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By Patricia Zengerle
BLACKSBURG, Va., April 16 (Reuters) - A gunman killed 32 people at a Virginia university, many of them students attending class, and then shot himself dead on Monday in the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history.
Most of those killed were students attending classes at a hall at Virginia Tech, where the gunman apparently used chains to lock doors before shooting the victims, university and police officials said.
Fifteen people were wounded, included those shot and students hurt jumping from windows in a desperate attempt to escape the gunfire, officials said.
One student told CBS News the killer was an Asian male, about 6 feet (1.8 metres) tall, who walked into his German class and shot a student and professor before systematically shooting nearly all of the other students in the room.
“I hid under the desk and he proceeded to shoot everybody else in the class, practically,” said Derek O‘Dell, who suffered an gunshot wound in his arm. “There were probably 15 to 20 people in the class and he shot 10 to 15 of them.”
He said the gunman, who was wearing a black leather coat and maroon hat, fired several shots from a handgun, reloaded and resumed shooting. The man left the room, but later returned and fired into the door before leaving again, O‘Dell said.
Television images of terrified students and police dragging bloody victims out of the building revived memories of the infamous Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and is likely to renew heated debate about U.S. gun laws.
The rampage began two hours earlier at a dormitory a half-mile (0.8 km) away where a male and a female student were shot dead as other students began crisscrossing the sprawling campus for morning classes.
University police said they had thought the first shooting was an isolated incident and believed the gunman had left the campus, drawing criticism that they were slow to warn other students of the danger.
Virginia Tech campus police chief Wendell Flinchum said the gunman was a male, but gave no details of his age or nationality nor on what kind of gun he used. While he would not confirm there was only one gunman, Flinchum said police were not looking for another suspect.
A student’s video of the chaos was replayed repeatedly on U.S. television networks. It showed people scurrying around the campus as more than two dozen shots rang out.
“Today our nation grieves with those who have lost loved ones at Virginia Tech,” President George W. Bush said.
The death toll was worse than a massacre at the University of Texas in Austin on Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old student, killed 13 people and wounded 31 in a 90-minute spree.
Students told CNN there were multiple bomb threats to the Virginia Tech campus in the last few weeks. Two of the threats were aimed at the university’s science and engineering school.
The first shooting was reported to campus police at about 7:15 a.m. (1115 GMT) in West Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory housing some 900 students. It was followed by more shooting at Norris Hall, site of the science and engineering school that has given the university much of its fame as a leading technical institute in the United States.
During the two hours after the first shooting some students had ventured out again. University police were still investigating the first shooting at the dormitory when they got word of gunfire at the classroom building.
“I‘m really at a loss for words to explain or understand the carnage that has visited our campus,” Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said at a news conference.
Steger, facing questions over the university’s initial response, stressed that its efforts to alert students could not possibly reach the thousands of people moving around the campus at the start of the school day.
“We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur,” Steger said of the first shooting.
More than 30,000 people die from gunshot wounds in the United States every year and there are more guns in private hands than in any other country. But a powerful gun lobby and support for gun ownership rights has largely thwarted attempts to tighten controls.
In 1999, two student gunmen killed 12 other students and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine High School in Colorado.
“We live in a society where guns are pretty well accepted,” said Jim Sollo, of Virginians Against Handgun Violence. “There are 200 million guns in this society and obviously some in the wrong hands.”
Virginia Tech, with 26,000 students and some 100 buildings on 2,600 acres (1,050 hectares), is located in the town of Blacksburg and set in lush rolling hills in the southwest corner of the state, about 240 miles (390 km) from Washington.
FACTBOX-Shootings at U.S. schools [ID:nN16334217]
FACTBOX-School shootings around the world [ID:nN16315150]
Debate over U.S. gun violence [ID:nN16328198]
Additional reporting by Peter Szekely, John O'Callaghan, Sandra Maler, David Storey, David Alexander and David Wiessler