BLACKSBURG, Va. -- The 32 stones that lie in a semicircle in front of Burruss Hall were not here last April 16, the morning of the worst school shooting in U.S. history. But one year later, they sat appropriately at the heart of Virginia Tech's campus, each one commemorating a life taken in the day's tragic events.
Yesterday, thousands of mourners and community members came to see the stones, leaving flowers and notes for those taken from them, remembering what was lost, and thinking about what could have been.
More than 10,000 community members attended the university's commemoration, forming a sea of maroon and orange t-shirts and hoodies on the campus drill field. Though 12 months have passed since the tragedy, the emotions in this tight-knit college town still appear to be running high.
"Neither the heat of summer nor the winds of winter has relieved our pain," University President Charles Steger told the crowd. "So, just as we have turned to each other for comfort so many times over the past months, it is fitting that we gather today to support one another again."
Under a clear blue sky, audience members reflected the day's somber mood in different ways. Victims' families sat holding hands in folding chairs set up at the front of the lawn. Elderly couples hugged in their Hokie windbreakers. Young men cried behind their sunglasses, and a large group of girls wore matching shirts commemorating a lost sorority sister. It's has been a year that, while difficult, has brought the community closer together.
"It has been a hard journey indeed," Steger said. "We have searched for answers. We have searched for meaning in what is incomprehensible. And we have searched for rest in those sleepless hours in the night when the silence has been shattered by the barrage of our own thoughts.
"We have not found all that we have sought, but at every turn, we have found each other."
Each victim's name was called out along with a short description of the person's interests, accomplishments and personality. There was the international studies major who had bought his mother a home and dreamed of bringing people together to make a peaceful world.
There was the aspiring nanotechnology biochemist who loved shopping for shoes and hanging out with her family.
There was the avid soccer player who had explored water purity in Peru, the tenor drum player in the university cadet band and the young woman who called her parents everyday. After all 32 names had been called, the crowd honored those lost with about 20 seconds of silence.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine closed the ceremony by talking about his sorrow and sympathy for the families of victims, pride and admiration for the university community and a sense of lost promise for the lives of those taken too soon.
"The world was cheated on April 16 a year ago -- cheated out of the accomplishments that were sure to come out of these extraordinary lives," he said. Kaine said that if there was a lesson to learn from this tragedy, it was realizing the brevity of life and using our time to help and touch the lives of others.
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"The best memorial we can have is to live that mission," he said. The governor had called for a statewide day of remembrance and ordered the state flag flown at half-staff.
When the ceremony concluded, students and community members lined up for their turn to reflect and pray in front of the 32 stone monuments that lie in a semi-circle overlooking the Drillfield. Some knelt down and wept. Others left mementos such as baseball caps and a handwritten letters. Many could only stare at the names engraved in the stones with a look of disbelief.
By noon, the somber mood had somewhat lightened, as the Drillfield filled up with students tossing Frisbees and footballs, playing guitar and enjoying lunch with friends. The dining hall was crowded and vibrant and, despite the canceled classes, students busily hustled in and out of the library. It was the anniversary of a tragedy, but many students tried to enjoy it like it was just another college afternoon.
"We're trying not to get too caught up in all of it," said sophomore Nick Boyer, who spent the day playing volleyball and grilling with his friends. Most students said they would attend the evening's candlelight vigil, but many wanted the class-free afternoon to be a time away from stress, mourning and, most of all, the media.
"A lot of people are still angry with the national media after last year," senior Andrew Abate said. "We understand why they're here, but we just wish they'd be a little more respectful."
With last year's shootings still fresh in people's minds, the Virginia Tech community is trying to find the balance between honoring the victims and moving the university forward. Senior Alison St. Onge, who lost her best friend in the attacks, said while the day's events were at times difficult to get through, it was important to show respect for the friends the community lost on April 16 of last year.
"Nothing can bring them back," she said. "But through us, they can still live on"
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