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Police response timeline at Virginia Tech examined

Crucial 5 minutes spent breaking in

Workers yesterday continued to erect a fence at Virginia Tech's Norris Hall, where 31 people, including the shooter, died. (Evan Vucci/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- The bloodbath lasted nine minutes -- enough time for Seung-Hui Cho to unleash 170 rounds from his two pistols, or about one shot every three seconds.

During that time, Virginia Tech and city police spent three minutes dashing across campus to the scene. Then they began the agonizing process of breaking into the chained-shut building, which took another five minutes.

Once inside, as they sprinted toward the sounds of gunfire inside Norris Hall, Cho put a bullet through his head and died in a classroom alongside his victims.

A time line of the rampage emerged yesterday as police provided new details about what they uncovered in the 10 days since Cho committed the worst mass shooting in modern US history.

The five minutes police spent breaking into the building proved to be crucial. During that time, Cho picked off his victims with a hail of gunfire. He killed himself after police shot through the doors and rushed toward the carnage.

Corinne Geller, State Police spokeswoman, praised the officers' response time, noting that had police simply rushed into the building without a plan, many probably would have died right along with the staff and students. She said officers needed to assemble the proper team, clear the area, and then break through the doors.

"If you go in with your backs turned, you're never going back," Geller said. "There's got to be some sort of organization."

Some police and security specialists question the five-minute delay, saying authorities should have charged straight into the melee.

"You don't have time to wait," said Aaron Cohen, president of IMS Security of Los Angeles, who has trained SWAT teams around the country since 2003. "You don't have time to preplan a response. Even if you have a few guys, you go."

Cohen said a trained SWAT team should have been able to get inside a locked building in less than a minute.

The rapid response by police to school violence has become an important issue in the past decade.

After the Columbine massacre in 1999, police around the country adopted new policies for so-called active shooters. Police would no longer respond to emergencies such as school shootings by surrounding a building and waiting for the SWAT team. Instead, the first four officers rush into the building and attempt to end the threat immediately. This system was used to end a 2003 school hostage standoff in Spokane, Wash.

Tom Corrigan, former member of the New York City Police Department -FBI terrorism task force and a retired detective, said five minutes seems like a long time when gunfire is being heard, but he said it is tough to second-guess officers in such a chaotic situation.

"I would have liked to have seen them bust down the door, smash windows, go around to another door, do everything to get inside fast," he said. "But it's a tough call because these officers put their lives on the line on a daily basis, and I am sure they did the best they could."

State Police Superintendent Colonel W. Steven Flaherty, who is overseeing the investigative team looking at the shootings, said police have been unable to answer the case's most vexing questions: Why the rampage began at the West Ambler Johnston dormitory, and why 18-year-old freshman Emily Hilscher was the first victim.

"We talk about possible motives and theories and whatnot, but we don't have any evidence to suggest anything," Flaherty said.

Witnesses place Cho outside West Ambler Johnston shortly before 7:15 a.m., when he fired the two shots that killed Hilscher and 22-year-old senior Ryan Clark, a resident assistant at the dorm, Flaherty said.

It is not known how Cho got in.

Police searched Hilscher's e-mails and phone records looking for a link. Flaherty would not discuss exactly what police found, but he said neither Cho's nor Hilscher's records have revealed a connection.

"We certainly don't have any one motive that we are pursuing at this particular time or that we have been able to pull together and formulate," Flaherty said.