Virginia dean Benson '73 recalls tragedy
Richard Benson '73, dean of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, has spent the last three days struggling to maintain composure while confronting his own grief over the deaths of his colleagues and students.
In his first media interview since Monday's shooting, Benson relived his emotions in the aftermath of the incident, praising the nation's sympathy and the cohesiveness of Virginia Tech's campus while reflecting on ways to move forward.
Benson was at a conference in Puerto Rico when the tragic violence unfolded Monday morning.
The gunman, Virginia Tech senior Cho Seung-Hui, shot two people in a dormitory before moving, around two hours later, to Norris Hall, a central building in the School of Engineering and home to Benson's office. Cho shot and killed 30 people in Norris Hall before taking his own life.
Benson, who majored in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton, was attending an Engineering Deans Institute meeting over the weekend. He first heard about the shooting when he checked his email during a coffee break and read that there was a gunman loose on campus. It was only when he switched on the television at his hotel that he saw that the shooting had moved to Norris.
It was then that the reality of the situation hit home for Benson. "That's my building ... I walk through those doors every day," he said of Norris Hall. "It was just terrible to see that and not to be there."
Upon hearing the news, Benson first tried to call his staff members in Norris Hall. "I was unable to get anybody, anybody," he said. He immediately booked a flight home and waited through flight delays and a layover to arrive in Blacksburg after midnight. "I would've gotten in a car and driven home," he said.
His distance from his campus when the violence unfolded made the tragedy even more devastating, Benson said.
"Being away heightened my emotional reaction," he said, adding that he repeatedly thought about how it was "very likely that people that I cared for had died."
Though Benson's assistant, Linda Perkins, and his chief of staff, Ed Nelson, survived, he said he knew of people down the hall from his office and on a lower floor who had been killed. Of the five deceased faculty members, three taught at the Engineering School.
Lessons from the massacre
Benson said he did not blame the Virginia Tech administration for its widely reported delay in notifying the campus community of the first shooting. While some students and parents have accused the Virginia Tech administration of not doing enough to prevent the escalation of violence by alerting the student body of the danger, Benson said he disagrees.
"I understand grief, and I understand why somebody would be really angry," Benson added, emphasizing that he did not fault the students or their families in any way for criticizing the administration. "There's a human desire to blame somebody, [but] I worry that we're going to start blaming people who worked like crazy, who are grief-stricken, who didn't sleep that night."
Benson also stressed the extreme improbability that the shooter would strike a second time. "A two-site crime is extraordinarily rare," he said. "People were trying really hard to find the person who did it ... I do believe that the authorities were responding very quickly, very ably."
Yet the reverberations from the violence are likely to continue indefinitely. "You can always do better," Benson said of the University's response to the incident. "We've learned something in the last two days."
Administrators from other institutions have been contacting him to offer condolences and to ask the question, "How can we prevent this?" The incident has prompted concerns about campus safety across the nation.
Though Benson acknowledged the importance of developing preventive measures for academic communities everywhere, he said he knows that the next step for Virginia Tech is to deal with the emotional repercussions.
"The point is [that] we know that we need to provide a lot of counseling, and we're going to do that," he said. Department heads will convene today to address the issue of counseling services not only for students but for faculty, Benson said, adding that he hoped this would help them better support students emotionally.
"I want our faculty [to be] as insightful as they can possibly be," he said. "And frankly, they also need counseling."
The most affected faculty members are likely those who were in Norris Hall when the violence unfolded. Benson described the experiences of several of his colleagues while Cho was in the building. One professor, Liviu Librescu, barricaded the door of a classroom to allow his students to escape through the windows, Benson said in a widely distributed email. Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, was shot through the door.
"Heroes! Never forget their names!" Benson wrote.
A campus transformed
Norris Hall is forever changed, as the Virginia Tech community will always associate it with the horror that occurred there. Benson acknowledged that it is a place marked with emotion.
"Many of us aren't ready to walk into that building, not yet," he said. "There is an enormous job in Norris Hall to come to grips with the magnitude of the killing that went on there."
Until the end of the semester, only investigators will be allowed in the building.
Monday's events will also have academic ramifications, Benson said. While some classes will be relocated to other campus buildings, "some courses will just end."
One graduate course taught by civil and environmental engineering professor G.V. Loganathan will simply be eliminated, Benson said, since Cho shot the professor and the majority of students in the class.
Despite the shock, horror and grief overwhelming the Virginia Tech campus, Benson said he cannot help but be moved by the outpouring of emotion he has witnessed. "There's something very beautiful unfolding at Virginia Tech," he said, attributing the campus' unity to the spirit of compassion pervading the student body.
"I have been hearing over and over and over again, on the radio and on TV, how struck people are by that spirit, and I think it's absolutely true," he said. "All of these people wanted to let their pride come through."
Faculty members, too, provided sympathy, offering their offices to those displaced from Norris Hall.
His voice breaking, Benson expressed his pride and respect for the students. "Despite the horror, you take away something really uplifting," he said. "Boy, they are just banding together."
Reader Comments (0)
No comments yet. Be the first to post your opinion on this article.