Saturday, April 21, 2007
'I was supposed to be in class'
A student who skipped Monday tackled guilt and confusion after hearing about the shootings.
Photo by Jared Soares | The Roanoke Times
Virginia Tech junior Phillip Johnson slept in instead of attending professor Liviu Librescu’s mechanics class on Monday. Librescu died in the shootings.
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BLACKSBURG -- First there was guilt, then sorrow and confusion.
And now, a breath of fresh air for Phillip Johnson, a junior engineering, science and mechanics major at Virginia Tech.
He should have been there, in Professor Liviu Librescu's solid mechanics class, where Seung-Hui Cho opened fire.
But Johnson, from Virginia, made a decision he has made many times before: He slept in.
It was 7:30 a.m. when Johnson's alarm first woke him. He had only been asleep for about five hours. It was a cold, windy Monday morning, just a few weeks before the end of the year.
He turned off the alarm and awoke again at 8:30 to prepare for a later class, also in Norris.
As he left the apartment, Johnson's roommate mentioned there were rumors circulating about something happening in West Ambler Johnston Hall, where Johnson later learned that students Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark had been shot.
Ignoring the rumor, Johnson made the short drive from his off-campus apartment on Patrick Henry Drive.
He arrived on campus but didn't make it out of the parking lot before a fellow student warned him to turn around. Something was going down on campus, Johnson recalled thinking, but he wrote it off as another bomb threat.
So Johnson called a friend from the class he had just skipped, who told him that something had happened in the room adjacent to Librescu's class.
"There wasn't any panic in his voice, he wasn't talking fast or anything, he sounded normal," Johnson said. "So it didn't tip me off that anything serious had happened."
The classmate neglected to tell Johnson that he had just leaped from a second-story window, along with about 10 other classmates, landing hard on his ribs.
"I figured there had been a bomb threat or something and they had cleared out of the building," Johnson recalled. "I could hear sirens everywhere."
Johnson drove home. He watched the news accounts reporting one dead and several injured in a dormitory shooting.
"We were upset about it, but it wasn't that serious," he remembered thinking.
Soon enough, Johnson was watching CNN reports that there had been 22 confirmed deaths. Confusion set in.
Johnson chalked the number up to a media mistake. It was impossible, he told himself.
Soon enough, Johnson's instant messaging program was up and running, with friends informing him that two of his close buddies had been shot and injured and that Librescu was dead.
"It all went to hell at once," Johnson said.
He felt guilty.
"I was supposed to be in class anyway," he said. "I wanted to be there for my friends."
Johnson didn't piece together the entire puzzle of events until Wednesday, when his fellow majors came together to talk about what happened.
That was when Johnson's pain turned to relief, as classmates thanked him for sleeping in.
"That made me feel a lot better about the whole situation," he said. "If I had been there, I either would have been shot at or gone out a second-story window."
But Johnson wasn't the only one who skipped his class in Norris that day.
Johnson recalled his class as having 25 people, including Librescu and two women who helped a hearing-impaired student, and said that only about 16 were present Monday.
"We are very fortunate for that," he said.
Over the past week, Johnson has heard stories of what really happened. He recalled learning that one friend jumped out the window and broke his leg. He was taken to the hospital on a bus.
Even so, Johnson rests assured that he, along with the rest of the survivors, are fortunate.
"It could have been a lot worse for that class," he said.