Witness: The Dormitory Murders

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Hector Emanuel for TIME

Molly Donahue, a student at Virginia Tech, who found two victims in West Amber Johnston Hall.

Molly Donohue, 18, thought she had dreamt the scream. It was just after 7 a.m. She had been sleeping through her alarm since 6:50 a.m. She rolled over in bed, got up, and put on a pair of jeans and shoes. Then, as she was standing in the middle of her room, she heard the scream again. It was a female voice. Very close. Maybe next door. "It was a scream, " she says, "of absolute terror. " Then, two loud thuds, like boards clapping together. Another scream. Two more thuds.

Donohue's mind fumbled for explanations. Someone fell from the double-level loft bed, she told herself. The thuds were bed boards collapsing. She stepped into the hallway in West Ambler Johnson dormitory to see if she could help. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

There, in the hallway, was a line of sopping sneaker prints, wet with blood, trailing away from room 4040 next door.

She tried to open the door to that room, which was dark and silent inside. But a body was on the other side of the door, blocking the way. Each time she pushed the door, the body would slump forward, but she still couldn't get in. She leaned in and asked if everyone was OK. There was no answer. So she ran. She ran to her Resident Assistant's room, not realizing that it was her RA, Ryan "Stack" Clark, whose body had been blocking the door of 4040. With Clark not in his room, Donohue made an odd decision. She went back to her room, got dressed for class, grabbed her lab manual for Chemistry, and went to meet her boyfriend for breakfast.

Donohue was, of course, in shock. She had just awoken to a gruesome murder but had not fully realized it yet. But she was not the only one who was confused in those crucial first moments. Virginia Tech officials, citing the ongoing investigation, have released few details about their initial response to the killings of Clark, who died along with Donohue's neighbor Emily Hilscher. But it's already clear that the university reaction was tragically misguided. University police have admitted that they believed the killings were a one-off domestic dispute. They didn't close campus or warn students. Even West AJ, as the dorm is called, wasn't fully locked down. And Donohue, clearly a key witness, wouldn't be interviewed for an hour and a half after the killings. All the while, gunman Cho Seung-Hui was meticulously planning a far bloodier second act across campus, where he eventually killed 30 students and took his own life.

Donohue says that in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, her dorm mates knew even less than she did. Hilscher and Donohue lived in the cluster of four rooms tucked behind the elevators, away from the main halls. They were called the "elevator girls." But their location meant that even fewer students knew what had taken place. When Molly first ran to Stack's room, she says she ran past girls in towels headed for the showers. A few students who did come to investigate the noises were too scared to try to find out what had actually happened in room 4040. "They didn't want to go too close because of the blood," she says. By the time Donohue left in a daze for breakfast, though, a female RA had already arrived and called the campus rescue squad from Donohue's room phone.

Michael Cunningham, a freshman, lived roughly 60 feet from Hilscher. But he didn't know what had happened until he got a knock on his door from his resident assistant at roughly 8:15 a.m. The RA told him he needed to evacuate the floor. "The police weren't the ones knocking on our door, " Cunningham says. The group with Cunningham was told not to return to the floor but that they were allowed to move freely throughout the building. "There was a big feeling of confusion at first because we really all didn't understand," he says.

After she left her dorm, Donohue's mind was still struggling to process what she had seen. By the time she reached her boyfriend at the cafeteria, she was trembling all over. "Something's the matter in my dorm, " she told him. "I think somebody got hurt badly. " Her boyfriend, who, like Donohue, is a member of Campus Crusade for Christ, prayed with her and walked her back to the dorm, but only because Donohue, still in shock, believed she needed to get lab goggles for her 8 a.m. chemistry class.

When she got to her dorm, the authorities had secured the crime scene but they simply turned her away, without asking her who she was. They had no idea that she was a witness. So she walked across campus to her chemistry lab. It wasn't until she arrived in class, and a friend texted her to say that the police were looking to speak with her, that she realized the enormity of what had happened that morning.

Donohue was interviewed by two University police officers. They told her she didn't have to go to any more classes that day. They offered to find her a hotel room and offered to get her medication to help her sleep. The two officers who interviewed her, however, hadn't seen the crime scene themselves, she says. "They really didn't know what had happened, " she says.

The rest of the campus wouldn't learn much either. Before the e-mail announcing the first shooting even went out at 9:30 a.m, groups of students around campus were passing rumors about what had taken place at West AJ. Some thought it was a drug bust. Others were repeating the line that the police were pursuing, saying that some guy killed his girlfriend.

Given how little Donohue had seen — and how little she had comprehended of what she saw — it's unlikely that her testimony would have convinced police to widen their search or increase their caution. She says that she, like everyone else, had thought it was over after the first shooting.

But it wasn't over. Donohue went to her boyfriend's room to type up her eyewitness account for the police. As she was walking outside, she overheard that there had been a shooting in Norris Hall. "At first, I didn't even think they were related, " she says. "I still wasn't thinking straight about it. " It wasn't until the next day that her friends mustered the courage to tell her the last unbearable piece of news: one of Donohue's closest friends, a fellow Campus Crusade for Christ member named Lauren McCain, had been shot to death in German class.

With reporting by Tracy Samantha Schmidt