BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) – Jerzy Nowak acknowledges he’s not yet comfortable in the peace center he helped to create at the site of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
His wife, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, was teaching French in Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall when she was gunned down on April 16, 2007. Troubled graduate student Seung-Hui Cho killed two people in a dorm and 30 others in the second-floor classroom wing where Couture-Nowak died before fatally shooting himself.
Two years later, victims’ families and survivors are still trying to make sense of what happened. Classes will be canceled on the anniversary Thursday, and events will include an open house at the peace center, a candlelight vigil and a memorial ceremony.
For some, a trip to campus is part of working through their grief. For others, it’s still too painful.
“I went for a visit yesterday,” Nowak, the center’s director, who will move into the building later this month, said recently. “Honestly, my heart sank.”
But the former horticulture department chairman said he pushed to create the peace center because it will help families heal. The center is already working on violence prevention for at-risk youth.
Nowak’s resolve was strengthened by an e-mail from a woman who had never planned to visit the building where her daughter died.
“But now that she has learned that a portion of it is dedicated to peace, she is considering going,” he said. “This is so encouraging to me.”
Others, like Michael Pohle of Flemington, N.J., and his wife, still find it too painful to come to campus for the anniversary events. Instead he says they plan to visit the cemetery near their home where their son, Michael Pohle Jr., is buried.
Some families have made their own peace with what happened that day, but the Pohles are among those who have lingering animosity toward administrators and feel they’ve never received an adequate explanation of officials’ actions the morning of the shootings.
President Charles Steger convened a meeting with top administrators after Cho killed two students in a dormitory, but more than two hours passed before an e-mail informed the campus of those shootings.
By then, Cho was chaining the doors of Norris Hall shut in preparation for a bloodbath that had students cowering under desks and jumping from windows. Officials still don’t know why Cho, a loner who had attracted little attention, killed so many people.
Virginia State Police never found two pieces of evidence that might have provided clues to Cho’s motive – his cell phone and the hard drive to his computer. The investigation is still open but winding down, spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
Steger said in an interview this week that the policy chiefs did what they thought was best at the time.
“That doesn’t mean you’re happy with the outcome,” he said. “We were certainly traumatized by the outcome.”
Pohle is unhappy that administrators who are not trained to deal with crimes made decisions about the school’s response to those situations. He said he’d like to sit down with Steger for a “true, open, private discussion” but hasn’t asked for such a meeting.
“We just want to know the truth,” Pohle said. “If you don’t know the truth, there is always going to be this hurt.”
Steger has met with some family members and said he would sit down with any who want to see him.
“I’ll do anything I personally can to help any of them, regardless of how they feel about me,” he said.
University spokesman Larry Hincker said the school had been criticized for “not connecting the dots” on Cho but added, “Sometimes the dots just weren’t there.”
Since the shootings, Hincker said, communications about troubled students have improved greatly, and caseloads at the counseling center on the 28,000-student campus have increased significantly.
Other families of those killed or injured have become advocates for campus safety improvements and gun control.
“There’s just too much acceptance of a culture of violence,” said Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin Goddard was injured. “There are just way too many guns floating around.”
Suzanne Grimes, whose son Kevin Sterne was injured, said in an e-mail: “My life has not deviated from the memories of April 16, 2007 and I am determined to contribute in ways to assist with responsible gun laws and school safety,”
About 3,300 people have signed up for the 3.2-mile morning run and walk around campus in honor of the 32 killed. Several family members, including Grimes and her son, said they plan to participate.
Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie Sherman died, said she will be on campus for the anniversary, but attending the events will be more difficult than last year now that the tragedy is more distant.
“I’m more lucid,” she said. “Last year things were still a little foggy.”