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When Virginia Tech sophomore Ashley Roe left school yesterday, the campus, normally bustling with 26,000 students, was "a ghost town."

"There was a line of police cars, and they were talking to people trying to enter the campus," she said.

Yesterday morning, in the deadliest gun massacre in U.S. history, a gunman opened fire in a dorm and classrooms at Virginia Tech, killing 32 before taking his own life.

And as the death toll furtively climbed the charts over the course of the day, Penn students, slowly learning about the tragedy 300 miles south, reacted with a mix of shock, nerves and sympathy.

College freshman Zachary Bodnar was in the Student Financial Services office when "an employee came and turned on the TV and said, 'Check out what's happening.'"

"They said that 22 people had been killed, and the death count kept going up," he said.

Many Penn students said they didn't understand the severity of the incident when they initially heard about it.

"At first, the story seemed like one of those that people just read and pass over," College senior Seth Shapiro said. "But as the day progressed and the magnitude of the incident unfolded, I realized that this was something very serious."

Still, he said, "I feel safe."

But at Virginia Tech, located in Blacksburg, Va., as swarms of policemen were brought in to help the situation, the atmosphere, students there say, was "frightening and tense" - anything but safe.

Virginia Tech freshman Alex Jackson said he was woken up by the sound of police sirens and the emergency broadcast system yesterday morning.

"A hundred feet from my dorm door were police officers with M-16s," Jackson said. "I first called my parents and let them know I was okay."

Roe said students were trying to contact friends after the shooting.

"We're hearing from people who's in the hospital and who's been killed," she said. "I know a couple of girls in the hospital, and some of my friends know an RA who was shot and killed."

The school sent out a succession of e-mails as the gunman moved through the campus, where classes were cancelled by noon yesterday and today.

"The first shooting happened in my dorm, and there's still policemen scattered around campus," Virginia Tech freshman Eddie Weber said last night. "The fourth floor, where the girl [who was killed] lived, is closed off."

Students normally felt safe on Virginia Tech's campus, Roe said, describing the southwestern campus as "in the middle of nowhere."

But, after the attack, students are "wary of what happened and what might happen," Jackson said. "Everybody is still in shock."

At Penn, administrators and experts are responding to the tragedy and taking measures to help Penn students deal with the incident.

"On behalf of everyone at Penn, I extend heartfelt condolences to our friends and colleagues at Virginia Tech," University President Amy Gutmann said yesterday in a statement.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of the victims of this unspeakable tragedy," she said, encouraging members of the Penn community to utilize the University's "numerous resource offices."

Edna Foa, director of Penn's Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, held a post-traumatic stress workshop - originally scheduled to deal with students' responses to the war in Iraq - in which she discussed typical reactions to an event like the shooting at Virginia Tech.

"The more involved the person was, . the more severe the reaction they are going to have," Foa said.

- Staff writer Anthony Campisi contributed reporting for this article.

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