For William O’Neil and his wife, Jeanne Dube, the recovery has been a long process and O’Neil will never move on until Virginia Tech President Charles Steger takes responsibility and is held accountable for his lack of action on April 16, 2007. O’Neil remembers his exceptionally bright young son, Daniel, who excelled in math and the sciences. Daniel was a determined and diligent young man. Once he put his mind to something he would not stop until he had achieved his goal, whether it was skate boarding or teaching himself to play the guitar and the piano, he would not stop until he mastered a skill.
Daniel earned his undergraduate degree at a small liberal arts college in eastern Pennsylvania—Lafayette College. O’Neil remembers how his son blossomed in his new academic environment. His love for music and the sciences became his passion. Indeed, at school his buddies were all into one or the other, just as he was. But despite being away at school, Daniel’s ties to his family remained strong and he called home several times a week.
In his sophomore year, Daniel went to Brussels for the spring semester. No sooner did he land than he called and wanted to come home. O’Neil told his son to give it a chance. And give it a chance he did, he threw himself into his new surroundings with the same determination he approached everything and after a week Daniel was just fine in his new environment.
O’Neil chokes back tears when remembers how close Daniel was to his family, so close that when it came down to a choice of graduate schools, he picked Virginia Tech over Colorado State University, saying he could drive home from Tech.
Daniel approached life at Virginia Tech with the same zest he tackled everything. He loved the beautiful campus nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and really liked the big-time sports that Tech offered. He got an apartment and a graduate assistantship and majored in environmental engineering focusing on engineering water resources.
On April 16, 2007, William O’Neil, who works in the advancement office of Connecticut College, was in New Jersey meeting with a college alumnus when he first heard of the shooting. O’Neil and the alumnus had gone to lunch and when he got up to go to the men’s room he checked his emails. He noticed an unusually high number of messages from his wife. Returning to the lunch table, he excused himself again, saying he needed to step outside and phone home to see why his wife was repeatedly trying to reach him. It was at that time he first learned of the shootings at Virginia Tech.
O’Neil’s wife, Jeanne, told him there had been a shooting at Virginia Tech and she could not reach Daniel on the phone. This was highly unusual, especially because when the Morva shooting had occurred Daniel had called home right away to tell his parents that he was ok.
Returning to the luncheon table, O’Neil explained what was happening and the alumnus suggested they go to his house, turn on the news and try to find out what was going on. O’Neil will never forget the television coverage of Suzanne Grimes’s son Kevin being carried out of Norris Hall. When he saw that he left for home immediately.
Before leaving New York, a colleague called O’Neil saying her husband was a State Police trooper and would be willing to contact the Virginia police to try and find out Daniel’s status. The answer was, of course, “yes.” En route home, the colleague called saying Daniel’s name was not on the list of casualties, but that O’Neil should get to Blacksburg right away.
Once home, O’Neil was desperate for news of his son. Finally, he remembered the name of one of Daniel’s professors. He got the man’s home phone and contacted him. The professor however, knew nothing more than what was on the news.
The O’Neils tried to get a flight to Blacksburg or someplace nearby, but it was impossible. Just as they were about to give up hope of getting to Virginia immediately, a friend, with access to a corporate jet, called. The friend told the O’Neils to go to the airport; he would take care of everything including a car rental and hotel reservations—just get to the airport.
At 8:00 pm, the O’Neils flew to Blacksburg, arriving between 10:00 and 10:30 pm. A rental car was waiting and a room had been reserved for them at the Inn at Virginia Tech.
Arriving at the Inn, the grim story repeated itself. The O’Neils went to the reception desk and asked for information about their son. They were immediately taken to a room with members of the clergy. The same type of room the Whites, the Pohles and all the victims’ families were taken to—the same cold, foreboding style of room where a police officer asked for a picture of their son.
The O’Neils waited for what seemed to be an eternity. Jeanne smokes and they finally decided to go outside so she could have a cigarette. But the O’Neils got only a few steps when the police asked them to go back to the room—it was then that they were told their son was dead. They were stunned. The news was unbearable and the news was overpowering; it was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room.
A compassionate grief counselor from the Red Cross was present and gave them some comfort, but when they returned to the emptiness of their hotel room they faced the arduous, painful task of calling family and friends. They called family members to tell them to go to their parents’ houses so someone would be there when they called with the news.
The next few days and weeks were a blur of confusion, disbelief, and pain, but as the reality of what had happened began to set in O’Neil realized something was “not right.” The O’Neils heard very little from the school and had no contact with President Steger until August—the same President Steger who was too busy meeting with families to meet with Professor Lucinda Roy. Long before that, however, the O’Neil family began asking questions—primarily, why wasn’t there a warning after the 7:15 am double homicide at West Ambler Johnston Hall? The school had very little contact with the families and when school officials did, it was with a sheepish indifference. For example, Virginia Tech asked the families to write down their email addresses so they could be in touch with each other, but no one ever heard anything more about that and never got the list of names. We know now, as was pointed out earlier in this book, that Tech did not want the families to be in contact with each other; school officials did not want the families comparing notes.
Furthermore, the O’Neils began to feel as if the school cared more about public relations than the families—a feeling that was shared by many of the victims’ families. The vast amounts of money spent by Virginia Tech on Firestorm ($150,000), and Burson-Marsteller (over $650,000) go a long way to prove the O’Neil’s feelings were correct—particularly when you examine the billing for both with the repeated references to consultations for handling and dealing with the media. Furthermore, when you add to those figures to the money the state paid to Arlington-based TriData (over $500,000), to produce a badly flawed “official” report that holds no one accountable, does not address questions such as identifying mistakes in judgment, and in general is a poorly researched, poorly analyzed, and poorly written document—a picture of blatant manipulation and cover-up comes into focus.
All the O’Neils, William, his wife Jeanne, and their daughter Erin, went to therapy—at least briefly. Jeanne openly showed her grief—she would spend hours crying. William held his feelings in. Their main concerned was Erin, who was a teacher in New York. They were concerned that she didn’t have much family nearby but were comforted somewhat that she had a cousin and a boyfriend in the city and a circle of close friends.
Jeanne had retired from teaching the year before the shooting, and now there was no way she could go back to work. William initially kept busy with administrative details—closed Daniel’s apartment, got his car back to Rhode Island (the O’Neils live in Rhode Island, but William works in Connecticut), and made the funeral arrangements. All these things were therapeutic, they kept him busy and moving forward. But staying home with all the memories was unbearable and he soon decided to go back to work because he needed to keep busy.
The O’Neils still wait for answers; they wait for an explanation; they wait for the truth to be told. (To be continued)