Virginia Tech was locked down Thursday when three children attending a summer camp said they saw a man holding what looked like a gun, an unsettling report on the campus where a 2007 massacre left 33 people dead.
The university issued an alert on its website at 9:37 a.m. Thursday telling students and employees to stay inside and lock their doors. University spokesman Larry Hincker said during a news conference later in the morning that the campus alert remained in effect and that people should stay indoors until further notice.
The children said they saw the man walking fast toward the volleyball courts, carrying what might have been a handgun covered by some type of cloth. Police swarmed the area but said they could not find a gunman matching their description. The university said on its website that no one else has reported a person with a gun or anything suspicious.
Va. Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said that the three children were interviewed, and that the information they gave was deemed credible.
An alert on the school’s website said the gunman was reported near Dietrick Hall, a three-story dining facility steps away from the dorm where the first shootings took place in the 2007 rampage.
“We’re in a new era. Obviously this campus experienced something pretty terrible four years ago ... regardless of what your intuition and your experience as a public safety officers tells you, you are really forced to issue an alert, and that’s where we believe we are right now,” said Hincker, the Virginia Tech spokesman.
Federal authorities fined the school in March after ruling that administrators violated campus safety law by waiting too long to notify staff and students about a potential threat after two students were shot to death April 16, 2007, in West Ambler Johnston Hall, a dorm near the dining facility.
An email alert went out more than two hours later that day, about the time student Seung-Hui Cho was chaining shut the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more students and faculty and himself. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The school’s alert system also was activated in 2008, when an exploded cartridge from a nail gun produced sounds similar to gunfire near a campus dormitory. It was the first time the system was activated after the 2007 massacre. After the shootings, Virginia Tech started using text messages and other methods besides emails to warn students of danger.
On Thursday, officials said they were looking for a 6-foot-tall white man with light brown hair. Officials said the person was wearing a blue and white striped shirt, gray shorts and brown sandals. He was described as clean shaven, according to the university’s website.
Police from Virginia Tech, Blacksburg and Christiansburg searched for the man along with Virginia State Police and Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies. FBI spokeswoman Dee Rybiski said agents also were on their way to assist.
Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was attending meetings of the Republican Governors Association in Wisconsin, was in contact with law enforcement to ensure all state resources were available to police, said spokeswoman Taylor Thornley.