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Virginia Tech students return to classes

The students returned after a disturbed classmate killed 33 in mass shooting.

world Updated: Apr 24, 2007 12:05 IST

Crying, hugging, many still clearly shaken, thousands of Virginia Tech students were heading back to classes on Monday one week after a disturbed classmate killed 33 in the country's worst-ever mass shooting.

Virtually empty since classes were cancelled after Cho Seung-Hui blasted his way through a dormitory and a classroom building on April 16, the campus in this rural southern Virginia town filled up late on Sunday as students, many with their parents, returned to the university.

First-year student Adriana Gonzalez said she was unnerved by the prospect of resuming class on Monday, after having been locked down in her classroom building one week earlier as Cho blasted his way through Norris Hall just next door before killing himself.

"Tomorrow I have to take the same route as last Monday" to class, Gonzalez said shortly after driving back from her home in Alexandria, Virginia near Washington.

David Anderson, a graduate student from Massachusetts, said he welcomed the occasion to get back to work and get the tragedy out of his mind.

"It's been real hard getting motivated this week," he said.

At 9:45 (1345 GMT) Monday the university will stop for a moment of silence, then the tolling of 32 bells and the release of 32 white balloons, one for each of Cho's victims, and then a thousand more in the university's omnipresent maroon and orange colours.

After a week of some of the most intense media attention ever seen in the United States, the university banned reporters and television cameras from classrooms on Monday, aiming to let the students and professors begin to deal with the massacre away from scrutiny.

On Sunday under warm, sunny skies at the drillfield at the center of campus, hundreds of students, parents and alumni lined up to pay their respects to the dead, represented by a semicircle of 33 stones -- including one for Cho -- piled high with flowers, candles, American flags and mementos from softballs brought by a visiting team to stuffed animals.

Despite the huge crowd there was only a respectful murmur, and occasional sobs, across the sprawling green-carpeted commons, which students say is normally lively and noisy when the weather is good.

But elsewhere the campus students were more boisterous, playing volleyball, tossing frisbees and taking in lacrosse, baseball and softball games between Virginia Tech's teams and other universities.

Many said they were determined to get back to their studies and complete the school year in just over two weeks on a positive note.

"It was a break that we needed," said Matt Manousoff, a first-year student from Frederick, Maryland. "But I'm looking forward to finishing out the year."

Freshman Morgan Whitehead, who spent the weekend at home in Orange, Virginia, was determined to be back on campus.

"There is nowhere I would rather be than Blacksburg," he said. "I have never been more proud to attend Virginia Tech." Many at the university still expressed dismay that South Korea-born, US-raised Cho, 23 and an English major, was able to buy two handguns after having been recognized by professors and police and mentally disturbed.

"It's a national tragedy and at the end of the day, I think out of this tragedy, there may be lessons learned that have national applications," said retired police superintendent Gerald Massengill, who has been tasked with heading up the Virginia state's inquiry into the massacre.

But that did not likely mean tighter controls on gun sales, despite criticism that Cho, who had been held by police two years ago as mentally disturbed, was nevertheless easily able to buy the handguns he used in his shooting spree.

"This is a huge nail in the coffin of gun control," Philip Van Cleave, president of the gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defence League, said.

"They had gun control on campus and it got all those people killed, because nobody could defend themselves," he said, supporting the view that had another student been armed, he may have been able to shoot Cho and stop the rampage.