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Grieving students return to campus

Virginia Tech classes will resume today

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Still grieving and increasingly wary of the media spotlight, Virginia Tech students returned to their campus yesterday, preparing to salvage the final weeks of a semester eclipsed by violence.

The scene on campus resembled move-in day in late summer, with parents helping their children carry suitcases into dormitories. There were tears and hugs goodbye. But instead of excitement for the year ahead, there was simply determination to endure and regroup in the fall.

When classes resume today, the university will give students three choices: They can continue their studies through the end of the semester next week, take a grade based on what they have done so far, or withdraw from a course without penalty.

"I want to go back. It's just really strange to just stop going," said Paul Deyerle, a sophomore from Roanoke who was helping a friend move belongings from the dormitory where another close friend, Ryan Clark, was among those killed in the worst shooting massacre in modern US history.

A number of students living in West Ambler Johnston Hall have asked to be relocated.

"I need to keep going back," said Deyerle said. "It seems like every other facet of my life is different now, so I have to."

Churches in this grief-stricken town were filled yesterday with mourners offering prayers for the 32 victims killed last Monday.

As pastor of Blacksburg Baptist Church, Tommy McDearis had been called on last week to tell more than 20 families that their loved ones were killed by Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho. Yesterday, McDearis urged his congregation and the university to put the pain of the rampage behind them by returning to classes.

"If we give up in the face of this situation, if we quit doing all of the things that really matter in life because this darkness has visited us, then we are going to surrender to the darkness," McDearis said.

Some students said they had taken comfort from returning home immediately after the shooting, but now felt drawn back to the tight-knit Virginia Tech community. "When we hit Route 460 and we could see the campus, we both started crying," said sophomore Ashleigh Shifflett, eating a picnic lunch with her sister Regan near memorials to the victims on the central campus lawn. "I was happy to see my family, but I felt like I needed to be here."

Virginia Tech officials say their top priority is the victims' families, and they have given each of them a private e-mail address and direct phone number for university president Charles Steger.

Administrators have canceled big events such as the spring football game and postponed a fund-raising campaign. The goal is to begin restarting academic life but without pushing the university's 26,000 students too hard.

"I don't know what else you could do," said John Rossi, chairman of the math department. "A student, I don't know how much they're going to be able to learn at this point. Maybe some can. But I think some students are just not going to be able to come, so why would you penalize them? There's going to be some faculty dealing with that, too."

Freshman Brittany Gambardella, who was asleep on the sixth floor of West Ambler Johnston when the rampage began two floors below, was not sure what, if any, work she would be doing the rest of the year. But that wasn't why she returned to campus from her home in Midlothian.

"I want to be back this week even if I don't take my exams, just to be with people," Gambardella said. "Then you go home, and you end the year on a good note."

Many returning students stopped to visit memorials to the victims and sign placards of remembrance. A number attended religious services and visited counseling centers.

State Police plan to maintain a security presence on campus at least through today.

As an investigation into the rampage continued, a state medical examiner said yesterday that autopsies determined that Cho fired enough shots to wound his 32 victims more than 100 times before he killed himself with a bullet to his head.

Dr. William Massello, the assistant medical examiner based in Roanoke, also said pathologists have sent blood samples for toxicology testing to determine if Cho was on drugs at the time of the attacks. It could take as long as two weeks to get the results of those tests, he said.

Students say they welcome the outpouring of support they have received, but they have grown weary of the news media. The Student Government Association asked reporters to leave by 5 a.m. today, before classes begin.

"Our students are ready to start moving forward, and the best way we can do that is to get the campus back to normal," said Liz Hart, director of public relations for the SGA. Students don't want "anything external remind to us it will be a difficult road. We know that."

There are other tough decisions university officials have not had time to consider, such as what to do with Norris Hall, the building where the rampage occurred.

There is also the question of how many students will return next fall. Officials acknowledge that they have received some inquiries about transferring, but it is unclear how many will do so. They are urging students not to rush into decisions.

Students interviewed on campus in recent days say they and everyone they know intends to return. "This is the best school around," said Steven Mason, a senior from Appomattox. "As far I'm concerned, they did everything they could."

Hart said she expected few to leave. "We're not leaving," she said. "This is where we want to be. There's a greater sense of loyalty. There's more Hokie pride than ever."