April 19, 2007

Alums Recall 1983 C.U. Murders

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Brenda Scinto ’87 was in her bedroom studying in 1983, when two freshman women, Young Hee Suh ’87 and Erin Nieswand ’87, were fatally shot in the room above her by 26-year-old Su Yong Kim. Scinto said she does not remember much about that year academically, but 26 years later, she remembers everything about that particular Saturday night. Monday’s shootings at Virginia Polytechnical Institute brought back a flood of memories for her.
“It was incredibly violent, an event that no one in that dorm that night or in dorms around us will ever forget,” Scinto said.
Kim, who was not a Cornell student, invaded the North Campus dorm Low Rise 7 on Saturday, Dec. 17, 1983 armed with a rifle. According to Scinto and police reports, Kim arrived at the dorm and confronted Suh and Nieswand in their room after Suh refused to see him. Scinto called Kim an “obsessed admirer and stalker of Suh.”
“We all heard him come in through the back fire escape stairs. Those doors were supposed to have been locked but everyone kept them propped open, and that’s how he got in. He came in through the fire escape stairway and entered the suite above me,” she said.
Less than 30 minutes later, Scinto heard gunshots as Kim murdered Suh and Nieswand. She then heard footsteps as he fled back down the staircase.
Though only two people lost their lives, the incident had potential to be even more traumatic. Kim held five additional students hostage in Suh’s room before releasing all but the two roommates.
Joel Melby ’84 lived on the floor below and remembers how much uglier the situation could have turned. “It was only because the man’s primary target, a quiet, shy, freshman girl, persuaded him to let most of the others go. Her bravery saved the lives of all but herself and her roommate. What if she hadn’t found the courage to do so?” he asked in a comment on The Sun’s website.
“What if” is a question many students are asking as they worry that shootings like the ones at Virginia Tech could happen at Cornell, and whether or not the University could handle such desperate conditions.
Evan Kalman ’08 does not feel any college is “equipped to handle a major situation.” “You can criticize [a school’s] lack of security, but not their lack of action. If there is a murder on campus you could say, ‘stay in your rooms,’ but I guess that can’t really prevent anything either,” he said.
Isha Tohill ’08 believes the events at Cornell in 1983 and the Virginia Tech murders emphasize holes in security at all college campuses. She said it was a mistake for Virginia Tech not to take any immediate precautions after the first shooting other than sending an e-mail two hours later stating that a shooting had occurred.
“I know it’s a big school, but they should have had people patrolling the whole campus, especially since they didn’t know where the shooter was,” Tohill said.
Scinto found it frustrating watching the coverage at Virginia on Monday. She also criticized the delay in reporting the first shootings since technology is now better than it was in 1983. There was no e-mail sent in 1983; information was spread through word of mouth and over landline phones, Scinto said.
“When the hostages were released in Low Rise, the resident advisors were immediately told what was going on and within minutes the police were there, buildings all over campus were locked down and police caught him within two miles of the dorm,” Scinto said. “I don’t know what the time frame is when administration was notified about the first shootings, but it had to be before two hours.”
Still, some students believe it is impossible to stop acts of violence and that something could happen at Cornell again or at any other college. Tohill said it is hard to prevent violent situations on campus, “unless every single building has card access that changes every semester according to who has classes in those buildings, and even then it’s not fool proof.”
According to Kalman, a false sense of security will leave colleges vulnerable to attacks.“You’re not quite home in Ithaca, but you’re very much not in the real world,” he said.
While the Virginia Tech community mourns 32 students and teachers, Cornell continues to offer condolences and support. Some are shocked from a distance, others personally affected by the rampage, but all share grief as many members of the Cornell community have friends and relatives attending and working at Virginia Tech.
Though Cornell students were certainly affected by such a recent horrific event, many Cornell students are likely unaware of the University’s tragedy decades ago.
In a post on The Sun’s website, Melby urged students not to become so far removed from the Virginia Tech tragedy that they forget the event “beyond the prayers and the tears.”
He stated, “Please don’t believe that it couldn’t have happened on our campus, because it already has.”