Tragic Connection Back Home
One shooter, two victims; all from a Virginia high school
CENTREVILLE, VA.-At a packed gathering at the Centreville Presbyterian Church here on Tuesday, it wasn't just the words that were searing but what was left unsaid. More than 250 people came together to mourn the loss of two graduates from nearby Westfield High School, Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson, both 18 years old. The audience dissolved into sobs and gasps as they watched a concluding slide show of the former high school basketball captain and the star dancer-two of the 32 victims of last week's massacre at Virginia Tech. But not a word of the hour-long service dealt with the gunman, Seung Hui Cho, who also graduated from Westfield High, class of 2003.
It was a harsh glare indeed that fell last week on this 3,232-person high school in Chantilly, part of the swath of affluent, sprawling Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C. It wasn't the first bout of unwelcome attention; about a year ago, another Westfield grad shot and killed two police officers in a station parking lot 5 miles from the school. But this felt more personal. The deaths of the two former students were announced on the school's public address system; two "spirit rocks" near the parking lot-boulders routinely painted and repainted to promote school events-became shrines. The shooter's seemingly innocuous Westfield High history was dissected for clues. No one really knows why the lives of three students from this school came to so tragically intersect again. And no one yet knows how, even with counseling, the classmates of the Westfield High victims will heal their wounds.
When Cho attended Westfield, it was a brand-new school, having only opened in 2000. "Nothing was special about us," one 2003 graduate, Jennifer LeVay, wrote on the social networking site facebook.com of her class. "We weren't the FIRST! graduating class, we weren't the first class to go ALL THE WAY through WHS. We were just there." In the 2002 yearbook, Cho was listed as a member of the Science Club; there's no mention of him in his senior yearbook. One classmate recalled the largely silent, South Korean-born Cho as being teased and told to "go back to China." No one seems to have known him well.
Friends of Samaha and Peterson say they doubt Cho singled them out or even knew them. Regardless, he couldn't have picked victims more starkly different from himself. "Erin was a magnetic kid with a smile and laugh you see once and never forget," says Pat Deegan, Peterson's high school basketball coach. He says she was also a 6-foot-1 "mother hen" to others: When one basketball player transferred in from another school, Peterson sat by her every single day at lunch. Samaha, meanwhile, was a star member of the dance team and an award-winning performer in Westfield's 2005 production of Fiddler on the Roof. By then, the school was changing, growing seriously overcrowded, with many classes held in trailers. But the spirit remained. On the weekends, Samaha's friends threw alcohol-free dance parties with dress-up themes like cowboys and Indians.