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Student in West AJ Recalls Fear, Tears

by Kristina Ticknor
Contributing Writer
April 26, 2007

I am a resident of the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston and here is my story.

At 7:15 on Monday, April 16, 2007, my alarm clock went off. At that same time a call was made to 911 from the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston dormitory, after the innocent lives of a residential advisor and a resident of the fourth floor were taken…

I woke up and made my usual sleepy stumble to the bathroom down the hallway. Not a soul was in sight, and the halls were as quiet as any normal morning during the school week.

After finishing my morning routine, I headed out to go tutor at about 7:50. I was stopped on my normal route towards the elevators by the housekeeper, who casually informed me that I couldn’t exit through those doors. No explanation was given, and I simply turned around and went out a different door.

As I made my way around the outside of the building walking towards Lane Stadium, the morning air was quiet and still, without any noise of cop cars or ambulances to be heard. Snowflakes fell from the grey sky and the bitter winds of Blacksburg pierced my skin.

Around 8:45 I had finished tutoring the student-athletes at Lane Stadium and continued my morning trek back towards West Ambler Johnston, then across the Drillfield to Shanks Hall. Still nothing out of the ordinary was apparent, and I had no knowledge of the events that has occurred on my dorm floor minutes before I woke up.

It wasn’t until shortly after 9:00 when the first pains of fear hit me. My cell phone started to buzz during the middle of my Media Writing class as my roommate and several of my hall-mates were calling me. I knew something was wrong, because it was very odd that so many of my close friends would be trying to get in touch with me at such an early hour.

I finally received a text message from my roommate that provided me with my first piece of information. There had been an “incident” on the floor of our dorm and they had been told not to return to their rooms, but nothing more.

Later I found out that the residents of the fourth floor were awakened at approximately 8:30 by the housekeeper, who knocked on all their doors frantically instructing them to head to the third-floor crossover lounge for a meeting. At the meeting they were told that there had been an “incident,” but to still go about their day and head to class.

When my roommate asked the residential advisor whether everything would be okay, she replied, “I think you’re safe, but I’m not sure.”

Back in my Media Writing class a student sitting in front of her computer informed the professor of a recent email she had just received at 9:26 that read: “A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case.”

With this news the professor was shocked. He told students to take a pause in the class instruction and to contact any family and friends who might be concerned. I text messaged my roommate and a few hall-mates to let them know that I was safe in class.

The class discussion then proceeded. Less than thirty minutes later, at approximately 9:50 another email was sent out: “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows.”

It was at this point when I truly became petrified. I sent my boyfriend a text message that read, “I’m safe. Gunman loose on campus. Someone shot on my floor of the dorm.”

The professor attempted at continuing our class discussion at first, not knowing quite how to handle this news. After the two recent bomb threats, little did our class know the magnitude of tragedy that was occurring two buildings over.

Seeing the panic in the students’ faces, my teacher decided it was time to stop the lecture and figure out what was going on. He told us to get under the desks if it made us feel safer due to the huge windows that lined the computer lab, floor to ceiling.

Sitting on the floor, we listened to the police sirens and indistinct loudspeaker announcing that we should stay inside until further notice. The message repeated over and over as we sat there waiting for information and any sign of relief.

I knew that if I didn’t call my mother, she would soon turn on the television and see the news. When I called her from under my desk, the first words out of my mouth were “Mom, I’m safe.” I wanted her to at least know that before I relayed to her the horror that was unfolding outside my classroom walls.

Other friends began calling me to check that I was okay. A close childhood friend and resident of the sixth floor of West Ambler Johnston told me that she risked her life by running to the fourth floor to check on me after hearing the news of the first two shootings.

Classmates began receiving text messages and instant messages informing them that more shootings were taking place in Norris, an engineering building not to far from Shanks Hall where my class was located.

The numbers began to grow exponentially. Five to seven shots had been fired… A professor was wounded… Someone had come out of Burruss Hall bleeding… 10 confirmed dead… 20 confirmed dead.

It wasn’t until my professor heard the news of 20-30 confirmed deaths when I truly saw the terror in his eyes, as he slammed his hands on the desk and demanded that his students confirm their sources.

Being a professional reporter, it was my professor’s instinct to react to the situation by turning our classroom into a bustling newsroom. He figured it would help us get our minds off of the tragedy and fear that we were experiencing.

I was told to get in touch with friends who had heard something about the shootings in West Ambler Johnston. That was when I informed my teacher that I, in fact, was a resident from the fourth floor, and had been walking around minutes after the first event. Immediately the interview spotlight was flipped onto me, and I recounted my morning to a fellow student.

As the classroom became frenzied in a search for information, I decided to stop cowering beneath my computer and to start figuring things out myself. The information that our class was collecting was being put up on our class’s student-run media website, Planetblacksburg.com.

At 9:55 the university put out the word via email that there had been a shooting in Norris Hall. It wasn’t until 10:16, however, that all classes were cancelled, and students were told to remain where they were.

Over an hour after the massacre that took place at Norris Hall, the university finally informed the students of what had happened in another email: “In addition to an earlier shooting today in West Ambler Johnston, there has been a multiple shooting with multiple victims in Norris Hall. Police and EMS are on the scene. Police have one shooter in custody and as part of routine police procedure, they continue to search for a second shooter. All people in university buildings are required to stay inside until further notice. All entrances to campus are closed.”

Meanwhile I was sitting at a computer in our classroom frantically instant messaging friends and fellow Hokies to make sure that all were accounted for, and to see if any one had any additional information that my classmates and professor had not yet received.

One of my main missions was to keep in contact with my friend from the sixth floor of West Ambler Johnston who was in lockdown and scared for her life. She sat in her room with the doors locked, watching out her window as police cars and armored vehicles came in and out of the entrance to our dormitory.

My classmates and I sat there still uncertain about the safety of our lives, and unsure as to how to react and what to do. Never had anyone, in the entire history of the United States, been faced with such a massacre.

Around noon the university told students located on the Norris Hall side of the Drillfield that the situation was secure enough for students to go home, but that they could still not retreat to the opposite side of campus where West Ambler Johnston was located. My professor tried to confirm this information with a police officer, who refuted those instructions saying that leaving the buildings was ill advised.

I stayed put, keeping in touch with my roommate who had run from her building located next to Norris to one of the military dormitories not far from my classroom. Finally at around 1:00 I got the courage to meet her at the dorm, with the accompaniment of another classmate who was headed to the same building.

I signed offline and told my friends that I would call them as soon as I got to my new location. My classmate and I took a big breath and headed out the door. Never will I forget the fear I held inside as we made the short walk between buildings to reach the military dorm, the wind howling at our backs the whole way. It was probably the longest five minutes of my life.  

When I found my roommate and her boyfriend in the dorm we ran and embraced one another, thankful to be alive and with the ones we loved.

The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting in front of a television screen, watching news stories of what had occurred right outside our doors hours before. It was horrifying to watch and yet I couldn’t peel my eyes away. We literally watched scenes of the campus that were being filmed right outside our window.

The cell phone circuits were busy, and it became harder and harder to keep in touch. My mother made it clear that she wanted me to come home, without specifically telling me to do so, knowing that I was now an adult and had to make the decision for myself.

By 5:00 my hall-mate informed me that we could return to our rooms to get any necessary belongings, but that we were not allowed to sleep in our dorm rooms.

I then made a second terrifying walk across the Drillfield toward West Ambler Johnston with my roommate and her cadet boyfriend escorting us. It was as if the three of us were walking through a ghost town, with no one to be seen aside from the police officers standing guard.

Finally we reached our dormitory, and reluctantly entered. Taped to the fourth floor entrance was a sign from our residential advisor that urged us to find somewhere else to stay, and to be safe.

As we walked down the hallway we could see the yellow tape blocking the entrance to the elevators. Again, not a soul was to be seen. Once inside our rooms, we each packed up a small backpack of essentials and headed back out.

We then realized that we were starving, after forgetting to eat lunch during the horror and shock that occurred that afternoon.  We sat in silence as we ate our dinners, unsure of what to say and how to act.

After finishing my meal, I decided where I needed to be: home. The three of us walked to my car, where we were stopped by a policeman who informed us that if we left campus, we would be unable to return. We got in the car and I took my roommate and her boyfriend to an area off campus that was closer to his dormitory.

Throughout the entire day I had been in shock, so bewildered that such an event could happen to me, my school, my dormitory, my floor, my Hokies. It wasn’t until I was alone in my car with 200 miles between me and home when I finally broke down into tears.

I cried the entire way home, listening to the news on the radio and talking to my boyfriend about the fear I still held within me.

I had let out enough emotion for one night, and by the time I got to Winchester and hugged my parents I felt comfort and support. My boyfriend drove an hour to meet me at my parents, and took off work the next day to be with me.

The next morning my family and I attended an interfaith church service held in Winchester in prayer for the victims and their families and friends. Again, the tears flowed, but each tear gave me a sense of release and acceptance of the events that I was so lucky to have survived.

I spent the rest of the week trying to avoid watching the pictures of the killer that he had sent to MSNBC in between his shootings, which were being displayed on news stations all over the country. I now had a visual image of him pointing the two guns he used to end 32 innocent lives that Monday morning.

Out of all the healing words I was offered, it was my sister’s words that stood out the most. She, unlike the rest who were full of rightful anger over the event, reminded me that the killer had to have been extremely mentally ill for an act of this atrociousness to occur. Although it is absolutely nauseating that he had to take so many innocent lives down with him, this sick man, along with all of his victims, is now in a better place.

Because classes were cancelled for the remainder of the week, it wasn’t until Sunday that I felt that I was able to return to campus and face the scenes where such horror took place a week earlier.

As I drove down the highway en route to Blacksburg, traffic signs brought tears to my eyes: “Welcome Virginia Tech. Drive safely.”  Truck drivers showed their support by giving a few friendly honks to cars that passed with Virginia Tech bumper stickers.

When I approached campus, I again had to take a deep breath. This was my home, and I needed to be back within my community, among my fellow Hokies. I walked at a slower pace up to my dormitory, surprised at the number of policemen still on guard.

It took all the courage I could muster to walk past the elevators on the fourth floor where the rooms that the first shootings took place were located. There was an odd smell to the hallway, making my stomach sick and my mind wander with horrible images and thoughts.

Shortly after putting down my luggage, my friends called to invite me to dinner, and we went to a dining hall to eat and discuss how we had been coping with the prior week’s events. I still wasn’t sure if I was ready to be back, but I knew I was doing the right thing.

Laying in bed that night, I did all I could to not relive the events I had experienced, or even worse, fabricate mental pictures of what quite possibly happened several rooms down. I could tell by the rustle of sheets that both my roommate and I were not going to be getting much sleep that night.

Finally Monday morning came. Time to try again. I told myself to be strong, and that we would make it through this day.

I went to my Media Writing class where everything had taken place the week before. It was an odd feeling for us all to be reunited in that same classroom at that same time. My teacher said some words of kindness, pausing when he got choked up. After informing us of how we would carry out the remainder of our semester, and the academic options the university had given us, he released us early from class in order to make it to the memorial service.

At 9:45 a.m., about the same time that the shootings in Norris Hall had occurred, students gathered around the Drillfield in front of Burruss Hall where a memorial to the victims had been erected. With the loud and resonating ring of a bell, a single white balloon was released for each victim into the clear blue skies. It reminded me of an angel getting its wings.

After the 33 bell rings had tolled, a mass of orange and maroon balloons were then released into the sky. The sounds of sniffling and sobbing broke the silence, and students all adorned in the school’s colors gave hugs of support and condolence.

I then tried to return to my next class. The teacher attempted to provide words of comfort, but got too choked up to continue. Counselors introduced themselves to the class and let students know about the services available to them, and said they would be available in the hallway after class to anyone who needed someone to talk to.

Being that the course was Criminology, my teacher decided to switch the unit from violent crime to drugs and alcohol, knowing that we had all experienced enough violence that week. When my teacher put in a videotape to start the new course material, I left the classroom, thanked the counselors who stood in the hallway, and burst into tears.

I decided to instead spend that time looking at the memorials on the Drillfield. This provided more support for me emotionally, which is when I realized that my tears of fear and sadness had turned into tears of love and support for my fellow Hokies.

All dormitories now require keycard entry, and a temporary wall has been created behind the elevators on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston, blocking off the two rooms in which the murder of Emily Hilscher and Ryan “Stack” Clark took place. I will always remember Ryan for his positive attitude and creative bulletin boards with cartoon characters that garnished our hallway.

I sit here writing down my story over a week after the tragedy occurred, as I watch cop cars pace back and forth on the side streets surrounding my dormitory. I know this will take a long time to recover from, but each tear and hug makes it that much easier, and makes us all that much stronger.

Being a school that was known for such strong school spirit, an event like this only brings us closer, making us invincible. Most of us will return to campus next year full of vigor and strength, but we will never forget such a tragedy. We ARE the Hokies. We will prevail.


Comments (12)


this brought tears to my eyes again...even though everyone was in a different place at a different time that morning, the stories are all so similar and it's hard not to relive the horror and shock and sadness over and over again. this was so wonderfully written though, and i'm glad you put your story out for the world to see.

Grace | April 26, 2007 10:48 PM

Thank you so much for sharing this. It is real good that you can get this off your shoulders. I hope everyone can do just that. What a horrible thing for you all to have to go through. Your right, you'll never forget this.....I don't think anyone of us will. Yes you will prevail!

Wendy from Kentucky | April 27, 2007 1:19 AM

i am reading this in hannover germany. I went to tech back in the 80s, spent alot of time there between 79 and 91, both going to school and playing in bands. I feel terribly for you and for the entire school, and it hurts to read this, I wish that this terrible incident had never happened to any of you. I remember when shanks was a girls dorm and meeting friends there; this whole thing brought back many intense memories of my times at VT. thank you for sharing your story, its very important for the world to know what you all went thru, you are all in my thoughts and prayers,
best wishes
Chris

christopher rehm | April 27, 2007 3:30 AM

Oh my God - what a wonderfully written piece. Thank you for sharing such a compelling first-hand account of this miserable tragedy. I was a Tech grad student in Smyth Hall about 28 years ago & used to walk past West AJ every day from the commuter parking lot, and I also had one of my final classes in Norris Hall. I could picture all of these places in my mind as the tragedy unfolded, but your first-hand account was incredibly moving. Thank you for sharing your personal account. God Bless the Hokie Nation.

Larry | April 27, 2007 12:08 PM

Thank you for such a wonderful piece. I graduated from Tech in 85 and I recall West AJ and Norris vividly. Watching the events unfold on TV was surreal. Reading your first-hand account is even more compelling. Thanks for sharing and may God bless you and the entire Hokie Nation.

Thom VT '85 | April 28, 2007 8:50 AM

Thank you for such a great write up / story of your experience that day. As a '90 graduate and person who lived behind the elevators on the 6th floor in WAJ you brought the events that much closer to home for me. You and all of the VT community continue to be in my prayers.

Bev | April 28, 2007 6:29 PM

Thanks for this story. I lived on 4th floor West AJ for 3 years, in rooms near those doors that you were stopped from going through, and spent many a night studying in that open room by the elevators. One of my close friends lived in one of the rooms behind the elevators. I feel great compassion for all of you. You are all showing tremendous strength and character. God bless you, Hokies.

Jacqui | April 28, 2007 6:30 PM

Thank you for your story. It brought tears to my eyes because my daughter is also a former Hokie and was on the 4th floor of AJ her first year and I can only imagine what your parents went through and all of the parents. It hit me really hard because even though my daughter has finished school we still feel very much a part of VT. We are all Hokies and yes you will prevail. God be with you!

JoAnne | April 30, 2007 5:24 PM

I am a little confused. When you walked down the hall to the bathroom you neither saw nor heard any police activity? Did you have a direct line-of-sight view to the area where their front doors were? When you walked out of the dorm that morning, did you not see any police vehicles at all?

starviego | April 30, 2007 9:45 PM

Thank you Kristina for sharing your story we all continue to keep you in prayer.

To let you know you are still in many peoples thoughts I drove by Santa Ana College yesterday, a smaller community college in downtown Santa Ana, CA (think 10 minutes from Disneyland) and I saw on one screen on their message board a message of support and sympathy and on the next screen "Go Hokies"

Paul | May 1, 2007 1:05 PM

That was beautifully written.

Shell | August 10, 2007 3:26 PM

Wow! Reading this brought tears to my eyes. I'm a fellow ACC grad, so although I didn't go to VT, this still hit very close to home for me. I pray for the strength and conviction of all VT Hokies past and present. Like you said, a tragedy like this only makes you stronger.

Vanessa | August 10, 2007 3:55 PM