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Ref: Information about fatal shooting spreads via Internet while cell phone lines downed

Roanoke Times

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Technology fills information gap


On-site dispatches appeared on several Web sites, while condolences from around the world appeared on others.
In echoes reminiscent of Columbine and 9/11 — to which the Virginia Tech shootings are inevitably compared — people in Southwest Virginia and around the world turned to e-mail, cellphones, Web sites and instant messages to share information as Monday’s events unfolded.
But cellphone capacity, which could normally handle even the heaviest call traffic, was quickly overloaded.
“We were seeing a 300 percent increase over a normal busy time — four times the number of calls during the busiest period,” said John Johnson, spokesman for Verizon Wireless.
Nicholas Barnes, a recent Tech graduate working in Richmond, said he tried calling three friends via cellphone shortly after learning about the shooting, but kept getting error messages.
Among his former classmates is a fifth-year engineering student who frequently took classes at Norris Hall. It took about 15 minutes of repeated dialing to get through to him, Barnes said.
Barnes wasn’t alone, and he may have been part of the problem. That repeated dialing helped to clog the system, according to Johnson.
“When calls begin to be blocked, you see a rapid increase in the calls that get blocked,” he said.
When callers encountered virtual brick walls, they often turned from dialing to texting.
“Text messages, because they … don’t require a real-time connection, are an excellent way to get through during times of peak calling,” Johnson said.
Lisa Sedlak, who works in Blacksburg’s Community Relations office, learned that firsthand. She first heard about the shootings online about 10 a.m. She tried to reach her husband, who works in Norris Hall, but “Tech’s e-mail was down and cellphone service was slow.”
So she turned to instant messages, which worked.
“He IM’ed me, 'Oh no, the shooter’s in Norris hall right now’,” she said. “Through IM we kept in touch with each other. That was the one way we could communicate.”
Starting about 10:49 a.m. the town of Blacksburg sent out several “Blacksburg Alerts” — e-mail, phone and fax warnings about dangerous situations.
And Blacksburg residents also turned to the Web to tell their families they were all right, posting messages on their Facebook or MySpace pages.
And it was more than just “I’m OK.” Others became citizen reporters, offering on-site dispatches in the midst of the chaos. Cellphone photos and video began to appear on Web sites such as the student-run news site PlanetBlacksburg, and on individual blogs.
With Virginia Tech’s official site slowed to a crawl by all the traffic, those sites became instant news centers.
The comments section of Fark, a Web site that usually focuses on odd and amusing stories, included almost-live dispatches from William Dunn, a computer systems engineer in Tech’s computer science department.
“There’s cops at the drillfield, running their cars up onto the sidewalk, hopping out of their cars with guns drawn and low-ready,” he wrote at 9:54 a.m.
A few minutes later he followed up: “… there’s kids being flushed from norris, running full tilt down the hill towards the drillfield. Still cops everywhere, guns drawn.”
And while the Web allowed for reassurance and reporting, it also allowed for the very human act of empathizing. Whether on Facebook or Fark, MySpace or Craigslist, people from around the world posted their condolences online. On Facebook, users created hundreds of groups offering places for readers to express their support. One, “A tribute to those who passed at the Virginia Tech Shooting,” had more than 24,000 members by late Monday afternoon.
From as far away as Bangladesh, Germany and Japan, posters turned to the Web to express their sympathy and offer prayers. But they were best summed up, perhaps, on Fark by Shawn Pickrell of Arlington, who wrote simply, “All Virginians are Hokies now.”

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