By Tonia Moxley, Mary Hardbarger and Amy Matzke-Fawcett
A Virginia Tech gun scare raised international interest in minutes Thursday as the campus was alerted and secured, police went on a search and a sketch of a suspect was produced.
But as the day wore on and media inquiries came from stateside and abroad, no evidence was turned up of a safety threat -- a situation that started about 9 a.m. That's when three teenage girls reported that they'd seen a man possibly carrying a gun near Dietrick Dining Hall, university officials said. The girls were on campus as part of Higher Achievement, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that sponsors academic programs for at-risk middle school students.
On the campus that experienced the April 16, 2007, shooting tragedy, officials acted quickly Thursday morning. Thousands were going to class, working and attending summer camps -- even though the fall semester won't start until later this month.
"In this day and age, we don't think we had any other choice than to send an alert," Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said, also adding that "it's simply the world we live in today . . . communicate first, investigate later."
Hincker also said several times Thursday upon media questioning that "the most important thing we can try to do is contextualize this information."
Officers from five police agencies, including state troopers, responded to the campus upon the report Thursday morning but found no evidence of a gunman despite searching for hours on foot and in vehicles.
Police planned to maintain a large and active presence, including continued patrols on campus through Thursday evening, Tech Chief Wendell Flinchum said.
The university sent out alerts via outdoor loudspeakers, text message, blast email, desktop alert, phone messages, the vt.edu homepage, Twitter, Facebook and electronic classroom signs. Those on campus were warned to remain indoors, starting just after 9:30 a.m. The alert was lifted about 2:40 p.m.
"Every one of our alert systems worked without a glitch," Hincker said.
Police later issued the composite sketch of a person of interest -- a white male with close-cropped light-brown hair said to be 6 feet tall and wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt, gray shorts and brown sandals.
No surveillance video was available around the site where the man was first reported to be seen. No cameras are installed in the area between Dietrick and New Residence Hall East, Hincker said.
Late in the day, Tech President Charles Steger released a statement in which he said "we suggest that you remain vigilant for possible threats. Maintain awareness of your surroundings and circumstances."
State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was "working with law enforcement to investigate the situation that happened at Virginia Tech this morning," spokesman Brian Gottstein wrote in an email Thursday
Tech officials, with help from Cuccinelli's office, are appealing $55,000 in fines by the United States Department of Education, which found that the university violated the federal Clery Act in failing to immediately warn the campus of the early morning start of the 2007 shootings, in which two students were killed in West Ambler Johnston Hall. The gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, then opened fire about two hours later in Norris Hall, killing 30 more people before committing suicide. The parents of two women slain in Norris are suing the university for a total of $20 million.
Soon after the alert was issued Thursday, campus was quiet. Check-in booths at New Residence Hall East were deserted, with papers, pens and a soccer ball left behind. Police patrolled the area, and students peered out from study lounge windows.
Engineering student J.D. Robertson said he was in class when he saw the alert flash across an electronic message board.
"It was all the way across campus, so I wasn't too concerned," he said of the incident.
Robertson was a sophomore in high school on April 16, 2007, and said he remembered news reports of the tragedy.
"It does conjure up the image, but a lot has changed since then," Robertson said. "There are a lot of new security measures in place."
Chris Moon, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering and a member of the wrestling team, was in the weight room in Cassell Coliseum when he overheard people talking about the warning. It caused him little concern.
"I was really just hoping my class got canceled," he said. "It seemed like the police had it under control."
While many people stayed indoors or away from campus, some did not.
Sean Gart, an engineering mechanics student who lives in Salem, said after learning that young teens had made the initial report, he thought it was "most likely a misunderstanding" and came to campus to meet a friend.
Bob Prout, executive director of the All-Arts, Sciences & Technology Camp, was on the Drillfield with his group of campers when the chaos erupted. The campers, ages 11-15, were about to launch small rockets they had made when the sirens ushered them inside to safety.
"Everybody sort of just melded away into the scenery," Prout said.
But the director said he decided to stay behind on the Drillfield to keep a watchful eye on his rockets as he answered calls from concerned parents.
A law-abiding citizen may carry a firearm on the Tech campus under state law. Universities may ban firearms in campus buildings and at campus events, according to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The court noted in a January ruling that such bans must be narrowly tailored, and may not apply to the general campus grounds.
Tech's weapons policy, in effect for at least the past 20 years, bans "unauthorized" possession of a firearm in campus buildings, residence halls or events such as football games. Students living on campus may store legally owned firearms and some ammunition at the campus police department, according to the policy.
But in July, Cuccinelli opined that while universities may prohibit the open carry of handguns in buildings and at events, the carrying of concealed weapons by state permit holders may not be curtailed anywhere on campus.
That opinion has not been tested by the courts, and was condemned Thursday by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
April 16th survivor and Tech alumnus Colin Goddard works as a Brady Campaign lobbyist.
There was a reminder Thursday, though, that gun scares are not limited to college campuses.
Montgomery County sheriff's deputies and Christiansburg police searched Thursday morning for a man reported to be carrying a gun near the county health department -- 9 miles away from the Tech campus.
The matter was investigated, but no threat was found, town spokeswoman Becky Wilburn said.
Staff writer Lerone Graham contributed to this report.