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Students find support and an outlet for grief online

By Taylor Gandossy
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(CNN) -- As police officers and reporters swarmed the Virginia Tech campus, many students turned to the Internet to share information and stories, ask questions, and comfort each other.

On Facebook.com, a members-only social Web site popular among college students, dozens of groups were created, starting moments after the shootings. Students updated information within existing groups, and created additional groups long into the night, and into Tuesday.

As the number of confirmed deaths climbed from more than 10, to more than 20, to the final number of 33, students from Virginia Tech, and from other colleges and universities expressed sorrow and outrage.

There are now more than 200 groups related to the tragedy on Facebook.com alone. Some have only a handful of members; others have thousands. One group, "April 16, 2007," had more than 28,000 members as of Tuesday afternoon.

"This is unbelievable ... we must unite as a University in order for this University to heal at all," wrote freshman Brandon Carroll, at 2:16 p.m. Monday on a discussion board.

Another freshman, Josephine Marrino wrote, "My prayers go out to all the victims and their families. It doesn't get much worse than this. These are the times we need to pull together and support one another."

Discussion boards on these Facebook groups compiled scattered media reports of the dead, the injured and the missing.

"If any of you knew any victims, you can use the wall for any support efforts or concern," wrote Virginia Tech freshman Tim Hall, the creator of "April 16, 2007 - A Moment of Silence," Monday.

As law enforcement labored to identify the dead and notify next of kin, students used services like Facebook and Myspace along with e-mail and instant messenger to let loved ones know they were OK.

"Right when it happened, the [cell] phones didn't work," said Virginia Tech freshman Drew Clare, Tuesday. Too many people were trying to use the phones, he suggested.

Clare had received a text message from his younger brother, Tyler, 17, who lives at home in Williamsburg, Virginia. He said Tyler's text message said, "Yo, I heard what happened, give me a call when you get this."

"I got three or four of those," he said. Unable to reply to his brother, Clare said he finally signed on instant message to let Tyler know he was OK.

Virginia Tech senior Chris Noack said he received a message from his little sister, and fellow Virginia Tech student, during the shooting Monday.

"What's going on?" Noack's younger sister, said in an instant message on his cell phone. Noack said his sister lived on the fifth floor of West Ambler Johnston dormitory. It is the same dormitory where two students were killed. Before Noack could respond, his sister sent him another instant message. "I am "hunkered down," she wrote.

Noack said his sister was unharmed.

Within an hour of the shooting, the school's student body leadership also set up e-mail chat rooms to communicate about what to do without having to leave the safety of their apartments, said student body president Adeel Khan, a sophomore.

And students turned to online forums to communicate the sad news of who had been killed.

Gathering to mourn

One Virginia Tech senior, Meredith Vallee, said she first learned of Reema Samaha's death through a Facebook message from a friend.

"She was a best friend's little sister," Vallee said.

Vallee, an English major, said there was a prayer message circulating the Web site for Samaha.

Several tribute groups for Samaha, similar to groups for Ryan "Stack" Clark, Ross Alameddine, and Erin Peterson, now exist on Facebook. (Watch online memorials that have been appearing Video)

"In Memory of Reema Samaha," shows a picture of Samaha -- a thin, smiling girl with wavy dark hair. "Why did you have to be in that classroom Reema? I loved you like my own sister. My life will never be the same without you in it," the group's creator, Vincent Posbic, of the University of Maryland, wrote.

One group, named simply "4/16/07," is dedicated to all victims.

"I started this group ... to make a very nice memorial dedicated to the lives of those lost," founder Marcos Correa, a recent Virginia Tech graduate, said Tuesday in an e-mail. Correa has gathered photographs of about 10 of the victims. "We talk about the lives of the victims and gather to mourn & heal together."

Additionally, members of Correa's group have posted hundreds of self-made graphics from students all across the country.

Many of the graphics were school logos coupled with the Virginia Tech logo over a black ribbon. Most stated, "Today we are all Hokies."

Vallee said many Virginia Tech students had changed their Facebook pictures and instant messager icons to that same black ribbon image.

"Facebook has kept a lot of people on their toes about what's going on," Clare said, adding that the site had now become more of a forum for people to "talk to each other ... grieve together," than to exchange news.

Junior Jeff Cooper agreed. "I think the support groups are better at this point," he said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It's better to see all that."



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A partial screen shot of the Facebook.com group "April 16, 2007 - A Moment of Silence," shows a variation on the Virginia Tech logo.

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