BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — A man killed a police officer and another person after a traffic stop Thursday at Virginia Tech, sending a shudder through campus as students and faculty were told to stay inside and police searched for the gunman, school officials said.
It was the first gunfire on campus since 33 people were killed in 2007 in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The deaths came on the same day university officials were in Washington appealing a fine that federal officials gave them over the school’s response five years ago.
The campus was swarming Thursday with heavily armed officers walking around campus. Caravans of SWAT vehicles and other police cars with emergency lights flashing patrolled nearby. Students hunkered down in buildings.
“A lot of people, especially toward the beginning were scared,” said Jared Brumfield, a 19-year-old freshman from Culpeper, Va., who was locked in the Squires Student Center since around 1:30 p.m. “A lot of people are loosening up now. I guess we’re just waiting it out, waiting for it to be over.”
The school said a police officer pulled someone over for a traffic stop and was shot and killed. The shooter ran toward a nearby parking lot, where a second person was found dead.
Various alerts were sent out to students and the university is sending updates about every 30 minutes, regardless of whether they have any new information, school spokesman Mark Owczarski said.
“We deployed them all, and we deployed them immediately to get the word out,” he said.
The shooter was described as a white man wearing gray sweat pants, a gray hat with neon green brim, a maroon hoodie and backpack.
“It’s crazy that someone would go and do something like that with all the stuff that happened in 2007,” said Corey Smith, a 19-year-old sophomore from Mechanicsville, Va., who was headed to a dining hall near the site of one of the shootings.
He told The Associated Press that he stayed inside after seeing the alerts from the school. “It’s just weird to think about why someone would do something like this when the school’s had so many problems,” Smith said.
Harry White, 20, a junior physics major, said he was in line for a sandwich at a restaurant in a campus building when he received the text message alert.
White said he didn’t panic, thinking instead about a false alarm about a possible gunman that locked down the campus in August. White used an indoor walkway to go to a computer lab in an adjacent building, where he checked news reports.
“I decided to just check to see how serious it was. I saw it’s actually someone shooting someone, not something false, something that looks like a gun,” White said.
Campus was quieter than usual because classes ended Wednesday and students were preparing for exams, which were to begin Friday. The school said those tests would be postponed.
The shooting came soon after the conclusion of a hearing where Virginia Tech was appealing a $55,000 fine by the U.S. Education Department in connection with the university’s response to the 2007 rampage.
The department said the school violated the law by waiting more than two hours after two students were shot to death in their dorm before sending an email warning. By then, student gunman Seung-Hui Cho was chaining the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more people and then himself.
The department said the email was too vague because it mentioned only a “shooting incident,” not the deaths. The university’s police chief, Wendell Flinchum, testified Thursday there were no immediate signs in the dorm to indicate a threat to the campus. He said the shootings were believed to be an isolated domestic incident and that the shooter had fled.
Since the massacre, the school expanded its emergency notification systems. Alerts now go out by electronic message boards in classrooms, by text messages and other methods. Other colleges and universities have put in place similar systems.
Universities are required under the Clery Act to provide warnings in a timely manner and to report the number of crimes on campus.
On Thursday, during about a one-hour period, the university issued four separate alerts.
In August, a report of a possible gunman at Virginia Tech set off the longest, most extensive lockdown and search on campus since 2007. No gunman was found, and the school gave the all-clear about five hours after sirens began wailing and students and staff members started receiving warnings.
The system was also put to the test in 2008, when an exploding nail gun cartridge was mistaken for gunfire. Only one dorm was locked down during that emergency, and it reopened two hours later.
Associated Press writers Kimberly Hefling, Eric Tucker and Ben Nuckols in Washington and Michael Felberbaum and Larry O’Dell in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.