Apr 24, 2007

‘Tech Support’ now has a different meaning

by Marcelo Quarantotto, Life! Editor
Walking on the Virginia Tech campus on April 17, I became sapient to the horrible silence that hung in the air. People looked at one another with knowing eyes and head nods in memory of the events that had taken place less than 30 hours earlier.

The wind whipped through fast enough to catch the maroon and orange tears before they splattered against the pavement — tears that came from a grief-stricken young woman who pleaded with a state trooper to grant her entrance into Cassell Coliseum. The Coliseum was already overflowing with mourners more than an hour before the convocation began.

Black Suburban after black van after flag-carrying black suburban passed by the lot that myself and the rest of my press team — Photography Editor Alex Towers, News Editor Joanne Tang and Opinion Editor Hilary Dyer — stood upon. Inside these appropriately-colored vehicles, among others, were members of the Secret Service, President George Bush and his wife, Laura.

The President and his wife, as he later stated in the convocation service, arrived on campus “with hearts full of sorrow.”

The sorrow expressed by the President was met with the somber despair of the young men and women who knew the deceased as friends, roommates, siblings and classmates. We waited until the Secret Service gave the O.K. to the police for the crowd to cross the street separating Cassell from Lane Stadium.

Once we were given permission, the streets came to life as mourners lined up and walked towards the campus with quiet strides and a moderate pace while members of the press sprinted alongside the road. We walked against the flow towards Cassell in hopes that we could enter the building with our press passes that were still sticky from the fresh layer of purple glue applied to the Wingate Inn door keys that stabilized our pictures.

No entry. We tried getting in for about a half hour but got tired after we were sent back and forth between the same doors. The stadium seemed our best bet.

By the time we arrived at Lane, Governor Tim Kaine was being introduced. Walking up the bleachers directly in front of the broadcasting screen — normally used to show plays from the football games — I could see a silent sea of maroon and orange, rocking back and forth while embracing each other, sniffling or sitting stone stiff with glossy-eyed stares directed towards the governor, who praised the members of the Virginia Tech community for their strength and togetherness.

Bush walked on stage in an unassuming suit and tie ensemble to address the grieving masses with a speech that was as well received as if it were delivered to a crowd comprised entirely of his supporters. After talking to the students with a rhetoric that made him appear to be speaking to a group of his peers and/or the children of his close friends, audience members stood and clapped in appreciation for their Chief of State.

Before media personnel and convocation attendees began strolling around campus, the group I came with decided to walk around campus and visit the various sites that housed the tragic events from the previous day. We watched as mourners signed the memorial and listened to students talked in hushed voices about a roommate who was in the hospital and how friends were granted visitation rights to see their suffering classmates.

7:15 p.m. While people gathered around a flagpole between Burris Hall and the Drill Field where the candlelight vigil was to be held, members of the press gabbed on cell phones. Others asserted words like “Mic!” while stubbly cameramen videotaped and well-garbed broadcasters leaned in over the circle of bowed heads and clasped hands that sang the chorus of “Amazing Grace.”

Alex and Joanne split from Hilary and me to take shots from within the higher floors of Burris Hall of the gathering mourners and (eventually) a field of candles lit in opposition to the darkening sky.  As we waited for their return, few words were exchanged. Nothing either of us could have said would have made any sense. I brought a book but was unable to read. The only thing I could bring myself to do was to sit between the white paper bags that contained a handful of sand and a candle with an aching heart and eyes too sad for tears, staring at the candle pushed though the bottom of a waxed Pepsi cup in my hands.

As the time neared 8 p.m., Hilary gave Alex a call to inform them of our relocation to the field. We walked through media personnel who waved to each other and talked on hip-holstered cell phones above the volume of the despairing murmur. Once on the field, we lit our candles next to a group of students — one of whom talked about a guy who lived across the hall from him during his freshman year who was shot multiple times the day before and had enough composure about him to fashion a tourniquet out of some electrical wire he found in the classroom to prevent blood from escaping the bullet-torn artery in his leg.

A voice crackled though the speakers and thanked everyone for coming. With candles upraised, the sense of pride and camaraderie was overwhelming.

I could not help admiring their school spirit. I could sense that everyone wanted to be there and did not look forward to having to part ways with the stone-adorned campus.

“Amazing Grace” was again sung across the Drill Field as well as “America the Beautiful” while students hugged each other and sobbed. But instead of dwelling on the horror that existed in the wake of that egregious day, mourners celebrated the strength of their community.

“LET’S GO!!!”
“LET’S GO!!!”
“LET’S GO!!!”

The embracing army of friends bellowed war cries more familiar to athletic events, but the intensity was unparalleled. The volume was loud not to the point of merely offending your ears — rather, the voices thudded within your chest. Alex later said that they were chanting louder than he had ever heard at one of the school’s football games.

Walking away from the scene, the yowling wind flapped the collar on my leather jacket and cut though my flesh, but I still felt warm. We were given some hot chocolate by a man standing outside of a Salvation Army truck who smiled and said, “God bless you,” to everyone that he caught eyes with.

I felt disoriented. Few things in my life have I experienced so vividly or have felt more real. I was physically tired and, emotionally, I had nothing left. I climbed back into Alex’s Xterra as the leaves applauded and maroon and orange tears were collected in the air all across America.

Contact Marcelo Quarantotto at mquarantotto@liberty.edu.

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