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Va. Tech classes resume amid new tragedy

A Virginia Tech campus still reeling from the deaths of 32 people at the hands of a student gunman last spring began its fall semester Monday amid another tragedy: a carbon monoxide leak at an off-campus apartment left five roommates hospitalized.
Residents of an apartment building where several Va. Tech students were overcome by carbon monoxide remove their belongings on Sunday.
Residents of an apartment building where several Va. Tech students were overcome by carbon monoxide remove their belongings on Sunday.Steve Helber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Flip-flops slapped the concrete as students munching breakfast on the run Monday hurried to the first normal day of classes at Virginia Tech since last spring’s massacre.

Classes resumed one day after a memorial to the 32 people killed by a student gunman April 16 was dedicated on the main lawn.

At the same time, Tech took another blow: More than 20 people were sickened by carbon monoxide poisoning at an off-campus apartment complex, and two were upgraded from critical to serious condition Monday evening.

For Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie was killed last spring, the leak, blamed on a faulty water heater valve, brought fresh terror: Her younger daughter, Lisa, had just moved into the complex.

Sherman said she was notified of the emergency Sunday by a Virginia Tech administrator, who could not tell her whether her daughter was among the victims.

“I felt like I was reliving a nightmare when I tried to call Lisa and she didn’t answer the phone,” Sherman wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Lisa Sherman later called her mother to say she was OK.

Two 19-year-old students found unconscious in the apartment where the leak was discovered were taken to the University of Virginia Hospital. Kirsten Wendie Halik and Kristin L. Julia were both in serious condition Monday evening.

Their three roommates were also found unconscious but were in stable condition Monday at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina.

Report to be released Friday
Also Monday, a victim advocacy group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that Tech violated federal law by waiting more than two hours to warn the campus after the first two students were killed in the April 16 shootings.

Security on Campus claimed the school broke a law requiring colleges and universities to disclose campus crime information in a timely fashion.

Mark Owczarski, a Tech spokesman, said Monday afternoon that he hadn’t seen the complaint. The Department of Education did not return calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, a panel appointed by Gov. Timothy Kaine to study the shootings consulted privately with attorneys and discussed confidential records and information Monday as it reviewed its report, to be released Friday.

Speaking to reporters outside a closed meeting, the panel’s chairman, former state police Superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, said it was difficult for police to stop Seung-Hui Cho “because they didn’t know who they were looking for.”

Norris Hall, where Cho killed all but two of his victims before committing suicide, was quiet Monday. A single vase of maroon and orange flowers sat outside the front entrance, and a security guard kept people from entering.

“I think it’s not a bad idea,” Mike Hyer said of the tightened security around the building, which now is used only for engineering laboratories and offices. “People just seem to be infatuated” with the building, he said.

Norris remains empty
No classes will be held again in Norris, university officials have said, meaning some engineering classes are spread across campus. Hyer had a brisk 20-minute walk in the late-summer heat to teach his 9:05 a.m. class in an Agriculture and Life Sciences building.

Ishwar Puri, dean of an engineering department in Norris, said he is trying to be sensitive to those who are uncomfortable returning to the building. So far, only two students have said they don’t want to conduct their research at Norris.

Hyer told the 150 students in his Basic Principles of Structures class that his office was around the corner from the second-floor classrooms where the massacre occurred.

“If any of you don’t want to come into my office, we’ll meet somewhere,” he said.

Derek O’Dell, one of 23 people who survived Cho’s gunshots on April 16, said he felt anxiety and excitement as he rushed across campus to his first class of the day.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said, slightly out of breath as he hustled to his German class. “It’s good seeing everybody and good seeing a lot of the survivors.”

Record number of students enrolled
Tech enrolled a record freshman class of 5,200 for the fall, but officials said they wouldn’t know for a couple of weeks exactly how many of the 26,000 students returned.

The campus was alive Monday as students zipped along on skateboards and greeted one another with hugs and grins. In the immediate aftermath of April 16, the mood had been somber, and many students left campus early.

“The people here are amazing,” freshman Ashton Miller said as she headed for the gym after her 8 a.m. chemistry lab was canceled. “Everyone’s so friendly.”