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Heaven turns hell

Prasun Bhattacharjee, a fifth-year PhD student at Virginia Tech, sent this first-person account to The Telegraph.

I was on campus when the massacre happened. I teach two undergraduate freshman economics classes of 150 students each. The economics department is in Pamplin Hall which is just 2 minutes from Norris Hall (where most of the victims were killed).

Norris Hall is an engineering and science building but the classrooms here are used for all general classes and I remember teaching a big freshman class of 150 students in Norris in the Fall of 2005. So the incident at Norris Hall sent a chill through my spine.

I went to campus at 9 in the morning as I was scheduled to teach my first class at 10.10. The campus looked no different than the other Mondays (although later we came to know that the first shooting in one of the dorms had taken place already at 7.15 in the morning). It was too windy with winds gusting as high as 45 mph and I tried to make my way as fast as possible from the parking lot to my department building.

Before class, I had office hours and there were two students who stopped by my office around 9.15. While I was in the middle of explaining a few questions from the problem sets, one of my friends stopped by my office and informed me that there was a campus email about some shooting incident that took place in one of the dorms.

I was a bit confused whether to have classes or not because the email didnít sound as if there was something really so disturbing going on. Then I went to the department office and discussed with the graduate secretary about possibilities of cancelling classes. Around that time the second email came in.

Still the email didnít say whether classes were still on or not. By that time students started emailing me, asking about whether to show up for classes or not. Immediately I decided that I canít really put 300 students that I teach at risk and sent out an email cancelling classes. This was my email sent out to the students

Subject: Econ 2005 ó Classes cancelled today

Mon 4/16/2007 9:59 AM

Hi All,

Because of the shooting incident on campus, we wonít have classes today.

Best,

Prasun.

I went to the classroom where I teach and thought if any of the students turned up already, I would let them know that we werenít going to have classes. There were about 10 students in the classroom and I informed them of the cancellation. I went back to my office and I was still confused with what was going on.

Although we came to know later that by that time the second shooting had taken place, we had no idea about what was going on outside the building. Since the wind was blowing so hard, all I could listen were some indistinct rambling speeches in loudspeakers which might have been police warning the students who were still walking on the campus.

Then came the next email.

Still we had no idea about what was going on and I saw many students inside the Pamplin Hall (my building) and came to know that they had locked down the buildings. Then the next email.

Still we didnít have an idea about the magnitude of the incident since no numbers were reported.

Around 12 pm, we received another email about evacuating the campus. I had called my parents back in Calcutta early in the morning and told them not to worry. By the time I reached home, I figured out that the news was no longer a local one but had shocked the entire world.

I immediately called my parents once more. My mom started crying over the phone and I tried my best to comfort them from this far away.

The main criticism in the media has been the timeline of the events and the timeline of the warnings sent out to the students on campus. I canít really blame the university for two reasons. First, Blacksburg is one of the best small university towns in the picturesque setting of the Blue Ridge mountains where I have stayed for five years by now.

During my stay the only crime I have heard about is traffic violation and I know friends who have confidently left their apartment doors unlocked and still no incidents of burglary and theft.

I have been boasting to my friends over the years that although our town doesnít have the features of a big city, it is one of the best places for any academic activity because of the safe and peaceful setting. So this is the last thing one expected to happen in Blacksburg.

Further, one must remember how spread-out and large the campus is and the number of students, faculty and staff total more than 36,000. On a typical Monday morning, with classes starting as early as 8 am, by 9 am the campus looks as busy as one of the office areas like Dalhousie in Calcutta with people and cars all over the place.

It might be easy to put the blame directly on the university authority due to the two-hour gap between these two incidents. But once we put ourselves in the shoes of the university officials, we can understand how difficult things might have been on their part, too.

I have spoken to all my friends by now and everyone is safe. As a matter of coincidence, I was about to teach classes of 150 students in a building which is two minutes away from the place where the incident happened and my class was due to begin in the next 20 minutes.

My heart goes out to all the near and dear ones of the deceased and those injured in this tragic incident.

I am in too much shock and trauma right now. All I can say is that this incident shouldnít put down the credibility of our university which is renowned for its academic excellence and hopefully all the student community here would be able to recover from this tragic massacre and get their lives back to normal.

Teaching large undergraduate classes for the past three years, I was a little bit concerned whether any of the students involved in this incident was a past student of mine or not. That was really difficult to find out since they hadnít officially released any names then.

But just now (Tuesday morning) I spoke to a colleague of mine who is also a PhD student like me and teaching large freshman economics classes. Once the name of the shooter was released, he pulled out his grade sheets from earlier years and identified him as one of his past students. He scored an A ó in his class.

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