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Virginia Tech students make somber return to class

By Justin Pope

Associated Press

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Thousands of Virginia Tech students and faculty filled the center of campus today to pay solemn tribute to the victims of the campus — pausing for moments of silence on the day classes resumed a week after a student gunman killed 32 people.

Mourners met at the main campus lawn, listening quietly as a bell rung for each of the 32 victims of gunman Seung-Hui Cho, and watched as 32 white balloons were released into the air in their memory.

An antique, 850-pound brass bell was installed on a limestone rostrum for the occasion, brought to Virginia Tech from the city of Salem. The chimes of the bell echoed through the campus covered with memorials and tributes to the students, including flowers, writings and candles.

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The moment of silence began at 9:45 a.m., around the time when Cho killed 30 students and faculty members in a classroom building before committing suicide. Today’s tribute lasted 11 minutes, as the bell rang for each of the victims. Each of the balloons was tied with an orange and maroon ribbon.

As the crowd broke up, people started to chant, "Let’s Go Hokies" several times.

"I thought last week as time goes by that I could forget this tragic incident," graduate student Sijung Kim said. "But as time goes by I find I cannot forget."

A moment of silence was also observed at about 7:15 a.m., near the dormitory where the first victims, Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher, were killed.

In front of the dorm, a small marching band from Alabama played "America the Beautiful" and carried a banner that read, "Alabama loves VT Hokies. Be strong, press on."

Afterward, a group of students and campus ministers brought 33 white prayer flags — one for each of the dead, including the gunman — from the dorm to the school’s War Memorial Chapel. They placed the flags in front of the campus landmark and adorned them with pastel-colored ribbons as the Beatles’ song "The Long and Winding Road" played through loudspeakers.

Making choices

"You could choose to either be sad, or cheer up a little and continue the regular routine," said student Juan Carlos Ugarte, 22. "Right now, I think all of us need to cheer up."

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Ugarte, a senior from Bolivia, wrote a message on a yellow ribbon for one of the victims, Reema Samaha. "God will forever be with you. I will always pray for you, and remember."

Andy Koch, a former roommate of the gunman, was among the many students who remembered the shooting today. "Last night, I didn’t sleep much," he said.

On the main campus lawn stood a semicircle of stones — 33 chunks of locally quarried limestone to remember each person who died in the rampage.

Letter to Cho

Someone left a laminated letter at Cho’s stone, along with a lit purple candle.

"Cho, you greatly underestimated our strength, courage and compassion. You have broken our hearts, but you have not broken our spirits. We are stronger and prouder than ever. I have never been more proud to be a Hokie. Love, in the end, will always prevail. Erin J."

University officials were not sure how many students planned to be back today. Virginia Tech is allowing students to drop classes without penalty or to accept their current grades if they want to spend the rest of the year at their parents’ homes grieving last week’s campus massacre.

But whatever decisions they make academically, many students say they will do their mourning on campus — and that they can’t imagine staying away now.

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"I want to go back to class just to be with the other students. If you just left without going back to classes, you would just go home and keep thinking about it," said Ryanne Floyd, who returned to campus after spending most of last week with her family and avoiding news coverage of the tragedy. "At least here, being with other students, we can get some kind of closure."

Students began returning as more details about the rampage emerged. Dr. William Massello, the assistant state medical examiner in Roanoke, said Cho died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head after firing enough shots to wound his victims more than 100 times.

But there was nothing unusual about Cho’s autopsy, he said, and nothing that indicated any psychological problems that might explain his reason for the killings.

Associated Press Writers Vicki Smith, Allen G. Breed, Adam Geller and Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.

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