When I wrote my book, on the Virginia Tech massacre, I invited families of the victims to write about their experiences and thoughts. I will be posting those responses over the next few weeks. Here are the comments of Dr. Diane Strollo, whose daughter Hilary was wounded on April 16, 2007:
For Dr. Diane Strollo and her family there is no doubt, Tech betrayed its students and faculty and violated the law.
Dr. Strollo was at home in suburban Pittsburgh on that frigid blustering April morning when her husband called to tell her there had been a shooting at Virginia Tech, and their daughter, Hilary, had been shot. Strollo was stunned. In a state of disbelief, Diane Strollo kept wondering, “How could she be shot on a Monday morning at college?”
Doctor Strollo vividly remembers getting a phone call from Dr. Dick Davis saying that he was taking Hilary into surgery for three gunshot wounds. By sheer luck and circumstance, considering the mayhem, the loss of so many Hokies, and the extent of her injuries, Hilary was rescued from Norris Hall in the second ambulance to leave the crime scene. Dr. Strollo was fortified by the fact that Hilary was rock steady, physically fit, and an avid soccer player. On the soccer field, kick her and she kicks back.
The news was at first incomprehensible and would become more so, particularly as the Strollos learned about the Virginia Tech leadership’s anemic response to the first murders and the months of ignoring the warning signs leading up to Cho’s actions. As the details began to emerge, the Strollos became more and more puzzled by Virginia Tech’s handling of the initial shootings. In addition, they questioned how members of the school administration (for example – Kim O’Rourke and Edward Spencer) could notify their own loved ones about the shooting, but not alert the entire campus and community.
The Strollo’s son, Patrick, was a senior at Virginia Tech. He heard about the shootings, and he knew Hilary had class in Norris Hall. Fortuitously, one of Patrick’s friends was a patient (not related to the shootings) in the emergency department of the Montgomery Regional Hospital when Hilary was transported in. The friend heard Hilary’s name and called Patrick immediately to say his sister had been shot. Patrick, in turn, called his father.
The Strollos needed to get to Blacksburg immediately, but strong winds and bad weather had forced the cancellation of all flights out of Pittsburgh, so they drove—in record time. They could not think to pack suitcases, only to pick up their other daughter, Sara, and to get to Virginia Tech as quickly as possible.
Hilary was critically injured but survived. The first days in the intensive care unit were an emotional roller coaster, as were the surgeries yet to come. It took three days to discover the scope of who was lost or injured and to learn that the professor Hilary loved and admired, Madame Couture-Nowak, had died of her injuries while trying to protect her class. But by the end of the week, Dr. Strollo kept coming back to the discrepancy that more than two hours had lapsed between the initial shootings and the Norris Hall carnage. She was disturbed when she learned that the police allowed two students (Rachel Hill and Henry Lee), to leave West Ambler Johnston Hall to go French class in Norris Hall—only to be murdered there. Hill, the first to be struck down in French class, had arrived late. Hill had called her father on the way to Norris Hall to tell him that she was “okay.”
As the details came into sharper focus, the same question kept eating away at the Strollos: how could the leadership of Virginia Tech not have issued a timely warning? The school knew two students were murdered and that there was an armed gunman at large. Dr. Strollo was mystified that the school had the time and technology to warn the campus but chose not to. Strollo would later find out that the school also chose not to immediately notify the families of the two deceased students. However, the school did notify Governor Timothy Kaine’s office at 8:30 a.m., which was one hour and fifteen minutes before the carnage at Norris Hall. The Strollos kept thinking how odd it was, how curious to notify the governor but not your faculty and students.
Dr. Strollo knew her daughter and most students would have used caution had they been warned. In fact, because of the bomb threats on the campus and the closure of four academic building three days earlier, on April 13, 2007, Hilary had checked the Virginia Tech Web page at 9:00 a.m. on the 16th to see if Norris Hall was open. There was no mention of the 7:15 a.m. shootings, so she proceeded to class. The anger the Strollos felt began to grow as they realized the victims of Norris Hall did not have the advantage given to the families and loved ones of Dr. Steger and his Policy Group. Had there been an accurate and timely warning many lives might have been saved. In fact, several students who did not attend French class that fateful morning said they decided to miss class after hearing about a “shooting.” It would seem the rumor saved them. How many more might have been saved by an official warning?
To this day, the Strollos ask, “Why would leadership hesitate to notify the campus of two unsolved murders on campus? For any campus security expert, April is a high profile month for terrorists. Based on the Branch Davidian fiasco in Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993, Timothy McVey executed the Oklahoma City bombing on the same day in 1995. In an effort to ‘outdo’ McVey, killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried out the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999. (Their butchery was delayed one day by a glitch in obtaining munitions.) Virginia Tech gunman Cho referenced the Columbine killers in one of his recorded manifestos. April is also a high profile month for college administrations. Many families and potential students are visiting campus. Virginia Tech was already sullied by four bomb threats on April 13, 2007. The school knew that if there was a lot of publicity about two students who were murdered in a dorm, families might have questioned Virginia Tech’s leadership and commitment to safety. Families might have sent their children elsewhere and Tech would have lost revenue and credibility.”
Dr. Strollo commends the superintendent of the Montgomery County School District for her actions. When she heard via a police dispatcher that students were shot at Tech on April 16, 2007, she ordered the entire public school district into immediate lockdown at 8:52 a.m., almost one hour before the massacre at Norris Hall. What was her motivation? “Safety is our highest priority.” This, according to Strollo, is someone who cares about her students and community.
The quick thinking of the superintendent has prompted Dr. Strollo to ask repeatedly, “Can someone nominate this woman for governor?”
As she reflects on that April day, Dr. Strollo tries to put the tragedy into perspective. “To notify our own loved ones in an emergency, that is human nature. To not notify the faculty, students, and community, what is that? At best, it is negligence or ineptitude. However, it is unconscionable when ‘leadership’ places the university’s reputation and fundraising above campus safety.”
The Strollos send their love and deepest respect to the families who lost a loved one and to all the survivors and their families. The Strollos are forever indebted to the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg area emergency responders, health care providers, and community. (To be continued)