Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Revisiting Tragedy

At lunch yesterday I sat with my co-workers and watched the news about the VT shootings. It hit way too close for me.

Nov. 1, 1991 was a Friday, it was cold and even had started to snow. Lisa and I had been married for 3 months, and were planning to go out after work and meet some friends at a local pub. Shortly before 4:00 I parked at home and walked downtown. Two blocks from our old house was Van Allen Hall, home of the astrophysics department, on the UI campus. When I went past it there were firetrucks, an ambulance, and police cars all around and yellow caution tape in front of the building. I thought perhaps there had been a fire, but kept on going. When Lisa got to the bar, half an hour later, she asked if we had heard anything about a shooting on campus. We got the bartender to turn on the TV and heard that there had been a shooting at Van Allen Hall, and also at Jessup Hall, the UI administration building.

The initial news reports were very sketchy, I distinctly remember one saying that 5 people had been taken to Mercy Hospital (which was half a block from our home) I turned to our friend, who was a neurology resident at UI Hospital at the time, and said that must be a good sign, since the Mercy ER is much smaller than UI's, people must not be that badly hurt. Mark's response was that this was a bad sign, if people were being taken to Mercy they were likely going to the morgue. It turned out he was right.

Gang Lu, a UI astrophysics graduate student killed Dwight Nicholson, Bob Smith, and Cristoph Goertz three very distinguished physics professors, and fellow grad student Linhua Shan. He then went to Jessup and killed UI vice president T. Anne Cleary, and wounded a work study temporary secretary, Miya Sioson, leaving her a quadraplegic, before killing himself.

It was a horrible event and one that made a small city feel smaller. Gang Lu lived across the street from us in an apartment building, but we never met him. Goertz was a neighbor of my parents. I had taken an ed measurement class from Anne Cleary in the summer of 1986. The days that followed were painful. In a class discussion one of my 5th graders, mentioned that her parents, both graduate students, were very worried how people would react, they were Korean and even though the perpetrator was Chinese, they were afraid of facing discrimination and suspicion. Another student delivered papers to Gang Lu's apartment.

Many details came out later about Lu's anger at perceived slights, the inability of PhD students in sciences to get work in a changing China, his fascination with "Dirty Harry" movies. However I think the most moving and powerful summary of what happened was written by Jo Ann Beard. Her acclaimed personal essay based in part on the killings, called "The Fourth State of Matter," was originally published in The New Yorker. It also appeared in the 1997 edition of Best American Essays, and was later published in her collection of personal essays, "The Boys of My Youth." Beard worked as an editor for a physics journal at the university and was a colleague of the victims, working closely with several of them.

"The Fourth State of Matter.

My thoughts go out to all of the those people in Blacksburg.


Jimbo said...

Wow, I had no idea you had so many connections--especially that Lu Gang lived near you. A truly horrible event. Whatever happened to Mia Sioson?

I don't know if you heard that a film based on this, starring Meryl Streep (?), premiered at Sundance this year. It's called "Dark Matter":
IMDb listing
NY Times review

I haven't heard if it has been picked up for distribution or anything, but it did win a prize at Sundance.

Jimbo said...

Wow, here's the official site with a trailer--it's kind of hard to take right now, as it's very sympathetic to the killer.
Dark Matter official site

I don't think I want to see this...