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Pine-Richland grad survives Va. Tech shootings

| Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Hilary Clare Strollo, a 2006 honors graduate of Pine-Richland High School, became the unwitting target of a lone gunman who bathed the Virginia Tech campus in blood Monday morning.

Strollo, a freshman majoring in biological sciences, underwent surgery for her wounds and is expected to recover, friends and Pine-Richland school officials said.

"I was told she was shot in the stomach. I got word that she is out of surgery and doing OK," said 2006 Pine-Richland graduate Brandon Morgan, a friend of Strollo and a fellow freshman at Virginia Tech.

Laura Davis, principal at Pine-Richland, described Strollo as "delightful." She said Strollo was a member of the National Honor Society and "a model student."

"She was liked by everybody. She was always very friendly, always smiling," said Greg Andrle, a fellow 2006 Pine-Richland graduate who is attending classes at Thiel College in Mercer County.

Strollo, of Pine, is among dozens of students wounded by Cho Seung-Hui, a Virginia Tech senior and South Korean native, who killed 32 people before committing suicide in a shooting rampage unlike any other in U.S. history, officials said. Seung-Hui lived in Harper Residence Hall.

Strollo's brother, Patrick John Strollo III, a senior majoring in finance at the school, rushed to Montgomery Regional Hospital in Blacksburg to be by his sister's side, Morgan said.

In the aftermath, many students said they were unaware of any danger -- and unprotected -- even as the shooter pumped bullets into people in the dormitory rooms around them, walked across campus with a loaded weapon and continued the massacre in an engineering classroom building.

Michael Salvatore, a 22-year-old chemical engineering major from Jeannette, was sitting in a classroom when he heard the gunshots.

"I started hearing yelling coming from outside," he said. "It never really registered something was wrong because we had construction workers working in close proximity to us."

Then things became clearer.

"I heard two gunshots in a kind of like a rapid succession," Salvatore said. "We all stopped and looked at each other. We heard a third one, and that's when we realized something was wrong."

The class ran to the windows and saw police cars swarming on nearby Norris Hall. Ambulances arrived and moved people out on stretchers. "Police were getting people out in groups of anywhere between 10 to 30 people," Salvatore said.

Megan Stone, 23, of McKees Rocks, a fifth-year education and psychology student, sat in a classroom on the opposite side of the 2,600-acre campus.

"I just want to know why I was sitting in a classroom taking a test when people were dying," Stone said. "It seems so small to me. It's such a sad thing right now. I'm just so sad. I feel bad."

Ryan Mustio also had a test yesterday morning, so he ignored the weird e-mail from his resident adviser in West Ambler Johnston Hall on the Virginia Tech campus.

"Hey guys," the 8:18 a.m. message said. "I have been told by my supervisor to ask you guys to stay in your room if you are inside the building. You are not supposed to go to class either. I have no idea why• This is not a joke. There are a lot of cops in the building."

The message did not tell him that people lay dead, three floors above his first-floor room.

"If I had known, I would have locked my door and no way I would have gone to class," said Mustio, 19, a sophomore architecture major from Moon. "I figured it was just an accident or something. I had no idea it was that magnitude."

By mid-morning, the enormity of the tragedy shattered the campus.

Witnesses said panic and confusion spread quickly amid the gunfire at the engineering building, where students barricaded doors and jumped from windows to escape the gunman's wrath.

Sirens screamed as sophomore Danny Cafaro, 19, of Upper St. Clair, walked to his car after his psychology class. A message over the campus loudspeaker warned everyone to get inside a building or car.

"Right then it was panic," Cafaro said. "People just started running for cars or buildings. It was kind of like a movie scene where Godzilla was coming and people were running. I booked into my car."

On the other side of campus, Stone said things appeared normal.

"I went to my car like any other day. Oh, my gosh. It just sort of slaps you in the face," she said. "When someone got killed at 7:30, I wish someone would have told me."

Many students questioned the way Virginia Tech officials handled the tragedy.

Aimee Kanode, a freshman from Martinsville, Va., said a resident assistant knocked on her door about 45 minutes after the first shootings occurred at 7:15 a.m. on West Ambler Johnston's fourth floor, one floor above her room.

Students were told to stay put.

"They had us under lockdown," Kanode said. "They temporarily lifted the lockdown, the gunman shot again."

The first official warning -- via university e-mail -- came more than two hours after the dormitory killings.

The 9:26 a.m. message indicated that police were investigating "a shooting incident" and urged the university community to "be cautious" and call campus police "if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case," according to e-mail forwarded to the Tribune-Review by Brent Dillie, a senior chemical engineering major from Upper St. Clair.

A second e-mail, at 9:50 a.m., was specific and urgent.

"A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows," the message read. It was followed by an e-mail that warned students to lock their doors.

Finally, at 10:16 a.m., three hours after the first shots were fired, students were informed that classes were canceled, according to an e-mail forwarded by Dillie. A 10:52 a.m. message confirmed multiple shootings and indicated that all entrances to the campus were closed.

"I think they had at least an hour to cancel the 9 o'clock and 10 o'clock classes, and the shooting happened in a 9 o'clock class," Mustio said.

"This guy had been around for an hour-and-a-half, and people didn't know there was a shooting. If people had known there was a shooter, it could have saved lives. It was a shame."

Under lockdown in his classroom, Mustio immediately called his mother, Marianne, who had not yet heard of the shootings.

"At least I knew first thing he was safe and they were in the classroom," Marianne Mustio said. "The more I know, the worse it is. You realize this gunman was out there, and they were walking to class."

Virginia Tech's campus, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, is in Blacksburg, about 160 miles west of Richmond. Best known for its engineering school and powerhouse football team, it has the state's largest full-time student population with more than 25,000 students.

Katie Wood, president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, said the organization has about 1,200 members in Western Pennsylvania. The 2004 Virginia Tech graduate added that the region sends about 100 new students a year to the school.

"It's a very small town," said Wood, 25, of Squirrel Hill. "The whole town is mostly college students. It's very shocking to have something like this happen."

Indeed, Blacksburg is the sort of place where people often leave their doors unlocked when they go out, said Tom Kingsley, 26, of Aspinwall, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 2002.

"It's just really a college town," Kingsley said, calling it a miniature Penn State. "All it is, is a college town in a valley down in Virginia."

His sister, Katie Kingsley, 20, of O'Hara, is a Virginia Tech sophomore who chose the school because she liked the small-town setting.

"I feel like it's very random, so out of the ordinary," she said. "It's a very safe campus. There's not much to be scared of. We're in the middle of nowhere."

Kingsley and her roommates were getting most of their news from television throughout the day. She described people as "calm," but afraid as they waited to hear the names of the victims.

For Alana Manzini, 21, a 2003 graduate of Greensburg Salem High School, fear is something she has not experienced on the Virginia Tech campus or in Blacksburg. She described it as a place where you can walk around at night without fear.

"I talked to friends who go to school in Boston saying, 'Wow, your school is scarier than mine,' " Manzini said.

But after the shooting, fear and grief consumed the students.

"How do they know it's OK to be outside -- when it's safe?" Amanda McAlpine, a sophomore from Lower Burrell, asked hours later.

"I've always felt so safe on this campus, but I guess it wasn't reality. This is really scary."

Morgan said he is more worried about Hilary Strollo and hopes to visit her today at Montgomery Regional Hospital.

"It's depressing what happened, and when someone you know is hurt, it makes it so much worse," he said.

Still, Morgan said he loves Virginia Tech and knows that Strollo does, too.

"I am not scared one bit. I've loved every second down here. It's a great school."

The shock of the shootings extended to the campus of Thiel in the small community of Greenville.

"If it happened there, it could happen anywhere," Andrle said. "The big question is why• Why would anyone do this• What motivates them?"

Staff writers Andrew Conte, Kevin Gorman, John Grupp, Michael Hasch, Jennifer Reeger and Justin Vellucci, Charlie Ban of the Valley News Dispatch in Tarentum and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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