Key Points:

BLACKSBURG, Virginia - The gunman who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech university was an Asian male who was a student at the university and a dormitory resident, university president Charles Steger told CNN today.

Steger not did give the gunman's name.

Students tried to escape Virginia Tech's bloody rampage by playing dead, leaping out windows or cowering behind locked doors, survivors said.

Eyewitness accounts have been broadcast across global media after a gunman killed 32 students and himself in the deadliest shooting rampage in US history.

Fifteen people were wounded, included those shot and students hurt jumping from buildings in a desperate attempt to escape the gunfire, officials said.

* Two shot dead in college dormitory at 11.15pm Monday NZT
* 31 people - including gunman - killed in science hall two hours later
* 15 people wounded
* Student reportedly Asian male
* Authorities questioned over lack of action after first shooting
* Massacre prompts questions about US gun law
* Canterbury University says NZ exchange student safe

Erin Sheehan described to CNN how she played dead as the gunman burst into her German class and began to mow down her classmates in the worst killing spree on campus in America.

"He seemed very thorough about it, getting almost everyone down. I was trying to act dead," she told the broadcaster.

"He left for about 30 seconds, came back in, did almost exactly the same thing."

She said the gunman returned three times as students tried to keep the door shut on him, until he began to fire into the wooden door.

Of the 20-odd students in the classroom, only a handful were able to walk away.

"Everyone was else was unconscious, either dead or wounded seriously," Sheehan said.

'Locked in'

Most of those killed were students attending classes at the hall at Virginia Tech, where the gunman apparently used chains to lock the doors and prevent the victims from escaping, university and police officials said.

One student told CBS News the killer was an Asian male, about 1.8 metres tall, who walked into his German class and shot a student and professor before systematically shooting nearly all of the other students in the room.

"I hid under the desk and he proceeded to shoot everybody else in the class, practically," said Derek O'Dell, who suffered a gunshot wound in his arm.

"There were probably 15 to 20 people in the class and he shot 10 to 15 of them."

He said the gunman, who was wearing a black leather coat and maroon hat, fired several shots from a handgun, reloaded and resumed shooting. The man left the room, but returned and fired into the door before leaving again, O'Dell said.

Other reports said the gunman carried two nine-millimetre handguns.

By the time police reached the second floor of the building, the firing had stopped and they later found the gunman lying dead in a classroom.

"It was probably one of the worst things I've seen in my life," said campus police chief Wendell Flinchum.

Student Tiffany Otey was on the same floor of Norris Hall and spoke to CNN.

"At one point we did hear screaming... About ten minutes [after we heard the shots] the police came up. They told us to put our hands above our head. They told us if we didn't put our hands above our head they would shoot," she said.

The first shooting was reported to campus police at about 7.15am Monday local time (11.15pm Monday NZT) in West Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory housing some 900 students. It was followed by more shooting at Norris Hall, site of the science and engineering school.

The Daily Mail in London reported the gunman was said to have quarrelled in a dormitory with his girlfriend, whom he believed had been seeing another man.

A student adviser was called to sort out the row, but the killer produced a gun and shot dead both his girlfriend and the adviser, the paper said.

Questions over police response

During the two hours after the first shooting some students had ventured out again. University police were still investigating the first shooting at the dormitory when they got word of gunfire at the classroom building.

Defending police actions, police chief Flinchum said police received information that "it was an isolated event to that building and the decision was made not to cancel classes at that time".

At a news conference, Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said: "I'm really at a loss for words to explain or understand the carnage that has visited our campus."

He stressed that its efforts to alert students could not possibly reach the thousands of people moving around the campus at the start of the school day.

"We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur," Steger said of the first shooting.

But students expressed anger that emails warning about a possible gunman were not sent out until more than two hours after the first attack.

"I'm pretty outraged that someone died in a shooting in a dorm at 7 o'clock in the morning and the first email about it had no mention of locking down the campus, no mention of cancelling classes," Jason Piatt told CNN.

"They just mentioned that they were investigating a shooting," he said. "That's pretty ridiculous. Meanwhile, while they sent out that email, 21 people got killed."

Student Justin Merrifield told Reuters he was outside West Ambler dormitory at 9am when he saw police and a crying student but did not realise the magnitude of the crisis until he arrived at his 10am class.

Merrifield said students were alerted by campus loudspeakers.

"There was a voice that just kept repeating, 'Gunman on campus, stay indoors, get away from windows,' over and over, basically," said Merrifield.


Flinchum said police had a preliminary identity of the gunman, but disclosed only that he was a male.

He said two unspecified weapons had been recovered by police, and that there was a male "person of interest" connected with the first shooting who police had been questioning when the second shooting occurred .

"We are trying to determine if the two incidents are connected. Part of that will be the ballistics test."

The death toll was worse than a massacre at the University of Texas in Austin on August 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old student, killed 13 people and wounded 31 in a 90-minute spree.

"Today our nation grieves with those who have lost loved ones at Virginia Tech," President George W Bush said.

A student journalist's video of the chaos was replayed repeatedly on US television networks.

It showed people scurrying around the campus and more than two dozen shots ringing out.

Images of terrified students and police dragging bloody victims out of the building revived memories of the infamous Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and is likely to renew heated debate about US gun laws.

Students told CNN there were multiple bomb threats to the campus in the last few weeks. Two of the threats were aimed at the university's science and engineering school.

A US Department of Homeland Security spokesman said there was no indication of terrorism but that it would be part of the investigation.

The shootings were the second at Virginia Tech in the past year. A security guard was shot on campus in August last year.

The death toll was worse than a massacre at the University of Texas in Austin on August 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old student, killed 13 people and wounded 31 in a 90-minute spree. Whitman had killed his mother and wife the night before.

Virginia Tech, with 26,000 students and some 100 buildings on 1,050 hectares, is located in the town of Blacksburg and set in lush rolling hills in the southwest corner of the state, about 390km from Washington.