Our Beloved Ross
For Lynnette Alameddine, doing nothing is not an option. Everyday she has to force herself to move forward in her life without her precious son, Ross.
The night before Ross was murdered he talked with his mother on the phone for 40 minutes. It was a wonderful, caring and loving conversation between mother and son. He thanked her for allowing him to follow his dreams to go to Virginia Tech and to get into technology.
The next morning Lynnette’s living hell would begin.
Lynnette remembers April 16, 2007 in vivid detail. It started with two phone calls, one from a friend in Florida and one from a friend in New Hampshire. Both told Lynnette that there had been a shooting at Virginia Tech and she should turn on the news. That was sometime after 8:00 a.m. and CNN was broadcasting that a couple of students had been shot in a dorm. She thought it was horrible and was surprised that something like that would happen. Ross did not live in a dormitory and she told herself he was all right. But nearly two hours later when the news broke of multiple killings, deep down inside she knew Ross was in the room. Somehow she knew he was in that building, Norris Hall.
Fighting back panic, Lynnette called her son, but there was no answer. She waited and Ross didn’t call back. That was unusual. In August, at the time of the Morva incident, he had called to say that he was “ok” and that he knew she had seen something on the news by now and didn’t want her to worry. This time, there was no word and the silence was as if someone had punched her in the chest.
Again, Lynnette phoned the school and this time talked to a Tech staff member, who gave Lynette the hotline number to call. The person at the hotline told her to call the local hospitals. Lynnette responded, “I am in Boston, how would I know about local hospitals?” With that she was given the phone number of the Lewis Gale Hospital Montgomery (there were five possible hospitals). Montgomery hospital told her no one by the name of Ross Alameddine had been brought in and that she could call every hour if she wanted. Lynnette was also given the names and numbers of all four other area hospitals to call, as a person on the hotline told Lynnette that other victims were being transported to those hospitals as well.
By early afternoon, there was still no word. Sometime around 1:40 p.m. Lynnette talked to someone at the Boston Herald who told her incorrectly that there were no New England casualties. Lynette began to hope against hope that no news was good news; perhaps in the turmoil, Ross was unable to phone; perhaps he was helping in some way—surely that must be the reason for his silence. But as the afternoon gave way to early evening the flicker of hope she allowed herself to cling to, faded.
A friend told Lynette to call Channel 7. She was desperate and willing to do anything for information. Just sitting and not knowing was agonizing. She was told she would be interviewed on CNN and she agreed. “I’ll do anything to get information about my son, my Ross. I am desperate I want news of my son, I want to know if he is ok.” The film crew went to Lynnette’s house and taped the painful interview.
Around 5:30 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. the media began interviewing the survivors. Lynette called the campus police. Lynnette was curtly told, “Mama, if your child is dead, you will get a call from your local police.”
Lynnette Alameddine waited.
Sometime around 10:45 p.m. she received a call from a Virginia Tech chaplain who said, “Ross is gone.”
At 12:45 a.m., the local and state police arrive. Lynette met them at the door with tears streaming down her face, telling them, “I know why you are here.”
Lynnette Alameddine wanted desperately to get to Blacksburg. Senator Ted Kennedy’s office called her to wish her condolences and wanted to know if there was anything he could do. She said she needed to get to Blacksburg, but was having problems arranging a flight. Senator Kennedy said, ”If you don’t get help, call us we will see that you get there.” Senator John Kerry offered the same, when he called and spoke to Lynnette.
Alameddine called the school to get a place to stay. She was told that there was no room at the Virginia Tech Inn, but a family was willing to put Lynette and her family up. Lynnette said that was not acceptable. The school called back five minutes later to say there would be a room at the Inn after all.
When she got to the Tech campus, Alameddine talked to a Virginia Tech policeman and a state police officer. She kept asking how could this happen, why no warning? Despite the fact that the school had previously issued warnings and locked down—I have cited earlier—she was told that the campus was too big to lock-down. With this response, Lynnette became angry. She also told the police they shut down the city of Boston just two months prior for suspicious objects (neon signs) that were placed near bridges and bus terminals. She also told them that they stopped buses, subways, and trains as they felt it was threat. “This is a school. There was a gunman loose on campus. You locked down the school in August, why not now?”
Alamameddine would later hear from one of Ross’s friends, a young woman, who had heard of the dormitory shooting and had stayed away from French class. Would Ross have done the same if he had known a shooting had happened? The more Lynnette found out, the more upset she became.
It is now more than six years since the shooting at Virginia Tech and life is still hard for Lynnette. She thinks of Ross every day and remembers him with tears in her eyes. He was mature and intelligent beyond his years; he was funny; he was wise; he made her laugh. Ross and Lynette had a terrific relationship. She remembers how he loved to build computers. In fact, the night before he left for Tech, he was out until 2:00 a.m. building a computer for a friend.
Ross was always helpful and thoughtful of others. After every meal he would pat his mom on the back and say, “That was great.” Lynnette misses those gentle pats Ross gave her and gets emotional when she thinks that she’ll never have them again. Ross loved all types of music, especially jazz. Ross enjoyed singing and playing the piano. Every day she thanks God that a friend made a CD of him singing at the Coffee House at his high school Austin Preparatory School.
Ross’s friends are getting married, starting families, pursuing their careers. She is happy for them, but sees all this and it is so painful.
An especially poignant tribute to Ross came from two professors who made a DVD telling Lynette how wonderful Ross was. The tribute was especially meaningful and heartfelt because the two men made the DVD despite specific instructions from Virginia Tech officials to staff and faculty not to contact or to talk to the families. The university’s maniacal intent on controlling all communications between school personnel and the families sank to a new low when it insisted on limiting genuine expressions of sympathy.
Alameddine often remembers Ross’s caring approach to others. In an ironic twist of fate, months after the shooting, she found out from one of her son’s close friends, Bryan Griffith, that Ross sat next to Cho in an English class. The class was a horror literature/film course. Ross and Bryan sat in the back row; Cho sat to Ross’s right. Everyone in the class recognized there was something strange about the young man who never uttered a word. Both Ross and Brian had tried to engage Cho, to help him, to help a painfully shy and quiet young man. Bryan would ask Ross a question about a movie, and he would respond, “I don’t know.” Ross would then turn to Cho and ask, “What do you think?” He never got a response. In the end, they gave up and just assumed that Cho was one of those “quiet smart kids.”
Ross often spoke about his friend Valerie, who worked on a Blacksburg transit bus. He met her after going roller-blading and getting caught in a downpour. By chance, Ross got on Valerie’s bus, wringing wet. The two struck up a conversation. Ross would see Valerie periodically and as their friendship grew, he learned that Valerie had been enrolled at Virginia Tech, but dropped out. She now worked in a Virginia Tech office and drove a Virginia Tech transit bus. He kept telling her to quit her job and go back to school and really make something of her life. The day after the shooting, Valerie left a note at the makeshift memorial. She had quit her job and was going back to school.
Lynnette becomes agitated when she thinks back on the way the school handled the 32 scholarships established in memory of the dead. She vividly remembers that the school never asked for input from the victims’ families. Lynnette wanted the scholarship honoring Ross to go to Austin Preparatory School, as it was the high school he had graduated from in 2005. It took a year to get the school to agree.
The school also never asked the families what they wanted on the permanent memorial stones. Lynnette did not want Ross’s middle name used, but the school engraved it without asking. Only after considerable effort did Tech agree to use just Ross’s middle initial instead of his middle name. It was one bad decision after another. On the “We Remember” Web site there were color pictures of most of the victims—a couple of photos were black and white. Unilaterally and arbitrarily, the school changed them all to sepia tone—it made the victims look as if they had died a hundred years ago. It looked more like “We Forget” rather than “We Remember.” It was a horrible thing to do and only after an outcry from a number of families did the school return the photos to the previous display.
Lynnette suggested homicide bereavement counselors be brought in for the families. The suggestion was denied.
Time and time again, the school officials did not listen to the families and ignored their wishes. For example, Lynnette and another mother of a victim suggested to the Office of Recovery and Support that it sponsored a day or session in which friends of the deceased could come together to remember them. Lynnette suggested having food, as part of a relaxed session of remembrance. The school agreed but never followed through. Five of Ross’s friends came. But when the sessions took place, they were counseling sessions with everyone sitting around in a circle. The participants were given Teddy Bears. The attendees felt insulted; they felt they were being talked down to. Lynnette was very upset by this, but then chalked it up to yet another insensitive Virginia Tech action.
After the massacre, the rooms in Norris Hall were done over at a cost of $1 million. Lynnette asked to see the rooms and was assigned a Virginia Tech police officer named Jackson to give her a tour. When Jackson showed up, he was accompanied by a school counselor.
Alamedine was dismayed at what she saw. Despite the large sum of money that had been spent, she could see what looked like bullets holes in the wall; she could see the bullet holes in the corner where Ross had been killed. She wanted the holes completely covered up. Visibly shaken, Lynnette emailed Jay Poole, the former director of Office of Recovery and Support at Virginia Tech, who bluntly said nothing more could be done to repair the walls. Lynnette found out later the “bullet holes” were actually from coat racks that had been taken down.
Doing something poorly, as Tech did so many times in dealing with the families, is nearly as bad as doing nothing at all. (To be continued)