2008Breaking News Reporting

Students Make Connections at a Time Of Total Disconnect

By: 
Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 17, 2007

When Jamal Albarghouti first heard the gunshots, he ran toward them.

Then he took out his cellphone.

Albarghouti, a graduate student at Virginia Tech, is "the cellphone guy" -- a 24-year-old who used the camera in his sleek, silver Nokia N70 smartphone to capture video of police rushing toward Norris Hall, the building where the shots rang out.

This is what this YouTube-Facebook-instant messaging generation does. Witness. Record. Share.

In the minute-long video, first aired on CNN.com, you can see Albarghouti's hand shake as he recorded the scene -- the wind blowing, the cops running, some 20 shots fired. At one point, to get an even better look, he tried to get closer to the building but was stopped by police.

Yes, he retreated. But he kept recording.

"I didn't think I was in danger at any point in time," said Albarghouti, who's Palestinian and originally from the West Bank. "My country is at war. Maybe I'm just used to the fact these things do happen."

Albarghouti then went on CNN.com and sent the video.

As it happens, Virginia Tech -- the school slogan reads "Invent the Future" -- is full of techies. It's home to the Blacksburg Electronic Village, a pioneering project launched in the mid-'90s that sought to link everyone in an online community. A Reader's Digest headline in 1996 called Blacksburg "The Most Wired Town in America."

The school's student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, filed up-to-the-minute online dispatches. At 4:44 p.m.: "Police have confirmed that the shooter took his own life." At 4:54 p.m.: "University Relations has confirmed 31 deaths at Norris Hall, in addition to two deaths at West Ambler Johnson."

And many Hokies, past and present, are on Facebook, the popular online directory for college and high school students. Nearly 39,000 are listed on Virginia Tech's network, putting it among the top 25 college networks on Facebook, a spokesman for the directory said.

When Albarghouti got back to his apartment, he had about 279 new messages on his Facebook account.

"Dude, Jamal, you're crazy," wrote a friend.

Wrote another friend: "You are one brave guy Jamal! Glad you are safe!"

A stranger wrote in: "I don't know you at all, but I hope [you're] all right. . . . "

Jamal wasn't the only one getting online messages. Yesterday afternoon, student Trey Perkins was overwhelmed by IMs and Facebook messages when he returned to his apartment, still shaken with grief.

IMed a friend: "U okay?"

Another one: "Where are u? Where are u?"

And another: "Hey, hey, I just heard..."

Perkins, 20, was in his German class in Norris 207 when the gunman barged in at around 9:50 a.m. and opened fire for about a minute and half -- "some 30 shots in all," said Perkins, a sophomore from Yorktown, Va. He hit the floor and couldn't take out his cellphone. An hour later his younger brother Daniel, a senior at Tabb High School in Yorktown, heard about the shootings and text-messaged him: "Hey, what's going on," he asked. The older brother couldn't answer at the time.

"He [the shooter] knew exactly what he was doing," Perkins said. "I have no idea why he did what he decided to do. I just can't say how lucky I am to have made it."

Albarghouti, too, is unsure what the root of the tragedy was.

He just knew that the moment he heard the shots -- "bang! bang! bang!" he said -- he had to get it on his cellphone.

"How can someone do this? I can't explain. No one can explain," said Albarghouti, who's getting a master's degree in construction management. Yesterday, before the shooting started, he was on his way to meet his adviser, Anthony Songer, to work on his thesis.

The thesis is on leadership skills.