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Those with WNY ties relive nightmare, express hope

Matt Sevinsky woke at about 7:15 a.m. Monday in his Virginia Tech dorm to a loud noise he thought was pounding on a door.

Then he went back to sleep.

His snooze felt so good he ignored his alarm at 8:30 and dozed through his 9 o'clock class.

It was a mistake that might have saved his life.

Matt, a sophomore architecture major with family ties to Lackawanna, never ventured through West Ambler Johnston Dormitory that morning when he heard the pounding that was really Cho Seung-Hui gunning down two students three floors directly above his room.

And he did not walk the path he would normally take past Norris Hall -- just as dozens more students and professors were falling there to gunfire.

"When it happened, I would have been walking right past there," Sevinsky said Wednesday from his parents' home in Bealeton, Va. "But I had just fallen back dead asleep. And I never miss class on a Monday morning.

"It was really weird."

Matt, 20, is the son of Lynne Sevinsky, a 1980 graduate of Lackawanna High School, and Tom Sevinsky, a native of Coudersport, Pa. He is also the grandson of William A. Delmont, publisher of the Lackawanna Front Page and the South Buffalo News and a longtime leader of the Erie County Conservative Party.

Sevinsky and his parents are now expressing gratitude for their good fortune while painfully aware of the suffering of other families. But when his parents could not contact Matt in the midst of Monday morning's increasingly terrifying news reports, they were not always so sure of a happy ending.

"We were expecting the worst; that was our fear," Lynne Sevinsky said Wednesday. "The whole time we were expecting the call."

Frantic efforts to reach Matt's cell phone went unanswered, only adding to their increasing anxiety.

"When we first heard about the shootings in Ambler, it freaked me out," Lynne Sevinsky said. "We frantically got on the phone and tried to call him. When he didn't answer, I just panicked."

She said a friend on the floor named Luke also could not contact him, prompting her to plead for Luke to look for Matt. Luke asked the dorm's resident assistant to use a master key, and they found Matt asleep in a loft bed on the first floor.

"They came in, saw me, and my friend said, 'Aw, gee. The idiot's asleep up there,' " Sevinsky recalled. "I had no idea this was all happening."

But the Sevinskys are thankful today that their son did exactly what they told him not to do -- cut class.

"We're pretty sure there was some divine intervention there," Lynne Sevinsky said.

The Sevinskys' gratitude is now tempered by the realization that not everybody got such good news. Matt knew Ryan Clark, the senior resident assistant on the fourth floor who has been the subject of widespread media reports after he was one of the shooter's first victims.

"I used to talk to him as he was making his rounds through the dorm," Matt said. "He was a pretty nice guy; really outgoing."

He also knew Reema Samaha, the dance team member killed in her French class, and also the subject of several media reports.

"She seemed like a sweet kid," he said.

Matt made the 3 1/2 -hour drive from the Blacksburg campus to Bealeton in northern Virginia on Tuesday night when classes were canceled. He was scheduled to attend a prayer service for the victims at his church Wednesday night, along with several other local families whose children returned safely.

"You see all the support out there, and it really touches you," he said. "It tells you that people are really pulling for you."

His mother added that she is confronting all kinds of emotions she never expected at the beginning of the week.

"We have strong faith, and we believe that God protected him," she said. "But you can't let that make you think God didn't protect the others. You just have to balance that, and think that maybe God has a purpose for Matt down the road."

***

Douglas Zschiegner, a Virginia tech theater arts professor, was on the road Wednesday, heading toward Western New York to go apartment hunting. He had long ago accepted a tenure-track job at Niagara University when tragedy struck in Blacksburg.

"I'm a little numb," Zschiegner told The Buffalo News as he drove. "I'm feeling pretty impotent because I was so close [to the massacre scene] and so oblivious to what was going on."

Zschiegner was in the performing arts building Monday morning about 100 yards from Norris Hall where most of the shootings took place.

"I came in at about 10 that morning, just as they were locking down the campus," he said. "Because we had had bomb threats that turned out to be nothing, we weren't taking it all that seriously."

He soon learned about the two shooting deaths in the dorm and then noticed a commotion in Norris.

"We eventually saw a couple of stretchers coming out," he said.

As they tried to determine what was going on, someone handed Zschiegner a phone. It was an ABC News producer trying to get details about what was going on. "I don't know that I had anything to say," he said.

Zschiegner noted that the ensuing onslaught of the media on the normally placid campus has been bizarre for faculty and students.

"I went to a vigil Monday night, and there were nine grad students holding candles and 25 reporters around them," he said. "In five minutes, it was canceled because it was so uncomfortable. . . . Any time there's a hug or a tear, there's seven cameras right there. That's making things difficult."

Zschiegner said he's feeling "a little guilty" for leaving campus for his trip here. "But I don't think there's anything I can do," he said.

***

Larry Larson was eagerly awaiting his daughter, JJ, to return from Virginia Tech to their new home outside Atlanta on Wednesday.

The Larson family had spent 14 years in Orchard Park but moved recently down South.

JJ Larson, along with her sister, Britney, made their mark locally as top-ranked tennis players.

JJ Larson received a full tennis scholarship to Virginia Tech.

Larry Larson said he never had serious worries about his daughter Monday because she text-messaged him shortly after the dorm shootings to let him know of the situation and that she was headed off campus.

"We were lucky," Larson said.

He explained that his daughter had lived in Harper Hall during the previous school year, the same dorm where the crazed gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, lived last year and this year.

"She recognized him," Larson said.

He added that his daughter also was friends with Clark, the resident adviser in West Ambler Johnston.

His daughter was deeply upset by all the terrible publicity that has been reaped on her beloved school since Monday, Larson said.

He added that she was particularly proud of her school Tuesday, during the 2 p.m. convocation attended by President Bush. The event was so popular that the overflow crowd filled the university's massive football stadium.

"She sat on the 40-yard line," Larson said.

She described to him how at the end of the event, students in the stadium invoked the school nickname and began chanting: "Let's go, Hokies!"

"She said everybody was crying," Larson said. "She'd want people to know how the students were rallying around the university."

***

Ashley Wilt, a Virginia Tech senior who grew up in Clarence, has been overwhelmed by the kind words she has received from her old friends and classmates from back home.

"It was really great to know that everybody really cared," Wilt said.

She and her sister, Alison, 24, both attend Virginia Tech.

Wilt said she was terrified for several hours Monday morning. She was off-campus at her apartment, desperately trying to make cell phone calls and check the Internet while her sister was in lockdown in a basement.

"She was stuck with teachers and students," she said. "They hooked a TV to find out what was going on. They were really scared."

So far, Wilt says, neither she nor her sister recognizes any of the names of the dead -- including the killer. "But just looking at their pictures," she said, she keeps thinking to herself: "These girls are just like me. It's so sad.'"

The Wilt sisters won't be coming back to Clarence, even though school has been canceled for the rest of the week. Their father, who lives in northern Virginia, will make the trip down to them instead, Ashley Wilt said.

"But if I lived in the dorms, I'd be out of there," she said.

She also wanted people in Western New York to know that she still loves her school, despite everything that has happened. "Go, Hokies!" she said. "We're going to get through this."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com and mbecker@buffnews.com

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