BLACKSBURG, Virginia (Reuters) - Virginia Tech students carried 33 white flags representing the victims of the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history and the gunman responsible, as classes resumed a week after the massacre.
Just before the first classes on Monday, the group of flag-carrying students marched on the university drill field accompanied by a drum and bugle corps playing “America the Beautiful” to remember the 27 students, five teachers and gunman Seung-Hui Cho.
At 9:46 a.m. the university’s bell tolled 32 times as 32 white balloons were released, marking the moments a week earlier when Cho, 23, was gunning down victims in a nearby class building.
Seconds later, a thousand orange and maroon balloons were released, filling the cloudless sky with the school colors.
Thousands of students, university staff and town mourners gathered on the drill field to watch the ceremonies in silence, some weeping quietly, others hugging in grief.
When it was over, students quietly headed to class, ready to return to normal after a week of mourning, emotional memorials and the glare of the international media spotlight.
The university has said classes are optional for all students. But attendance was generally high, school administrators told a news conference, and students said they wanted to be on campus.
“I wanted to be back here with my friends, because they understand what happened, what we’ve all been through,” said first-year engineering student John Meyer, 18, as he headed to calculus class.
Meyer said he had gone home to Frankfort, Kentucky, for a few days to be with family, but never questioned returning to finish the final few weeks of the school year.
“This is the best place to be,” he said.
People from across the college town of Blacksburg were on hand to offer support to the grieving university community, and messages, banners, and cards of support flowed in from around the world.
At one makeshift memorial, flags from Canada, Peru and Israel were placed among bouquets of flowers to remember the international students and teachers killed in the rampage by Cho, a mentally ill English major.
Chaplains in green vests crisscrossed campus, a group of volunteers handed out bottles of water to returning students, and handlers with therapy dogs wandered around, offering their pets for hugs.
Steps away from the shuttered class building where Cho killed 30 students and then himself -- after earlier shooting two students in a dormitory -- grandmothers from a local church handed out bags of cookies to hungry students.
“Want some cookies? We’re glad you’re here,” said Jan Riess, 65, as students streamed by.
Riess said the church women usually hand out cookies at the start of the school year to welcome students to campus, but thought they needed that support again on Monday.
“We just wanted to let people know we care,” she said, stopping to hug one student dressed in orange.
Although the dormitory where the first two students were killed has reopened, courses held in Norris Hall, where most of the shootings took place, were relocated. The building remains closed and cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape.
Questions remain about how Cho, who had been investigated for two stalking reports in 2005 and treated for mental illness, was able to buy the two guns used in his rampage.
The university administration and campus police have also faced criticism for their handling of the first shooting in the dormitory, which took place more than two hours before Cho turned up on the other side of campus to kill 30 others.