Tears were shed on the Drillfield today as people gathered beneath a clear sky to remember Virginia Tech's darkest day. But earlier on that same lawn, at the heart of campus, there was cheering as more than 4,000 participants completed a run/walk in memory of the 32 students or faculty members who were lost on April 16, 2007.
In his speech at a noon commemoration on the Drillfield, Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger told the thousands watching that the day was a time to celebrate life as well as to mourn tragedy. The accomplishments of those 32 people should be an inspiration for members of the university community to make the most of their own lives moving forward, he urged.
The second Day of Remembrance started with a ceremonial candle being lighted on the Drillfield and ended with that candle being put out. In between, a wide range of events allowed people to comfort each other, or to reflect in peace. At sundown the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets conducted a silent drill at the memorial, after which candles were distributed to the crowd for a vigil.
At 8 a.m. a crowd estimated at more than 4,000 gathered near on the Alumni Mall near North Main Street for the 3.2 Mile Run in Remembrance, which ended in front of the April 16 Memorial in front of Burruss Hall.
At a signal from organizers, the buzzing crowd silenced and 32 translucent balloons were released. Well over a minute later, with those balloons barely visible far above Torgersen Bridge, participants let go of thousands of orange or maroon ballons and started running, shouting “let’s go Hokies!” as they went.
Dozens of people stood along the course to cheer or take pictures. Kristen Hashagen, a senior from Waynesboro, stood on a stone wall, supporting herself on a crutch while she snapped photographs. An injury to her left knee suffered playing kickball kept her from running, but not from showing up. “I just wanted to support not only the 32 Hokies, but also the people running and walking in honor of them,” said Hashagen, who is majoring in interdisciplinary studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
Freshman Kelly Makris, of Westborough, Mass., said that even though she was not here two years ago “it’s my school now, so I feel a part of the Hokie community, the Hokie Nation.”
She added, “I haven’t run 3.2 miles in a while, but it was necessary. It was for a good cause.”
Along with runners like Makris and photographers like Hashagen, there were a few people like Durelle Scott, who wanted to both participate in the event and capture it. He carried a large Nikon camera with him as he ran, occasionally twisting around to shoot pictures of the runners behind him.
“I didn’t run into anybody,” said Scott, who lives in Blacksburg and is an assistant professor of biological systems engineering in the College Agriculture and Life Sciences. “There was one [near] encounter with a curb, but I managed to jump.”
The mood on the Drillfield was much more somber a few hours later, as people arrived to honor the 32 in a different way. Instead of running, they stood, heads bowed, as each victim’s name was read, followed by words about their accomplishments, interests, or aspirations.
Afterward, people were invited to remain on the Drillfield and many did. Some played Frisbee, others football. Some went into the War Memorial Chapel to reflect. There was a large tent set up in the middle of the field to make first aid, water, and counseling available. But Christopher Flynn, director of the university’s Thomas E. Cook Counseling Center, said few people sought counseling there. He said the run/walk seemed to have set an optimistic tone for the day, and said the good weather probably helped, too.
Later in the afternoon 50 people, including some family members of people who died or were injured two years ago, lay down on the Drillfield to draw attention to their push for tougher limits on selling firearms at gun shows.
Elsewhere on campus, there were other opportunities for people to reflect on the events of two years ago. Slideshows of images from the days after April 16, 2007, were on display in the Squires Student Center and the Holtzman Alumni Center, as were some of the many items, such as quilts, that were sent here in sympathy by people nationwide.
In Squires, Erin Miller, a junior from Stanhope, N.J., who is majoring in accounting in the Pamplin College of Business, stopped in front of pastel portraits of the 32 victims that had recently been hung prominently on the second floor. “That’s really beautiful,” she said. The portraits are by Elizabeth Wallace, an artist from Southern California.
Last year’s Day of Remembrance featured a dance performance in memory of Reema Samaha, a freshman who was among those lost on April 16, 2007. That performance drew too many people for the Haymarket Theatre in Squires, so for this year it was moved to the university’s largest stage, in Burruss Hall.
Samaha was passionate about dance, belonged to several dance organizations, and choreographed one of the numbers that was to be performed in Burruss, Corrina Matlock, a director in the group organizing the show, said shortly before the performance began.
“We just feel like we’re honoring her, and she’s still there dancing with us,” said Matlock, a senior from Fairfax who is majoring in finance in the Pamplin College of Business. “It’s powerful, and therapeutic.”
Commemorative ceremonies were also held at several of Virginia Tech’s locations away from Blacksburg, including the National Capital Region campus in Alexandria, where officials planted a magnolia tree.
“In the coming years this magnolia will grow to become a magnificent and beautiful tree,” said Jim Bohland, vice president and executive director for the National Capital Region. “We can never forget those in whose honor it was planted. But, the tree also affirms that our future is about growth and the contributions we make to society.”