By Chris Keane
BLACKSBURG, Virginia (Reuters) - Five years after a mentally ill student gunned down 32 people at Virginia Tech, the university on Monday held classes for the first time on the anniversary of the country's deadliest mass shooting.
School officials said resuming classroom instruction on the anniversary of the April 16, 2007, rampage provided another way to honor the memories of the students and faculty members who lost their lives.
Freshman Jessie McNamara wasn't on campus at the time, but said she remembered the exact moment the shooting occurred. Two girls from her high school were among the victims, she said.
"It was really hard, but we got through it," she said, her voice choking with emotion.
On Monday, McNamara stopped at the April 16 Memorial on the Blacksburg, Virginia, campus to say a prayer for her two friends. Though she thinks of the shooting every time she passes the memorial, the freshman said she feels secure at the school.
"I feel 100 percent safe," she said, adding that anniversary events such as vigils reinforce the huge community support system available to students.
Virginia Tech marked the five-year anniversary at midnight with the lighting of a ceremonial candle that will remain lit for 24 hours.
Members of the university's Corps of Cadets stood guard at the candle for 32 minutes and will do so again Monday night before it is extinguished.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is scheduled to speak at a commemoration and candlelight vigil on Monday night.
Virginia Tech officials faced criticism after the 2007 massacre for taking more than two hours to notify the campus of an initial shooting that left two students dead in a residence hall on the morning of April 16.
Soon after the alert about that shooting went out, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 30 more people and wounded more than two dozen before taking his own life.
The massacre spurred universities across the United States to enhance their campus alert systems, and Congress passed a law aimed at making it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy guns.
(Reporting by Chris Keane; Writing By Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Doina Chiacu)