Gathering to grieve, pray

Posted: Wednesday, April 18 at 03:36 pm ET by Petra Cahill, MSNBC.com


Andrew Undercoffer, a freshman, reads inscriptions on one of the many boards set up in the Drillfield on the Virginia Tech campus.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The Drillfield -- a large open lawn area in the center of the Virginia Tech campus -- has become a place for public grieving and prayer.

A low, curved stone wall in the field is now adorned with flowers and candles resting in front of it. A new stone formation also has appeared facing it: a semi-circle of 32 stones – one for each of the gunman Cho Seung-Hui’s victims. Each stone has a flower stem or two resting on top along with a small Virginia Tech flag.

The makeshift memorial is flanked by nine white wooden placards that are now almost completely covered on front and back with messages from students to the victims and words of encouragement for the grieving.

“We stand with you in prayer VT” read one message. Others address specific victims: “Erin, you will be missed. Love, Alex.” Another entry simply bears the name of Liviu Libiescu, the professor and Holocaust survivor who was gunned down while trying to save his students – in the middle of a large heart. Others just say “Hokie Now, Hokie Forever, Hokies United.”

A few hundred yards away from the memorial, students gathered Wednesday in small groups to pray  – some sitting and some standing holding hands. One group that started with just a few dozen students soon grew to include at least 100 people.

For Erika Borgerding and Rebecca Huyck, both 24-year-old graduate students, visiting the memorial on Drillfield brought the tragedy home. Both fought back tears as they tried to explain their feelings.

“It really hit us today, just coming out here,” Borgerding said.

“It really represents how many people we lost,” added Huyck. “It’s very sad.”

Asked what message she left on the memorial placards, Borgerding said, “You are all our heroes and we will never forget you.”

Postgraduate student, Erin Byers, 23, said tragedy hit her in two waves: the initial shock of the shooting incident, and then the realization that she knew four of the victims

As a 2005 graduate, Byers returned to pursue a master’s degree in political science. She also teaches classes and had three of the victims in a class this semester and one last semester.

She  began crying Wednesday as she left this message for her former students: “Erin, Daniel, Caitlin, and Austin, I will miss seeing you all. You made my life so much fun. You will never know now what joy you brought me. God bless all of the families and friends. Love to all Hokies. Virginia Tech will live on and be strong for you and in your memory. God Bless the Hokie Nation Forever. Love, Erin Byers ’05 and ’08.”

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As officials, students and families struggle to come to terms with the tragedy at Virginia Tech, a team of MSNBC.com reporters and editors and NBC News producers and correspondents is on the scene.