Virginia Tech Vigil Draws 30,000

( [email protected] ) Apr 17, 2008 02:22 PM EDT
BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - All day, memorial services large and small were held at Virginia Tech, celebrating the 32 lives cut short by a gunman last year. Perhaps the most powerful came after dark.
Students and mourners hold candles during a candle light ceremony marking the first anniversary of the April 16 2007 shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Wednesday, April 16, 2008. (Photo: AP Images / Don Petersen)

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - All day, memorial services large and small were held at Virginia Tech, celebrating the 32 lives cut short by a gunman last year. Perhaps the most powerful came after dark.

At the end of a solemn and moving candlelight vigil Wednesday night that drew as many as 30,000 people, someone bellowed "LET'S GO!" from one end of the expansive main campus lawn.

"HOKIES!" came the reply from the other end, the start of a chant that grew quickly in volume, and seemed to signal the resiliency of the entire community after a day of horror and a year of healing.

The evening ceremony began with the calling of each victim's name. Students lit candles for each from one ignited 21 hours earlier to signify unity and spirit. They then walked slowly around a semicircle memorial and stood in front of stones representing each victim.

"We stand here today stronger as a community, better as individuals and even more steadfast in our convictions to always keep 32 in our hearts and minds," student government president Adeel Khan said over the public address system.

"For the sons, the daughters, the spouses, the friends and all those that we have lost, we love you, we miss you and we would give anything for you to be with us here today.

"We are Hokies. We are family. And we will always live for 32."

A choir in white sang, buglers played taps and a moment of reflection followed. As the service ended and people were encouraged to linger, the chanting began.

Earlier, in the same space, university president Charles Steger consoled thousands of mourners who turned out for a service that recognized the individuality of the victims.

They recalled Ross Alameddine's passion for performance. Jocelyne Couture-Nowak was dedicated to preserving her French-speaking heritage. Kevin Granata was a visionary scientist. Rachael Hill was a classical pianist. Henry Lee was zany.

"We've searched for meaning in what is incomprehensible. And we have searched for rest in those sleepless hours in the night when the silence is shattered by the barrage of our own thoughts," Steger said. "And we've searched our souls for purpose and direction and peace to calm the turmoil in our hearts and minds. We have not found all that we have sought, but at every turn, we have found each other."

People held back tears during a moment of silence. After the ceremony, bells tolled 32 times.

Trees were planted in front of an honors dormitory in memory of two members of the program who were slain. Several grieving family members as well as students took turns shoveling dirt around a white oak for Austin Cloyd and a sugar maple for Maxine Turner.

Bryan Cloyd said his daughter announced as a youngster, when the family moved to Champaign, Ill., that she was claiming a tree near their new home as a place to read.

Soon afterward, a developer leveled that tree. "I think a tree is a very fitting memorial," said Bryan Cloyd, a Virginia Tech professor.

The gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, a mentally disturbed student, killed two people in a dormitory, then killed 30 more than two hours later in a classroom building before taking his own life. University officials have been criticized for waiting about two hours before informing students and employees about the first shootings, which police initially thought were an act of domestic violence.

Virginia is one of many states that does not require background checks on buyers at gun shows, which opponents say creates easy access to guns for criminals and the mentally ill.

About 50 people laid down in protest of Virginia's gun laws on Wednesday. The protesters stretched out on the grass for three minutes, to symbolize the amount of time they say it takes to buy a gun in Virginia.

Similar "lie-ins" were held at campuses around the country.

Some family members of victims entered War Memorial Chapel early Wednesday for a private service. Other family members of those killed said they couldn't bear to attend the official events and planned to grieve privately.

Associated Press writers Sue Lindsey and Kristen Gelineau contributed to this report.

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