. I wouldn’t have thought to play dead, I would’ve just frozen. And if I was in one of the other classrooms, and I had to choose to jump out the window, I know I wouldn’t have done that – you’re forced to think, “What would I have done?’ You’re really there.”
I was in the dorm when I first found out, and there was no reception on the phones. Everyone was trying to use their phone and circuits were busy. I was talking to my aunt over instant message and talking to my mom. It was all by word of mouth – I had to pass it on from one person to another that I was okay, so thank god that was working.
‘I Heard Two Bangs’
Jennifer Foreman, 19, a freshman, from Durham, N.C., describes what happened at 9:45 a.m.
I heard two bangs. I thought it was construction – boards dropping. I didn’t even think to consider it was gunfire. As I got closer, I asked people what was going on. I saw people running away from Norris Hall in groups of 10. They were running in fear, running away from something. When I heard the two bangs, every cop in the world came out screaming with their sirens on. My heart started to race.
I called my mom. I told her, “Mom, there’s a shooter on campus. Don’t freak out. “Me and Matt (her brother, also at Virginia Tech) are fine.” It was just a normal day. I was thinking about how rough this week was. I had a paper to write, and an exam. Now it’s anything but normal. I’ve always felt really safe her on campus. I’ll even walk alone at midnight sometimes. I don’t think I’ll be walking alone anymore.”
‘We Went to the Windows’
Richard Mallalieu, 23, an engineering science and mechanics major, from Luray, Va.
We were just at our normal Monday lecture … an engineering class, in Norris 204. About halfway through, a little after 9:30 a.m., I heard gunshots coming from the room directly behind us. At first my reaction was confusion. I thought it was gunshots but I just tried to convince myself that maybe it wasn’t. But it definitely was.
At first, everybody just got down on the ground. We used desks to shield ourselves. At that time, one of my friends called 911, and somebody went up to the door to see if we could get out. But it sounded like gunshots were coming out in the hallway and over to another classroom. So we weren’t going to be able to get out that way.
That’s when we went to the windows and pulled out the screens. We were on the second floor kind of hanging from the window ledge, and we more or less fell out. We were about 10 or 12 feet above the ground. I was one of the first few kids to go. Once we heard the shots coming, everyone just headed to the window. People were screaming from the classroom behind us. That’s when it really sunk in that it was as bad as it was.
We had about three windows opened up farthest away from the door. I think 12 to 15 students went out the windows. Then four students and our professor were in the room when the gunman got in. I think all four students were injured but as far as I know, they are going to be okay. But our professor (Liviu Librescu) died.
That was my first class with him. He was a good professor, generally well liked among students. He went over by the door and was kind of guarding the door, which was pretty brave and courageous of him.
After we climbed out, at first I just kind of stayed down below the window for a few seconds to see if other people were getting out. Then we ran over to Patton Hall, which is another engineering building, the next closest and most of the class congregated there.
By the time we got there, the police SWAT [team] started showing up. We were at Patton Hall for 20 minutes until they told us to go to the opposite side of the drill field. I stayed in a friend’s dorm room until things calmed down. When I got back to my friend’s dorm, that was the only thing on the news at that point. I checked my e-mail right before class. But nothing had been sent at that point.
It was all kind of a blur. I know it’s [a] cliché to say it, but it’s kind of what it was. I got kind of lucky. He didn’t start in our classroom. So we heard the gunshots for a while, maybe 40 gunshots by the time I was out the window, so we had enough time for most of us to get out.
For me, it wasn’t a choice [to jump out the window]. It was kind of a grassy area, so it wasn’t like falling on stairs or concrete. I just kind of fell and rolled, so I wasn’t hurt at all. A couple of people got a little hurt like a broken ankle or a hurt back. But I think most people made it out alright [who jumped]. I didn’t know what to do or where to go after I jumped. I saw that a couple of people who had jumped right before me hurt themselves and my other classmates were pulling them away. Then, I turned around and followed people going to Patton Hall. Even up to that point, it was kind of like, “Is this really happening?”
Physically, I’m fine. I’ve just been a little on edge, a little uneasy. But all in all, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve been staying close with friends and in touch with family, that kind of stuff.