BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Tonight, Caroline Merrey plans to put on her academic gown - gingerly, because she is still sore - place the black cap on her blond hair and join her classmates for the evening commencement ceremony in Lane Stadium at Virginia Tech.
As she graduates, she will think about her loved ones sitting in the audience - her parents who drove down from their Parkville home, her boyfriend who flew in from Chicago.
But, she says, she will also think about those not in the stands, the professors and classmates who died on a Monday morning not quite four weeks ago. On that day, a student killed two people in a dorm, then burst into the building where Merrey was attending class and shot and killed 30 others before taking his own life. Merrey jumped out a window soon after the shots began.
She will be thinking of Liviu Librescu, the professor who was teaching her that morning, the man with the thick Romanian accent who always greeted her warmly in the hallway. She remembers the startled expression on his face and how, as the gunfire grew louder, he still held his pointer in his hand.
After Merrey climbed out the window, she dangled by her fingers for a moment, summoning the courage to let go. Her eyes met Librescu's one last time, she says.
Other students have said that the professor held the door shut as the gunman advanced, buying them time to jump to safety. Librescu, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor, was shot to death.
Merrey says that she will always remember one of their last conversations. Librescu, a professor of engineering science and mechanics, hadn't realized she was a senior. When she told him she was about to graduate, she recalls him saying, "I'll be there at commencement, clapping for you."
Hard to focus
Sitting on the couch in the townhouse she shares with two roommates, Merrey, 22, says that she has had a hard time focusing since the April 16 shootings. She starts to pack her things, then gets distracted. She is awakened five or six times a night by back pain from her fall or by vivid, haunting dreams. In one, she is walking down the street and hears gunshots. In another, she looks up to see a gun pointed at her face.
"There's still a lot going on inside, even though I seem fine outside," she says.
She has avoided reading or watching the "manifesto" that gunman Seung-Hui Cho, 23, left behind. Once she opened a magazine to find a large photo of Cho, gun pointing forward. She nearly dropped the magazine in fright.
And then there is the guilt. Even though family and friends tell her she did the right thing, she wonders whether, if she hadn't jumped, she could have saved Librescu or a classmate who was shot. She wonders why she was lucky enough to be spared.
Merrey says that she hopes that her planned move to Chicago and search for a job will take her mind off the shootings.
Yesterday, she joined other seniors for a farewell block party, complete with karaoke, a mechanical bull and a Velcro wall. She didn't plan to stay long because she wanted to find some of her professors and say goodbye.
Elsewhere on campus, students packed their parents' cars with boxes of clothes and books. Families, many wearing T-shirts in the school's colors of orange and maroon, traipsed through this small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
After loading the car for the trip home to Fairfax Station, Va., sophomore Megha Maheshwari and her mother, Suneeta Maheshwari, laid flowers at the memorial stones that have been set up for the victims.
A woman re-arranging the flowers around a stone dedicated to Partahi Lumbantoruan, an Indonesian graduate student, wept loudly and appeared to be chanting a prayer. Some men with her dabbed at their eyes with folded handkerchiefs.
Norris Hall, the engineering building where most of the shootings took place, is enclosed by a metal fence and green netting. A photocopied ad for a fraternity's go-kart race, held two days before the shooting, is still stuck to the door.
Merrey, an engineering science and mechanics major, took most of her classes in Norris Hall. The gray stone building smelled pleasantly of books and chalk and faintly of must, she says.
It was snowing the morning of April 16, prompting Merrey to write her boyfriend an e-mail saying, "This is going to be an interesting day."
She bought herself a cup of Earl Grey tea and slid into her wooden desk in Librescu's Solid Mechanics class.
As Librescu was lecturing, she saw the door open a crack and someone, who she believes was Cho, peep in the classroom.
Minutes later, Merrey heard gunshots. People screamed in the next classroom.
Some classmates opened the door, then decided they were safer inside. Some dropped to the floor. One young man opened the window, kicked out the screen and jumped. Librescu stayed by the door, pointer in hand.
Merrey grabbed her purple L.L. Bean backpack and pushed it out the window. Then she jumped.
"The whole time I'm thinking, 'Am I completely stupid?'" she says. "'I can't believe I'm jumping out of a second-story window.'"
She landed on her back, the wind knocked out of her, unable to move. A classmate grabbed her and dragged her to the front of the building. She tried to stand and collapsed. Another classmate carried her to a nearby building and placed her on a table. Staff and students stayed by her side, comforting her until rescue workers rushed her to a hospital.
Strapped to a board, her head taped so that she could not move it, Merrey struggled to talk with clergy members, social workers, investigators. When a friend arrived, she asked about her professor and learned that Librescu had been killed.
Meanwhile, her parents, Karen and Bob Merrey, had been panicked ever since they heard about the shootings in Norris Hall. When a rescue worker called to say that their daughter had suffered mild injuries jumping out the window, the Merreys said prayers of joy and rushed to Blacksburg.
They arrived that night and stayed 10 days, taking their daughter on long drives, talking on the sofa for hours.
The Merreys say that they can't thank God enough that their daughter is safe. They pray for the families of the victims and for Cho's family.
"As a parent, you always want to protect your children, and in this life there are things that happen that you can't protect them from," Karen Merrey says.
Caroline Merrey said that the tragedy has prompted her to re-evaluate her priorities. She spends more time with friends and family and no longer stresses about her job search.
At graduation, she will drape a special garment with the school's logo around her neck. It's a tradition to wear this for the ceremony, then pass it to someone who "got you to where you are," she says.
She plans to give it to Librescu's widow.