Category: The Experience

Jerzy Nowak’s Story I

Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, a 49-year-old French instructor, was one of five Virginia Tech faculty members who died in the April 16 shootings. Her Polish-born husband, Jerzy Nowak, a biochemist, was head of the department of horticulture in the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Nowak subsequently took a leave of absence from that position to establish the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention and serve as its director. The Center initiated its operation in July 2008 and is housed on the same floor in Norris Hall where Couture-Nowak and 11 of her students were killed. At ACIA’s meeting, Nowak recalled his experiences on that day:

My 12-year-old daughter’s school called and said Sylvie has not been picked up after school. So I called my wife. I did not know she was teaching in Norris Hall. I called her department and I asked where did Jocelyn teach? “She taught in Norris Hall,” the secretary responded. So I quickly jumped into the car and went to pick up my daughter at the school and asked my secretary to brief me on the way about the developments. We went home. I got a call from my secretary who said at 4 o’clock there will be a briefing for the victims and friends. I told Sylvie that we have to go to Virginia Tech, so make sure you grab something to eat.

We arrived at Virginia Tech and there were a lot of people and administrators running around. Nobody wanted to take any questions. I finally became agitated and pinpointed one of them to help me to call the hospitals. Eventually a lady called and after a while she said, your wife is not in any of the hospitals. I took it at first as good news. But then I said oh my god, and the administrator heard me and came to me and said you know, she could be among the dead. I said you did not need to tell me that. I turned around and left and went home.

Another person who lost her husband told me this story about a year and a half after the shooting. She used her maiden name, and she didn’t have her marriage certificate. And so she was harassed about even being able to ask for information. Eventually with the support of friends she was listed. Because her husband’s name was somewhere at the top of the alphabet, she was called at 7:30 that evening. There were a lot of people around. She approached the table and in a very loud voice, among all these people standing around, a policeman gave the name of her husband and said he has been killed. Her legs got soft and here’s what she told me:  “I was very vulnerable. And I was not protected from the insensitive individual. At that moment I felt victimized twice.” She turned around and left, walking away down a very long corridor between lines of people, all staring. “I could not cry.”

After I got home a friend came and we immediately got on the phone.  We confirmed that my wife had not been admitted to any of the hospitals.  I said to my friend, crying, “I am ready.”  There was a command center where you could call a hotline and get information, and they were supposed to call me with updates. Never called me. My daughter went to her mom’s bed because she wanted to “smell her”. Then, at 11:30 in the night I received a call from the provost that he and another administrator were coming to see me. I forgot that we moved literally four or five weeks ago and that he would go to the old address, so I called his phone but couldn’t get in touch. Eventually at 12:30 they arrived. The provost was compassionate. And he told me what happened.

The Event

April 16, 2007, was “a bizarre weather day,” Ryan recalled, “an April day with 30 mph winds, snow and paper blowing across campus. The wind can really howl here.”  His colleague, sociology professor James Hawdon, continued with the chronology of that morning:

Cho wakes up early. At about 6:47 a.m. he’s spotted outside West Ambler Johnston dormitory. At 7:02 Emily Hilscher arrives at her dorm room, which was her routine. Over the weekend she would spend time with her boyfriend and he would drop her off on Monday morning. About 7:15 Cho has somehow entered West AJ and he shoots Emily. Ryan Clark, the RA who rooms next to her, hears a commotion, comes over to help her, at least that’s what the police believe, and is also shot. About 7:20 the VT police receive a call. They’re there in about 4 minutes.

According to a revised Review Panel chronology issued in December 2009, university police were quickly joined by officers from the Blacksburg police department and Virginia State Police. At 8:14 a.m. Hilscher’s roommate arrived and told detectives that Emily’s boyfriend owned guns and practiced with them. Almost immediately, Wendell Flinchum, the chief of the Virginia Tech police department, contacted administrators with that new information.  Hawdon continued:

Chief Flinchum informs them that they have a suspect. During this time officers are searching for the boyfriend. They search the parking lots, they’re searching his home, and they cannot find him. They become confident that he had indeed left campus, which he had. At 9:01 Cho is at the Blacksburg post office mailing what becomes the infamous package that he sends to NBC news.  At 9:05 the second period of classes begins. Between 9:15 and 9:30 Cho is spotted outside Norris Hall. This period of time is when he was chaining the doors shut, although no one reports having seen him actually chain the doors up.

At 9:24 the police finally find Emily Hilscher’s boyfriend off campus in his pickup truck. They begin questioning him and at that point begin to get a little concerned. At 9:26 the university administration sent an e-mail to everyone on campus, informing us that there had been a shooting at West Ambler Johnston and urging us to be cautious, to basically stay put. As this is happening, the police perform a residue analysis on Emily Hilscher’s boyfriend. It comes back negative and they now know they have not correctly framed the incident. At the same time Cho goes into Norris Hall and commits the deadliest school shooting to date, killing 30 and wounding 13. He starts shooting at 9:40. At 9:42 the police receive a 911 call, they are there at 9:45. The doors were chained and it took them five minutes to shoot through one of the machine shop doors and enter the building.

My office is about 300 yards from Norris Hall. I have a direct view. There were dozens of officers there by 9:50, Virginia Tech police, Blacksburg police, Montgomery county police and state police. Shortly afterward there were also FBI agents. At this time a second e-mail goes out to the campus, advising that a gunman is loose on campus and everyone should stay in buildings and away from windows. At 9:51 Cho shoots himself. At 10:17 we get a third e-mail saying classes are cancelled and we are told again to stay inside, lock our doors and keep away from the windows. At 10:52 we get another e-mail, informing us for the first time that there were multiple victims at Norris Hall.

Ned Benton pointed out that the timeline lists official communications, but that private, unofficial messages were also an important means of spreading information. Media reports too often reached the campus community well before e-mails from the university administration. Several participants offered examples:

John Ryan: Our executive secretary in our department has a daughter who works in Burruss Hall, and the daughter called with the information about the West AJ shooting probably 20 minutes to a half an hour before the first e-mail came out. Then people in the office started listening to the police scanner…

Megan Armbruster: My brother called me from Denver before I got anything official because CNN was reporting it before anyone else.

Armbruster, who subsequently became recovery coordinator for both the Dean of Students Office and the Division of Student Affairs, recalled that as soon as news of the shootings began to spread,

Families were immediately calling, texting, trying to get hold of their students and eventually 32 families weren’t hearing from their kids or spouses and they started driving to campus. Families of the injured students were going through a similar process. They were calling friends and friends were saying they’re at the hospital. Identifications began and there’s the story of one parent who was calling all over and finally got hold of a nurse who said we don’t have identification or a picture of your son. The mother had a picture of her son on her cell phone and sent it to the nurse on her cell phone so that the nurse could see the picture and say yes, your son’s here at the hospital.