BLACKSBURG — Hundreds of students flooded the Drill Field at Virginia Tech on Monday night and early into Tuesday morning to honor 32 slain fellow Hokies — all of whom had died while most of the students present at the memorial were working their way into high school.
The crowd swelled rapidly as the midnight ceremony approached. At 11:30 p.m. a single student surveyed the memorial, leaving a single candle.
But between then and midnight the trickle of students became a torrent, flooding the drillfield with solemn-faced students silently standing in the chilly gloom under flickering lamps to honor fallen fellows the majority of which never had the opportunity to know.
“As I’ve become more at home and attached to the Hokie Nation I think it’s necessary to honor these people,” freshman engineering student and New York resident Warren Nooger said. “It’s unfortunate that their aspirations to better themselves and improve their communities was cut short.”
As the memorial ceremony got underway the crowd continued to swell, the largest contingent of which seemed to be coming from West Ambler Johnston Hall — the site of the first shootings that day.
The assembled students stood outside a cordon marking off the memorial in a chilly but somehow heavy and humid air. The flags in front of Burruss Hall hung limply as a young woman emerged carrying a long taper to light the large ceremonial candle.
The candle burned until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday night, when it was extinguished and the flame returned to Burruss Hall to mark unforgotten slain.
“I wanted to show my support for everyone who’s lost a Hokie,” freshman computer science student Ojas Mhetar said. “By paying respect to the fallen, we’re bringing the university closer together.”
As the memorial began several cadets marched in long, precise strides to regular intervals along the perimeter of the cordon and faced outward at attention, faces expressionless and stern.
Two students mounted a podium erected above the memorial and read the fallen Hokies’ names until all 32 had been spoken aloud.
Two buglers from the Tech Corps of Cadets played “echo taps,” a call-and-response version of the well-known military funerary call.
“I felt like this was something I had to do, an obligation,” freshman university studies student Aimee Svagerko said. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like to go through something like April 16 and I can’t imagine not being here tonight to show my love and support for the families and my fellow Hokies.”
Following taps there was a moment of silence and reflection easily distinguished from the already mostly silent event by the absence of the loudspeakers’ humming. A breeze began to stir, Burruss’ flags snapped to form and the evening air’s heaviness lifted.
“Let’s go!” Another familiar call-and-response cry emerged from the back of the assembled crowd. The few young men’s voices nearly cracked from the strain of making themselves heard by so many.
“Hokies!” The students seemed surprised by the call — many had their heads bowed as lips moved in silent prayer. Most were caught off-guard to the point they didn’t know if they should respond.
“Let’s go!” Louder this time. The only noise to be heard amid the assembly’s respectful silence before had been a good deal of sniffing and coughing.
“Hokies!” Louder and surer.
“Hokies!” What had been lost in that final call was made up in the ground-shaking response as the crowd in unison turned to face the fallen Hokies’ memorial markers, roaring their response.
The memorial now opened to the public and the Hokie Bird was the first to enter. It stopped and solemnly surveyed each marker as small groups of people were allowed to enter.
One young woman made her way to the Hokie Bird and placed her hand on its shoulder. It looked at her and the two comforted each other with a long embrace. Many in the crowd were visibly moved and several began to weep.
“That’s the sweetest, saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” sophomore university studies student Mark Hafele said. “It’s weird, but that really just brought it home for me.
“I was in the sixth grade when April 16 happened. But I feel like now that I’m a member of the Hokie nation these people are my family, I had to be here and I’m glad I was.”
By Gabriel McVey