Representing America’s anguish, President Bush told Virginia Tech students and teachers at a somber convocation Tuesday that the nation was praying for them and “there’s a power in these prayers.”
“It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering,” Bush said at a memorial service on the campus where 33 people, including the suspected gunman, died in shootings the day before.
“Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate,” the president said. “They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they’re gone â€” and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation.”
Before flying to the tragedy-stricken university in southwestern Virginia, Bush ordered flags flown at half staff and issued a written proclamation in honor of those killed and wounded.
Speaking to a solemn crowd at a basketball arena, packed with students and others, many wearing orange short-sleeved Virginia Tech T-shirts, the president quoted a recent graduate blogging about the killings to encourage those who grieve to reach out for help.
“To all of you who are OK, I’m happy for that,” Bush said, quoting the Internet posting. “For those of you who are in pain or who have lost someone close to you, I’m sure you can call on any one of us and have help anytime you need it.”
The memorial service was subdued but ended with a spontaneous school chant of “Let’s go, Hokies!”
The president met with a wounded student and 50 relatives of the victims, hugging them and telling them to take comfort from one another.
Bush said it was different than meeting with families grieving victims of the Sept. 11 attacks or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think what makes this different is that a parent or a loved one thought their child was, learning to, to enrich their lives, and the next thing is they’re dead,” Bush told NBC News. “And it’s just the shock and suddenness and the location that makes this a very traumatic experience.”
First lady Laura Bush said she met with two families that had lost their only child. “The idea of that for any parent is so devastating that it’s hard for us to even imagine what they’re going through,” she told CBS News.
The Bushes also stopped briefly in the middle of campus, where students have set up a memorial of candles and flowers. The president and first lady added their signatures to a display of the letters “VT” â€” for Virginia Tech.
In times of tragedy, Americans often turn to the president to be the nation’s consoler. One of the most memorable images of Bush is of him standing atop a pile of rubble in New York, bullhorn in hand, as he rallied the nation after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In 1995, President Clinton went to Oklahoma City after the bombing of the federal building there, and his on-the-scene empathy was later viewed as a key factor in reviving his presidency and helping him win re-election.
Bush urged those angered by the killings not to be overcome by evil.
“People who have never met you are praying for you,” Bush said. “They’re praying for your friends who have fallen and who are injured. There’s a power in these prayers, a real power. In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God.”
Before the service, Bush received a briefing on the shootings and their investigation from Virginia Tech President Charles Steger.
On a day of raw emotion, Bush spoke to students who he said had just lived through the worst day of their lives.
“On this terrible day of mourning, it’s hard to imagine a time will come when life at Virginia Tech will return to normal, but such a day will come,” Bush said. “And when it does, you will always remember the friends and teachers who were lost yesterday.”
The tragedy fueled debate over gun control. Bush declined to discuss his view of needed changes to gun control policy, but said that conversation would definitely take place.
“I think when a guy walks in and shoots 32 people it’s going to cause there to be a lot of policy debate,” he said in an interview with ABC News. “Now is not the time to do the debate until we’re actually certain about what happened and after we help people get over their grieving. But yeah, I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion.”
Copyright Â© 2007 The Associated Press