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Virginia Tech president defends security response

Story Highlights

• President Charles Steger: "We thought we had it under control"
• Police handled mass shooting professionally and skillfully, Steger said
• Students receive first campuswide e-mail alert two hours after first attack
• Thirty-three dead, including gunman, after attacks at two campus buildings
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(CNN) -- The president of Virginia Tech on Tuesday defended authorities' initial response to shootings at two university buildings that left 33 people dead, including the gunman.

A day after the killings, Virginia Tech police and university officials were answering questions about why no campuswide warning was issued until about two hours after the first attack.

The attacks came as the university was evaluating its campus warning system in response to deadly shootings near the school in August.

"We thought we had it under control, and I don't think anyone could have predicted that another event was going to take place two hours later," school President Charles Steger said Tuesday. (Watch what a SWAT instructor says officers should have done Video)

Authorities handled the crisis "professionally and skillfully," he said, responding to a reporter's question about whether campus police "blew it."

The first round of shootings occurred before 7:15 a.m. Monday, when police received a 911 call about an attack at a dormitory. Steger said police thought the gunman had left campus after the attack at West Ambler Johnston Hall that left a man and woman dead. (Interactive: A timeline of the tragic events)

"The dormitory was immediately closed down," Steger said. "It was surrounded by security guards, the streets were cordoned off and the students in the building were notified what was going on."

Students complained they received no campuswide alert until more than two hours later at 9:26, when an e-mail announced the initial shootings and warned the university community to be cautious. (Warning e-mails to students)

Around 9:40 a.m., the second round of attacks had taken place at Norris Hall classroom building, killing 31 people, including the gunman. That man was identified by authorities as Cho Seung-hui, 23, an English major and South Korean native who lived on campus. (Watch how police tests link gun to both shootings Video)

At 9:50 a.m., a second e-mail was brief and to the point: "A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows."

Student Tina Harrison told CNN: "I feel like there should have been an e-mail sent out or some sort of notice that there was a shooting in the West Ambler Johnston earlier that morning. Regardless if they thought it was an isolated incident, the students should have known and classes should have been canceled." (Watch a survivor of the attacks describe his ordeal Video)

But one student, sophomore Mark Demetriou, said he was satisfied with the timing of the response by the school and police.

"I'm sure the university was as cautious as they could be, and if they thought that if there were any real threat, they would have canceled classes immediately and not let anybody on campus at all," Demetriou said.

Police said surveillance cameras were neither at the West Ambler Johnston dormitory nor at Norris Hall.

Former FBI terrorism task force member Mike Brooks suggested that perhaps the school's warning system shouldn't rely so heavily on e-mail to notify a campus comprising more than 2,600 acres, hundreds of buildings and 26,000 students, faculty and staff.

"The question is, should the rest of the school have been notified of this? Possibly yes, just to let them know, to keep them informed," Brooks said. "But the notification system is an e-mail system. Is that a good system? If you're not in your dorm, not at your computer, or you don't have a hand-held device, you're not going to know."

Doors chained shut

Inside the classroom building where 30 of the victims were killed, at least two of the doors had been chained shut, said Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum on Monday. The chief said he didn't know if the attacker had brought chains into the building or if the chains were on the doors before the attacks. (Watch witness describe hearing "maniacal laughter" amid screams during attack Video)

In response to shootings that killed two near the campus last year, Virginia Tech police had been considering upgrading its security notification system to use cell-phone text messaging.

"As a result of the last incident, in August, we are in the process of looking at a way that we can get text messages out to students on their phone lines," Steger said Monday. "We have just not been able to implement that system yet."

In the August attack, school officials canceled classes and warned students to remain in their dormitories. A prisoner being treated at a hospital near campus overpowered a deputy and shot and killed a hospital guard, authorities said. He later shot and killed a sheriff's deputy, officials said.

"We definitely will be using a system in the future ... where students will give us their cell phone numbers and then we will be able to text message or also send phone mail messages," Steger said.

But he cautioned that when "an event like this happens rapidly, the cell phone capacity is saturated."


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