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The Swarm


Editor's note: Gergana Bobeva, a staff reporter for the Commonwealth Times, was misidentified in the print edition.

They died just floors above my head — Ryan Clark and Emily Jane Hilscher.  

As this occurs to me, a student complains about how dingy Virginia Tech's 1970s dorm is relative to VCU's endless new housing.  She points out the mailroom of West Ambler Johnston Hall, as if this visit — prompted by the worst shootings in U.S.  history — was just a run-of-the-mill trip to Tech.  

The dorm floor is quiet, except for little TVs tuned to reporters broadcasting from only a mile away.  

An R.A. says campus police will be interviewing those residents who haven't fled home.  Her cheer is strained, but I marvel that it's even there at all.

Eight hours earlier at my office in Richmond, I find out about the first two shootings.  At the time I decide my newspaper,  The Commonwealth Times, will jump on local angles and run an Associated Press story.  During lunch, however, a former CT editor calls with updates.  Twenty killed.  Thirty killed.  "You need to send someone, Pat," she says.

I step away from our noisy table and start making calls.

I get together three people, including my girlfriend, who is also a reporter.  The power goes out in our office because of the wind, obstructing my attempt to print out the latest news before leaving.

During the drive, it occurs to me that going to high school on a military base in Japan has proven to be a double-edged sword; I don't have friends at Tech to worry about, but I also don't have any friends to network with.  I'm on the outs, just like the international press corps I expect to find camped out.

Blacksburg seems closer than when I visited the university for a college newspaper conference last fall, perhaps because we needed to be there hours ago.  Despite the winds threatening to toss my colleague's SUV off the side of I-81, we arrive, put our game faces on and walk toward the Inn, the campus hospitality hotel where we've been directed, as have all media here, to set up camp.  

I've covered three elections, two General Assembly sessions and the disappearance of Taylor Behl, but this is intimidating.

We're carefully shunted around the back of the building to keep us from nervous and grieving families.  Seemingly every satellite truck on the East Coast has gathered here, spewing out blow-dried talking heads and gruff cameramen.  I hear Japanese, Korean, German, French and Arabic as a never-ending stream of reporters scrambles to find out what's going on.

We head toward campus, slowed by the winds.  The hills are outlined by flashing blue lights atop police cars.  We disappoint hungry reporters left and right by revealing we are one of them rather than the distraught Tech students they seek to interview.  We are useless to them.

We eventually make it to IHOP,  where our nervous waitress, who says this is her first night, feeds table after table of jovial but tired journalists.  I leave a good tip.

Tuesday morning, the press conferences are held in a woefully small room.  We arrive early, get three seats and lose two.  Another Commonwealth Times staff reporter, Gergana Bobeva, stays in the one available seat to blog the latest news.  After the briefing, I find Katie Couric has been given my seat.  I wonder whose numbers she has in the BlackBerry sitting where my laptop was minutes ago.  Probably cooler people than Geraldo, I reflect.  Stand behind Geraldo, my dad had told me earlier on my dying cell phone, but I decide not to.

My news team splits up to seek interviews.  This somehow seems a pleasant option on this sunny,  warm day.  

My colleague Stephen Hicks, a Commonwealth Times staff reporter, stops a guy wearing a Tech hat.  In a split second, he debates whether to do the interview, then decides to talk.  Slain resident assistant Ryan Clark was a fellow marching band member, he tells us, and the band is wearing their uniforms to the convocation.  

By noon, the line for that 2 p.m.  ceremony wraps up and down the hill that Cassell Coliseum overlooks.  Thousands more will be diverted to nearby Lane Stadium, I think, and they soon are.  A man holds up an 8-foot cross by the stadium doors, and photographers swarm around him.  He tells them he's not here to get his picture taken.

Eventually, I make my way into the stadium.  Many sit in the skyboxes, others cover the field.  The sound on the screen is inaudible, soon improved to audible with a terrible echo.  We bake in the sun as Gov.  Tim Kaine and George Bush console us.  I imagine the atmosphere inside Cassell is oppressive without the fresh wind we enjoy here.

Afterward, we stop three members of the etymology department.  They stand behind Virginia Tech President Charles Steger.  The media alone is unfairly criticizing him, they say emphatically and in unison.

We head home before the candlelight vigil on the drillfield so we can get a night's rest.  We've spoken to so many people that I can't imagine uncovering anything but more macabre tales.

The next day,  April 19, we're back in Richmond.  The newsroom is unusually quiet and serious as we cobble together the fourth-to-last paper of the semester.  I interview someone who knew Cho Seung-Hui as a freshman in high school.  He speaks quickly,  quietly.  "No surprise," he says.  "Everybody knew he was capable of doing what he did."  

I put my computer to sleep at 4:38 a.m., reassured we have assembled the best paper possible.

I guess we all found something familiar in Blacksburg: My girlfriend found two old friends, my co-worker found out that fellow Bulgarian students were safe — and I found that no matter how difficult, I really do like this work.  S

Pat Kane is a graduating senior at VCU and executive editor of The Commonwealth Times.

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