89.1 WEMU

Shootings Test Virginia Tech's Emergency Plan

Dec 8, 2011

Virginia Tech put a multitiered emergency response plan into effect Thursday after a gunman apparently shot and killed two people on campus, a university spokesman said as investigators tried to piece together the incident.

A police officer and second person were apparently killed after a routine traffic stop went bad Thursday, on the campus where 33 people died in a 2007 shooting rampage. But applying the lessons learned from the tragedy, the university put a plan into place that utilized phone alerts, text messages, classroom message boards, computer desktop alerts and outdoor sirens, Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski told reporters.

"We deployed them all and we deployed them immediately to get the word out," he said.

The alerts advised students and faculty to shelter in place and for visitors to stay away from campus until further notice.

Corey Smith, a 19-year-old sophomore from Mechanicsville, Va., was among students who were notified. "It's crazy that someone would go and do something like that with all the stuff that happened in 2007," Smith told The Associated Press. He was headed to a dining hall near the site of one of the shootings, but stayed inside after seeing the alerts from the school.

Harry White, 20, a junior physics major, told the AP in a phone interview that he was in line for a sandwich at a Subway restaurant in a campus building when he received the text message alert about the shooting.

White said he didn't panic, thinking instead about a false alarm about a possible gunman that caused the campus to be locked down in August. He 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.

White said the campus was quieter than usual because classes ended Wednesday and students were preparing for the start of exams.

A report of a possible gunman at Virginia Tech on Aug. 4 set off the longest, most extensive lockdown and search on campus since the 2007 bloodbath led the university to overhaul its emergency procedures. 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 by phone, email and text message to lock themselves indoors. Alerts were also posted on the university's website and Twitter accounts.

That incident marked the first time the entire campus was locked down since the 2007 shooting, and the second major test of Virginia Tech's improved emergency alert system. The system was revamped to add the use of text messages and other means besides email of warning students.

The system was also put to the test in 2008, when an exploding nail gun cartridge was mistaken for gunfire. But only one dorm was locked down during that emergency, and it reopened two hours later.

Thursday's shooting came on the same day that 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.

Owczarski said a police officer had pulled over a car and that witnesses reported the driver had shot the office and then fled on foot. Witnesses told police the shooter ran toward a parking lot, where a second victim was later found.

Juliet Fleming, who witnessed the scene of the first shooting shortly after the officer was shot, told WDBJ-TV that she was coming from the gym and heading toward her dorm room when she saw the police car.

"Then the police came up and they opened his car door and when they opened it, he just fell out toward to the ground and they immediately started reviving him," she said, on the verge of tears. "Then two cops took off with some sort of automatic weapons, running, in the direction of the gunman. The officer didn't make it, obviously, because they covered him with a sheet."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.