For Tricia and Michael White, who lost their daughter Nicole in Christopher James Bishop’s German class, the morning of April 16th started much as any other Monday in Tidewater Virginia, with the two heading to their respective jobs. By the end of the day, however, their oldest child would be dead and they would realize they were not being told the truth about how it happened.
In the early hours of that spring morning however, death was the furthest thing from their minds. Both were reflecting on the wonderful weekend they had spent with their two children—Evan and his older sister Nicole. The previous week Evan had been on school vacation and had spent it with his older sister on the Hokie campus. The two were very close. Evan’s best friend was his tall vivacious redheaded sister. Evan reveled in the time he spent with Nicole, and his days with his sister at Tech were special. He went to many of her classes and hung out with his older sister’s friends.
On Sunday the 15th Tricia and Mike White drove half way to Blacksburg, to Charlottesville, to meet Nicole and Evan. They ate at Applebee’s and throughout the meal Nicole could not stop talking about her future and how much she enjoyed her classes. She especially enjoyed Bishop’s German class. This was the second time Nicole had been in one of the charismatic young instructor’s classes. In fact, she should not have been in that German class; it was closed when she tried to enroll. But Nicole would not be denied, she insisted on being in Bishop’s class and finally convinced him to accept her as a “forced add.”
Christopher James Bishop was the first to be gunned down when Cho entered the German class in room 207. Ironically, had Cho’s murderous rage taken place a week earlier Evan would probably have been in the German class and the Whites might have lost both their children.
Sometime shortly after Tricia arrived at work on the morning of the 16th, her brother called from Greensboro, North Carolina to tell her that two people had been killed in a dormitory on the Virginia Tech campus. Her first reaction was concern tempered by the fact that Virginia Tech is huge, with around 30,000 students, faculty, and staff. She asked him to keep her posted.
When her brother called back around an hour and a half or so later to say there had been more shootings and multiple deaths her concern became fear. She learned that this time the deaths were in an engineering building. At that point, Tricia did not know Nicole’s schedule or if she had any classes in the engineering building, but she immediately tried to reach her daughter by cell phone and texting—but there was no response.
Alarmed, she called her father in New York and asked him to watch the TV and keep her posted. Her father called back in just a few moments and said, “This is not looking good.” She then called Nicole’s roommate who confirmed that Nicole’s German class was in the engineering building, Norris Hall. In a near panic she called her husband, Mike, who himself had just heard about the shootings. He too had not heard anything from Nicole. They agreed to meet at home and then go to Blacksburg.
By now Tricia’s whole office was aware of the situation, all work had come to a halt and everyone was glued to the news. Tricia’s boss told her she needed to go home; she needed to get to Blacksburg.
A co-worker drove Tricia White home—she was too upset and frightened to drive. All the way she kept denying that her daughter was or could be a victim. When she arrived at their suburban home in Smithfield, Virginia, Mike was waiting for her. The two deliberated about going to Tech, but what if they were to miss Nicole’s phone call telling them she was all right? They monitored the news and Mike saw TV coverage of someone with red hair being carried out of Norris Hall. At that point he said, “We have to go; we have to go now.”
Before leaving they called the local Smithfield police to tell them where they would be and how to reach them in case they had any news of their daughter. They also left a message on their home phone answering machine telling Nicole or anyone who phoned that they were headed for Blacksburg—Tricia left her cell phone number on the message. Reporters called the White’s home and later used that cell phone number to harass the Whites.
A friend drove Tricia, Mike, and Evan to Blacksburg. The day was dark and rainy. All the way Mike kept saying to himself, “God you are in control now.” He hoped against hope that God would hear him and Nicole would be spared, but inside he had a sinking feeling she was gone. He had a terrible, terrible stifling feeling that he was in the midst of a life-changing event, something from which he might never fully recover. It was suffocating him.
When the Whites got to the campus, they went immediately to the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center, which had been set up as the focal point for dealing with the crisis. At the reception desk Tricia identified herself and asked to see Nicole. The person behind the reception desk checked some papers and then said, “Please follow us.”
They were taken to a bank of elevators.
Both Tricia and Mike remember the elevator door opening and a man emerged sobbing. Tricia remembers saying, “Please don’t take me there. Don’t take me to where he was; don’t take me there.”
But the Whites were taken there, they were taken to a small room with a table and aluminum chairs. By now, both were in a state of near panic. Neither one can remember how many people were in the room or who they were other than a female doctor.
Tricia kept repeating louder and louder, “Where is someone from Virginia Tech?” They would soon learn, just as the Goddards and the Pohles were learning, that the “someones” from Virginia Tech would be few and far between. And when the “someone” did come, he was ill equipped to deal with them and the situation.
Mike remembers people trying to calm Tricia down. Nicole’s boyfriend arrived and confirmed that she was in the German class where the shootings took place. A doctor who was present kept trying to reassure Tricia saying, “Maybe she is dazed, traumatized and walking around. Maybe she is with friends seeking comfort.” The doctor said she would call hospitals to see if there was any word about Nicole.
Tricia and Mike had the sinking feeling that the doctor was just stalling for time and trying to make it look as if something was being done. Deep inside they both knew Nicole was gone, and they knew that everyone in the room knew that. They felt they were being lied to. They would continue to feel that way for months, and feel that way to this day.
Tricia keep getting louder and louder and said if no one had any answers she would go to Norris Hall. She would go there; she would find Nicole. Someone in the room dissuaded her—they don’t remember whom—saying the authorities would not allow anyone into the crime scene. Late that night, Mark McNamee, the Provost, came in, but had next to nothing to say of any value. Captain Chumley of the Virginia State Police then volunteered that there would be no answers that night and suggested they try to get some sleep.
The Whites were taken to a room in the Inn with one king-sized bed for the three of them. It was around 11:30 pm. About one half-hour later, Tricia’s two brothers, Mark Gallagher and Tom Gallagher, arrived and all five stayed in the same room. They would doze briefly, but no one could sleep. Even if they could have slept, there were interruptions. Several times throughout the night, in a callous disregard for the anxiety the family was experiencing, reporters called Tricia’s cell phone asking about their daughter.
Throughout those first hours on April 16th, as the dead were being identified, the families—including the Whites and Pohles—frantically kept trying to reach their children on cell phones. The result was a macabre sound of the dead students’ and faculty members’ cell phones ringing, echoing through the empty corridors of Norris Hall. The smell of gunpowder and death hung in the air. The sound was a pall hanging over the bodies of two beautiful young people, Michael Pohle and Nicole White. Michael had died apparently in a vain effort to shield Nicole White from multiple bullets that tore life from the vivacious, spirited young woman. The two students lay together in death’s embrace, an embrace that would unite the Pohle and White families forever.
On the morning of April 17th, the Whites were put in a different room. By 10:30 a.m. there was still no word about Nicole. Tricia’s sister, Kathleen Field, had now arrived, as had their minister and their church’s youth pastor. Sometime around 11:00 a.m. the female doctor who had been with them the night before, Provost McNamee, and the police came in the room with the terrible news that Nicole was dead. She had been shot multiple times, including once in the head.
There are no words to describe the impact. The three cried with the depth and intensity that can only be brought about by the death of a child and a beloved sister.
The Whites were on an emotional roller coaster, all the time crying harder than they had ever cried in their lives. Mike kept saying to himself, “This is not fair.” His grief was overpowering, he was grasping for air and felt guilt as he kept asking, “God, why couldn’t this have been someone else? Why a child that is going down the right path? She was doing all the right things.”
For the Whites, much of the rest of that day was lost in a tidal wave of incredible emotional pain. They do remember a meeting for the families with school President Steger late that morning, but there was nothing Steger could say or do that could give them solace. They remember a contrite school president responded to a question from a father whose daughter was among the victims. The man asked, “Who is in charge?” To which Steger responded, “I am.” Then, to the father’s follow-up question, “Who is responsible for all this,” Steger hesitatingly and reluctantly said, “I am,” an answer he would begin to deny and retreat from almost immediately.
The school sent the manager of the school cafeteria to be the official liaison with the Whites. Nicole had worked at the cafeteria and he knew her quite well. The problem was he too was traumatized and ill equipped to answer their questions. Every time they would ask something, he would go away to find the answer. This was not his fault; it was just another example of the school’s poor handling of the families. When the Whites complained, Tech named someone from the Office of Admissions, but even the resulting interaction, while better, was superficial and lacking.
The police explained the delay in identifying Nicole was because she apparently had someone else’s identification in her hand. The Whites remember the doctor theorizing that Nicole, who was a medic, was trying to help someone and therefore had that person’s I.D. in her hand. But, as with so much the Whites were told, this explanation simply did not make sense from the position of the bodies. And indeed one of the investigating police officers later told the Whites that he doubted that story because Nicole’s wounds were so severe, particularly the head wound, she would not have been able to help anyone. The inaccuracies just kept coming.
The Whites were told there would have to be an autopsy. Nicole was an organ donor, but the police said that would not be allowed because this was a crime scene. Was this a fabrication or riding roughshod over family wishes—or both? Was this a lie? When Angela Dales was killed at the Appalachian School of Law five years earlier, her organs had been donated and that was a crime scene.
There were more frustrations, more delays and more meaningless meetings. The police were still not satisfied with the identification of Nicole and wanted more. They wanted fingerprints. Tricia’s two bothers found and took the police to their niece’s car and gave law enforcement officers access to Nicole’s apartment in order to take the prints they needed.
By Thursday, most of the families had left. But the Whites were still waiting; they were waiting for Nicole’s body to be released. The Whites would not leave the campus without their daughter; there had been enough double-talk, they wanted Nicole. There seemed to be no one who could tell them when they would get their daughter. The inability or unwillingness to provide families with access to accurate information shaped the defining moment for yet another family.
The Whites had been the last of the victims’ families to arrive on campus; they would be the last to leave. (To be continued)