CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (AP) — Virginia Tech's initial timeline of the 2007 mass killing had errors in it, university officials acknowledged Thursday during a trial on the school's response to the shootings.
The timeline is at the heart of a wrongful death lawsuit that claims Virginia Tech administrators attempted to cover their missteps after the first shootings on campus, and the 30 slayings that occurred 2 ½ hours later.
The suit was brought by the parents of two slain students. The parents have said if a specific warning had been issued earlier, some people might have survived the shooting spree by Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people and then himself.
According to a timeline publicly released by the university the night of the massacre, the university stated it alerted students that two homicides had occurred at the West Ambler Johnston dormitory, when the email released at 9:26 a.m. only said a "shooting incident" had occurred shortly after 7 a.m. and mentioned no search for a gunman.
Students and university employees were not told a "gunman is loose on campus" for another 24 minutes — after Cho was chaining the doors of Norris Hall.
The timeline remained part of the official version of the events for months and was included in a state report examining the killings and the response until parents of victims and reporters pointed out the error. The report was then revised.
The official timeline also stated that police were following leads in the first shootings at the dormitory at 7:30 a.m. and had a person of interest, which was false.
Larry Hincker, the official face of the tragedy as the university's spokesman, testified his recollection was clouded by the traumatic events of the day and suggested that some elements of the timeline might have been entered on his computer by someone else.
Hincker pointed, for example, to a misspelling of Police Chief William Flinchum's name in one email. He has known Flinchum for nearly a decade, he said. Some of the wording also was not consistent with his.
"Did you ever disavow that timeline that was on your computer?" the parents' attorney Robert Hall said.
"No," Hincker said.
Asked if students and workers on campus should have been informed of the dorm killings, Hincker agreed.
In earlier testimony, university officials said they anguished over how to alert the campus.
Questioned by the state, Hincker turned emotional when he discussed April 16 and the days to follow, saying he slept only six hours over three days.
Hincker said he was dealing with "a torrent of information. The phones were ringing off the hook."
A safety communication expert for the plaintiffs also testified on the effectiveness of the university's warnings issued the morning of the shootings.
On the 9:26 a.m. email sent campus-wide informing students of a "shooting incident" on campus, Kenneth R. Laughery said, "It is a warning, a poor one, but it is a warning."
Laughery, a professor emeritus at Rice University, said the warning underplays the "magnitude of the situation."
"Fear is one of the things a warning tries to accomplish," he said.
The parents of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson are seeking $100,000 each and a full official accounting of events.
The state, the lone defendant, has acknowledged errors were made, including a police determination that the first two killings were domestic. Attorneys for the state defended police and university officials, stating they were working with the best information available and a gunman who somehow evaded detection after the initial killings.
A state panel that investigated the shootings concluded that officials erred in not sending an alert earlier. The lag in issuing a campus warning also brought Virginia Tech a $55,000 fine from the U.S. Education Department. The school is appealing.
The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families who didn't accept their share of an $11 million state settlement.
A jury is hearing the case.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap .