PRINCETON — As Virginia Tech and a nation struggled to understand the deadliest school rampage in U.S. history, some of the agony turned to anger this week.

While Virginia Tech administrators and authorities emphasized they could not have anticipated 23-year-old Cho Sueng-Hui would open fire, kill 32 classmates and turn the gun on himself, questions about proper procedure and the possibility of saved lives came fast and furious as the Blacksburg investigation unfolded.

But, as onlookers second-guessed the decisions made on the Virginia Tech campus Monday morning, local law enforcement officials said the nature of the massacre and the man behind it made predicting the best course of action nearly impossible.

“When you’ve got somebody that’s run amok, shooting, killing, whatever, you don’t know what they’re going to do next,” Princeton Police Det. Sgt. C.N. Poe said.

Now, authorities know that Cho Sueng-Hui and whatever internal shadows propelled him indeed ran amok and took 32 innocent people with him Monday, but at the time, they believed the first shootings were likely isolated and domestic in nature. Witness information led them to believe the shooter had left campus after killing Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark just before 7:15 a.m. in West Ambler Johnston Residence Hall.

They followed eyewitness reports to a “person of interest” who was located off campus.

By 7:30 a.m., authorities had closed the residence hall and advised students remaining in the building that housed 895 coeds to stay in their rooms.

Authorities did not cancel classes or close campus entrances to the 2,600 acres that create Virginia Tech.

Princeton Police Chief W.L. Harman said VT and Blacksburg authorities handled the situation as officers everywhere are trained to treat an isolated incident.

“Any shooting, if the person [shooter] is still there, you try to contain the area,” Harman said.

In this instance, he said officers’ information was limited to the basics.

“They had victims. They had a person of interest,” he said.

Armed with that knowledge and witness statements that a thin man with black hair had shot the two students, Harman said he believed the investigating officers reached a reasonable conclusion.

He also cautioned that closing the sprawling Virginia Tech campus would not be an easy task, especially with the number of officers that likely responded to the first two shootings.

“You have to consider the size of Virginia Tech. It’s probably close to the size of Princeton,” he said. “...The whole Virginia Tech campus was not a crime scene at that time.”

Closing the whole campus and continuing an investigation would be extremely difficult, Harman said.

With that said though, the police chief said the decision to keep the campus open was shared by both the law enforcement officials and the Virginia Tech administration.

“It could be either. The president could shut it down, or he could shut it down on the request of the investigators,” Harman said.

Neither party opted to close Virginia Tech.

At 9:26 a.m., university staff and students were sent an e-mail telling them two people had died in West Ambler Johnston and asked them to report suspicious activity.

By 9:45 a.m., Cho had entered Norris Hall, chained the main entrance doors and opened fire on unsuspecting students and instructors.

Poe said he couldn’t imagine the circumstances the people inside Norris Hall faced or the carnage officers found when they broke through the barriers and approached the second floor classrooms. He said one report indicated there were 29 rounds of ammunition fired in 30 seconds.

“That’s absolutely unreal,” Poe said.

The detective said surveillance would have been a huge aid to investigators attempting to define the situation.

“That would have been the biggest asset — to have had monitors so somebody could have seen what was happening,” he said.

That could have also been risky, Poe said, because someone would have been forced to square off against Cho and his arsenal in order to subdue the suspect. Given the fact that he was obviously willing to die, that encounter would have been extremely difficult to control.

By approximately 10 a.m., Cho had killed 32 people and himself. Tech officials closed campus and ordered a lockdown on all buildings.

As the horrifying story and more about the shooter and his victims emerged, the nation watched transfixed.

“It’s just sad. The families are going to be the ones that suffer,” Poe said.

Even amid that suffering, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said the grieving families, and their university, needed answers. At the request of VT administrators, Kaine pledged to establish a panel to investigate the security actions taken by VT officials, and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin considered a statewide review of campus security.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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