The Associated Press
BLACKSBURG, Va. - Eight months ago, the mere possibility that a gunman was headed to Virginia Tech was enough for school officials to cancel classes and order a campuswide lockdown.
This week, the response was much different: Authorities waited more than two hours to alert the school's nearly 26,000 students that two of their classmates had been shot dead in a dormitory.
By that time, while police were chasing the wrong suspect, a different young man was murdering 30 more people to complete the worst shooting spree in modern U.S. history.
Police and school officials have spent nearly as much time defending their decisions as they have releasing details about the Monday morning massacre by Cho Seung-Hui.
What led to the differing responses?
In the first case, a hospitalized jail inmate wrestled a gun from a sheriff's deputy, fled from the hospital and was spotted near the campus.
On Monday, police believed based on early interviews that the shooting in West Ambler Johnston dorm was a domestic dispute that posed no danger to others.
"If a murder appears in your neighborhood, and it appears to be a domestic dispute of some sort, the process is not to seal off the neighborhood until there appears to be some serious problem," said Ed Spencer, Virginia Tech's associate vice president for student affairs.
"West Ambler Johnston was the same situation."
Virginia State Police, called to the scene after the second shooting, defended the university's early decisions.
"It's not like anybody said, `In another two hours, there will be another shooting and 31 people will be dead. Let's wait around for that,' " state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Thursday.
When campus and local police arrived at West Ambler Johnston shortly after the 7:15 a.m. 911 call, they found two students shot dead: Emily Hilscher and her neighbor, Ryan Clark. Hilscher's roommate pointed them to Hilscher's boyfriend, who had been firing guns at a shooting range recently.
When police caught up with him off campus, he fueled their suspicion by making inconsistent statements about the whereabouts of his guns.
As officers surrounded the dorm, school officials considered a lockdown. But with thousands of students on their way to class and with police believing they had a suspect, the idea was scrapped.
"You shut campus down, you put 9,000 people on the streets," said Lt. Bruce Bradberry of the Blacksburg Police. "Now what are you going to do? You just created a mess."
Even if they could have notified all Virginia Tech students, officials said it was unclear what they would have said. They didn't want to cause panic.
At 9:26 a.m. Monday, more than two hours after the first shooting, administrators sent a campuswide e-mail and a phone message that a homicide had occurred on campus and urging students to be aware of suspicious activity.
Nineteen minutes later, while police were interviewing what they thought was their suspect, a second 911 call came in: a much bigger shooting, this time in Norris Hall.
"Just standing there at the time, the expression on their faces and I'm sure on mine was `This doesn't make sense. How can there possibly be by coincidence two tragic kinds of events going on in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech at the same time?' " Spencer said.
Students who have spoken publicly have been hesitant to criticize the university's handling of the case. "At first I was very, very mad at the administration," said student Jen Meadows, president of a campus sexual assault awareness group.
But the more she learned about Cho, the more she was convinced nothing could have been done - from kicking him out of school to locking down the campus.
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
"This kid, if he didn't end up doing this here, it would have been somewhere else. This had nothing to do with our students or our school," she said.