Carbon monoxide leak at Va. Tech mars return for fall semester following year of tragedy

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - A Virginia Tech campus still reeling from the deaths of 32 people at the hands of a student gunman last spring began its fall semester Monday amid another tragedy: a carbon monoxide leak at an off-campus apartment left five roommates hospitalized, two in critical condition.

The leak appeared to be from a faulty valve in a gas water heater in the apartment the students shared, Blacksburg Police Capt. Bruce Bradbery said.

It was discovered Sunday morning after a neighbor complained of fumes, just as Virginia Tech was preparing to dedicate a memorial to the 27 students and five faculty members killed April 16 by Seung-Hui Cho. Bruce Bradbery was at the dedication ceremony when he got the call.

"Enough's enough," he said. Last fall, an escaped fugitive on the loose near campus had forced the university to shut down on its first day of classes.

Two students from the apartment complex remained in critical condition Monday at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville, a spokeswoman said. Their three roommates, also 19-year-old sophomores, were in stable condition at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. Eighteen other people sickened by the carbon monoxide were treated Sunday and released, Blacksburg police said.

On campus Monday morning, the school routine was back as thousands of Virginia Tech students hustled off to their first classes of the semester.

Matt Rebholz of Pittsburgh said the shootings had brought students closer.

"It's a lot more of a family atmosphere," the sophomore electrical engineering student said as he munched on a granola bar on his way to class.

One change on campus is Norris Hall, the former classroom building where Cho killed all but two of his victims. On Monday, flowers lay at entrance to the building, now being used exclusively for engineering laboratories and offices.

"Coming back to Norris Hall is not as simple as we expected," department chairman Ishwar Puri said. "The challenge, really, is the emotional state of the group as a whole."

He said two students so far had said they did not want to return to Norris Hall for laboratory work, but most faculty, staff and students are moving forward, he said.

Tech enrolled a record freshman class of 5,200 for the fall, but university spokesman Mark Owczarski said officials won't know for a couple of weeks exactly how many of the 26,000 students returned this fall. Of those who withdrew before classes started, he said, only two reported doing so because of the shootings.

"There doesn't appear anything out of the ordinary," he said. "It's normal numbers."

At West Ambler Johnston, the dormitory where Cho killed his first two victims, a sign welcomed students.

Freshman Kelsey Pope of Roanoke emerged from the dorm somewhat bleary-eyed but excited about her first day of class. She said she never considered changing her plan to attend Virginia Tech.

"I'm more excited than nervous because now I get to be a college student instead of a high school student," the 18-year-old said with a laugh.

As students shuffled to classes, a group appointed by Virginia's governor to study the mass shootings met in a final, closed-door session Monday in Charlottesville to finish its report, scheduled to be made public Friday. The eight-member panel privately consulted with attorneys and discussed confidential records as it reviewed the report to be submitted to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, said W. Gerald Massengill, the former state police superintendent heading the panel.

On campus, replacements have been hired for the French and German instructors killed at Norris Hall. But officials in the College of Engineering said searches must be conducted to fill the positions of its three tenured professors who were slain, and other faculty members are teaching their classes.

"The spirit and resilience of the Virginia Tech community have amazed the world," university president Charles Steger told more than 10,000 who gathered for the memorial dedication. "As the academic year begins, we must maintain that optimism."

The 32 stones engraved with the names of those killed replaced smaller stones that a student group placed in a semicircle in front of the administration building right after the killings. All are of locally mined gray limestone that also is used in many of the university's collegiate gothic buildings.

Zachary Baker of Richmond, who was a freshman last spring, said it felt good to be back at school.

"It's as normal as it can be," he said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)