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CNN NEWSROOM

Virginia Tech Tragedy

Aired April 17, 2007 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: The governor of the state of Virginia and many others are going to be here to help this campus, which certainly is in mourning a day after what is really just an unimaginable tragedy.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: It really is quite surprising that they were able to put together this convocation so quickly after yesterday's tragic events. Typically, we'll see a couple, three days go by before they are able to pull together the logistics to do it.

But, you know, Virginia Tech is a very tightly-knit community. It's in a town of 41,000 people, Blacksburg, Virginia. And really, it's not a sense that Blacksburg is a college town. It is Virginia Tech's town.

CHETRY: It's true. And some of the students were recalling to us yesterday that the actual campus population is bigger itself than if you take out the campus and just the population of Blacksburg. And this is certainly a community that has felt strongly what happened yesterday.

And you can feel it no matter where you are in the community. And just walking around and talking to people, there really is a palpable sense of loss.

ROBERTS: And I think it's because of that sense of community that the president of Virginia Tech and the board of visitors wanted to, as quickly as possible, bring people together to help them to understand what went on yesterday, to show the grief, the respect for the people who died, and to just to try to give people a sense, really, of belonging here.

But, of course, amid all of this, I guess what you could call communication, too, between people about what is going on, there's some controversy as well. And that is the controversy as to why it took two hours and 10 minutes for an alert to go out to say that something had happened at West A.J. Hall, which is the residential hall in which the first shooting took place, in which two people were found dead.

We checked the criminal records here at Virginia Tech. There hasn't been a murder in the past three years, and probably goes well beyond that. And the fact there wasn't an alert sent out more quickly after they found these two people dead in West A.J. is a matter of concern for many, many people. There are a lot of people who are very angry about the fact that it took two hours and 10 minutes for this e-mail to go out telling people that something had happened. They felt that they should have been given better warning. And they're all wondering -- this following the question -- that is, that if a warning had gone out earlier, could lives have been saved?

CHETRY: Right. And then yet there were others we talked to today who said, "If I would have received that e-mail earlier, I don't know if I would have done anything different." It's such a large campus. There were many who felt that that was an isolated incident.

Indeed, even when they did read it, they didn't think anything was necessarily amiss. And there were some who feel that the campus police did the best job that they could given what they knew at the time. I think that there are many who never in their wildest, sickest, you know, imagination or horror could think that somebody would do this, especially now that we know a fellow student...

ROBERTS: And I remember yesterday when the news first started coming in, the fact that it was one person, and then it was two, and two became 20, and then 20 became 29, 30, 31, 32, you were just stunned, almost -- almost like you were hit in the stomach by each of those increasing figures.

CHETRY: You could hear an audible gasp actually at that press conference among the members of the media. And I think people with that gathered there couldn't believe when they felt that jump.

But we are right now going to quickly bring you to really probably one of the most heartbreaking moments of the morning on "AMERICAN MORNING" when we spoke to a brave young man by the name of Zach, who really saved many others.

He was in Norris Hall. His last name Petkewicz. He and his fellow classmates say that he sprang into action when the shooting started and really helped keep the gunman from getting into their classroom.

Here's the emotional account that he gave us this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZACH PETKEWICZ, VIRGINIA TECH STUDENT: After the initial gunshots I heard a scream. I didn't know if the gunshot -- I didn't know it was gunshots at first until I heard that scream. It all kind of sunk in.

The students who heard that scream, too, the girls in my class, peeked out in the hall and saw a gunner come out of a classroom with his gun pointed down. They immediately slammed the door shut, told us.

Everybody kind of went into a frenzy, a panic. I hid behind the podium and then just kind of looked up at the door. It was just like, there was nothing stopping this guy from just coming in. And so I said, "We need to barricade this door." Me and two others got up, threw a couple of tables in front of it, and had to physically hold it there while there were gunshots going on.

He came to our door, tried the handle, couldn't get it in because we were pushing up against it. He tried to force his way in, got the door to open up about six inches, and then we just lunged at it and closed it back up. And that's when he backed up and shot twice into the middle of the door, thinking we were up against it trying to get him out.

And I was right -- I was up against the side holding this desk up against there, and I just heard his clip drop to the ground. He reloaded, and I thought he was coming back for a second round and trying to get his way in there. And, I mean, he just -- he didn't say a word, and he just turned and kept firing down the hall and didn't try to get back in.

CHETRY: That is unbelievable. First of all, had you keep your wits about you and have the wherewithal to know, I've got to get the door blocked?

PETKEWICZ: I didn't. I mean, I was -- I was completely scared out of my mind originally, and just went into a cowering position. And then just realized, I mean, you've got to do something.

CHETRY: How many people were in your class?

PETKEWICZ: There's 10 others.

CHETRY: How were you not standing where he shot? How did you know to not be directly in front of the doorway?

PETKEWICZ: Well, we had a long, rectangular-shaped table that me and another one of my classmates had on either side of the door. So we weren't directly in front of the door and we were standing off to the side. So, the cinderblocks were protecting us as much as we could.

And, you know, we were just trying to hold that -- hold that table against that door. And thankfully, we weren't in front of it when he did shoot through it.

CHETRY: Yes, absolutely.

Was there any way for anyone to call 911 or any -- as all of this was unfolding?

PETKEWICZ: Yes. One of my -- a couple of my classmates were on the phone with 911 the whole time while all this was going on, and, you know, just hearing bullets going off. Don't know what exactly was going on. We're just trying to keep him from coming in our classroom.

CHETRY: And in the meantime, were police saying we're coming, we're on our way? PETKEWICZ: I mean, we -- I could hear police shouting all around the building. I mean, they were there really fast. It was just a matter of getting up and getting to us and getting this guy out of -- out of the picture.

CHETRY: Did you know anybody that was not so lucky yesterday?

PETKEWICZ: I didn't have any close relationships with anybody that was -- anybody else on that floor. I mean, just the people in my class, and nobody in my class got injured.

CHETRY: And as many have been saying, your quick thinking may have saved so many lives. What do you say when people are calling you a hero today?

It's tough.

PETKEWICZ: I'm just glad I could be here.

CHETRY: Thank you for joining us, Zach, and for sharing your story. I know it's an extremely difficult day, but you may have saved a lot of lives yesterday. And I'm sure there are a lot of people that are grateful you were in that classroom yesterday.

Thanks.

PETKEWICZ: Thanks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHETRY: It still makes you tear up when you see Zach.

ROBERTS: It is just so tough to think of what he went through and the heroism that he showed with his two classmates, to put that table up against the door and to hold him off at all costs.

CHETRY: It is.

ROBERTS: Even when he was shooting through the door. Just incredible.

CHETRY: It also -- you know, it also makes you a bit angry. Why should these kids, you know, that were just coming here to learn and to do their best -- and you know their parents are probably emptying every cent out in their savings accounts to get them here to this school so they could better their lives. And to have to deal with this, and have to be victims of this type of senseless violence, it just makes everyone feel a little bit helpless.

ROBERTS: Yes, it does.

CHETRY: And I hope that today's, you know, ceremony and just seeing that there are so many who care about these people will help a little bit.

ROBERTS: It really makes you feel so vulnerable. And I remember yesterday morning, we called our son, whose best friend goes to school here. Our son is out at the University of Colorado, and he immediately dropped the phone and started frantically calling his friend, because even though it's a campus of 26,000 students, you just never know.

And here's one of the really heartbreaking things that our great correspondent, John King, found out about earlier today, and that is that as the emergency officials were taking the bodies of the dead students out of Norris Hall, they were listening to cell phones ring and cell phones buzz as frantic parents were trying to get in touch with their children. And as a parent, you just can't imagine what it's like to go through that. It's really tough.

CHETRY: And that is why we are here, and that is why if you look behind us, the hum of the satellite trucks, it's because this story has such enormous impact. Anybody who sees it today and who has been listening and following it can understand the horror and what these people must be going through.

And to be able to tell some of their stories and to hear about this -- and there's really no one in this community it hasn't touched. A little bit more about what you were saying, there were some people from a local funeral home who had the grim task of saying, "What can I do to help?" And they said, "We need body bags."

And so the long journey with tears running down his face, this guy who owned a funeral home was bringing 36 of them, hoping they wouldn't need to be used. And as we know, 32 innocent people lost their lives because of this madman who just went on a rampage for no explicable reason.

ROBERTS: Yes. Forgive me. My apologies there. It hit home for me right there. And I think there's a lot of people across America who will be feeling exactly the same thing.

We're just -- we're trying to bring you up to the convocation here at the Cassell Coliseum that's going to begin in just a few moments. It looks like there's a little bit of a delay.

As you can imagine, there's so much going on in getting President Bush here, who met with Virginia Tech police, as well as campus officials just a little while ago, making his way over to the Cassell Coliseum. Things are running a little bit behind.

It is our intention, because of the gravity of the situation here and the need for people to be able to come together and to share on this solemn occasion, to stay out of this as much as possible. We'll come in from time to time just to sort of guide you along and help you understand where the ceremony is going, but we want to let this whole thing breathe for you and just get a sense of what it's like here, because there is just such a tremendous amount of emotion here at Virginia Tech.

It's funny, I live in Virginia, I have known about this campus for a long, long time, but never been here before. It truly is a beautiful place, and it is just truly such -- so criminal that something like this happened at all, and then to have it happen at a place like this is just extraordinarily, extraordinarily damaging to so many people.

CHETRY: Do you remember the professor we talked to this morning as well? He said that there was nothing he was going to -- that was going to make him miss today's ceremonies.

He said, you know, "It happened in our place," you know, in Norris Hall, the engineering hub. There were other classes and offices, but that was the hub of the science and engineering.

And he was desperate for some information, wondering who he knew that may have fallen victim to this killer. And so, of course, as you said in the days of the Blackberry, I was able to show him. And as he scrolled down, there were different people that he knew and recognized.

And it was really heartbreaking to watch that and to see the toll. Because even if it didn't happen to you, and even if you weren't here, there's no doubt if you're part of this campus, there is somebody you know whose life is changed forever.

ROBERTS: Sure.

CHETRY: And as a parent there's no other way to put it, but your life is really shattered forever.

ROBERTS: And let's not forget, too, that, you know, when these young people come out of 12th grade, they're all at the same high school, Montgomery Blair in your case, and then they go far and wide across the country, and they all know somebody somewhere, right? People from the graduating class, some might go to Virginia Tech, some might go to Harvard, some might go to UCLA, but there are those interconnections across the country.

We also met earlier today on "AMERICAN MORNING" an extraordinary fellow. I don't know how he ever came here to talk to us. He was also talking to Brian Williams last night on "NBC Nightly News".

His name is Derek O'Dell. He came face to face with Cho Seung- hui last night in -- or yesterday morning in Norris Hall.

When we met him this morning, he was wearing the same North Face polar fleece that he was wearing yesterday morning, and it had a bullet hole that went from here and came out here, and as the bullet hole passed through the fabric, it also went through his arm. Fortunately for him it was what they call a through-and-through shot. The bullet just kind of magically passed through without hitting anything vital. But he came and spoke with us this morning.

We want to play for you as we're waiting here for this convocation to get under way a little bit of my interview with Derek O'Dell.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: Here's the bullet hole right here in his sweater. It looked like it was a through and through.

And it went through your arm as it was going through there.

Tell me what happened yesterday. You said that you were on the second floor, but just lay out that scene for me, Derek.

DEREK O'DELL, INJURED VIRGINIA TECH STUDENT: Well, we just heard gunshots down the hall. And we didn't really make anything of it because there's a lot of construction on campus. But we thought it was like hammering on the wall or something.

But then it became very apparent that there was a shooter right when he entered our classroom and shot somebody almost instantly as soon as he entered. At that point he started shooting multiple people, a lot of them in the front row. And then lots of us panicked and went under our desks and tried to take cover.

ROBERTS: So how were you shot?

O'DELL: I actually hadn't even realized I was shot until after the killer -- the shooter left our room. So, after he left our room, I looked down and my arm was bleeding pretty profusely.

ROBERTS: You didn't even feel the bullet at the time?

O'DELL: No, it just felt like a tingling sensation in my arm.

ROBERTS: Wow. And so he was just firing wildly around the room? Because you said you were under a desk when you got hit.

O'DELL: Yes. He seemed pretty trained at what he was doing. He was kind of going up to people and then shooting them in the head. Pretty point blank range. I mean, just horrible images that you never want to see again in your mind.

ROBERTS: Did you get a look at him?

O'DELL: Yes, I got a pretty good look at him and I gave the police my description.

ROBERTS: So, we had the president of the college, Charles Steger, say that he was an Asian male, he was a student. Can you describe him for us now?

O'DELL: He had on like a black leather jacket that had like ammo sleeves on the inside. He had jeans on and what appeared to be a maroon hat.

ROBERTS: Did you recognize him as one -- I know there are 26,000 students on campus.

O'DELL: I don't think anybody in our room recognized him or even knew him. ROBERTS: I guess at that point you're not really paying that much attention to the face and "Do I know this person?"

What was going through your mind in terms of what the hell is happening here? This is Blacksburg, Virginia, this is Virginia Tech, this doesn't happen here.

O'DELL: It's just pure shock. I mean, it's something that you see on the news. I mean, not to this scale, but something that you would see on the news. You just never imagine it happening to you. And it happened yesterday.

ROBERTS: We talked with one of your fellow students, Zach Petkewicz, who is a senior who was in Norris that same day who helped barricade a door. And he was telling us about the fear that he had that was going through him because this shooter was so methodical, so cold, so determined to get inside and get people.

What was your impression of this guy?

O'DELL: He was very methodical. I mean, he just seemed trained to kill almost. He had no, like, anger in him at all. He was just very calm and assertive and very determined to kill everybody.

ROBERTS: Right.

What's it like to watch him do what he was doing yesterday?

O'DELL: It's just something I try to put out of my mind. I mean, just to see him come up to people and then shoot them for no apparent reason at all just seems irrational and just something that doesn't make sense at all to me.

ROBERTS: You know, you seem very calm about this whole thing. Has it sunk in yet?

O'DELL: I don't think so. I mean, it still seems just like some type of fantasy that would never happen.

ROBERTS: Do you think that a couple days from now you're going to be sitting down and you'll suddenly say, "Oh, my god, what did I just go through?"

O'DELL: Yes, I think the images will start to replay more and more in my mind and I just won't be able to put them out.

ROBERTS: You know, Derek, so many of the students that we have talked to in the last couple of days have said, where was the warning? Why did it take two hours and 10 minutes for them to tell us that something had happened on campus?

What are your thoughts about that?

O'DELL: I think the university as a whole did a pretty good job of responding to what happened. I mean, you can't rally prepare for what they did -- or this kind of situation at all. It's really tough to even determine, like, what his motive was or anything. So, especially the police department and the rescue squad, they all helped probably save numerous lives that otherwise would have been taken.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: Derek O'Dell talking to us earlier today on "AMERICAN MORNING".

Just put yourself in his place for a second, hiding under a desk with a gunman armed with a .22 caliber semiautomatic, a 9 millimeter semiautomatic, firing wildly around the room. You feel something tear at your arm, you don't know what it is. You're watching people get shot at point-blank range. And he can come on and he can talk about it.

That's extraordinary.

CHETRY: I think he's still in shock.

ROBERTS: I think so, too.

CHETRY: And I think he admitted to that as well, because he is going -- the other shoe is going to drop for him, I'm sure. And we did have a chance to talk to him about that.

ROBERTS: President Bush just arriving now in Cassell Coliseum, after meeting with Virginia Tech officials, as well as the Virginia Tech Police Department. With the president's arrival, it means that we're probably less than a minute away from this ceremony beginning.

And again, we're going to stay out of it to the greatest degree that we can, because this is something that you should just listen to it, take in, absorb it, to understand what's going on here.

CHETRY: That's right. And right behind him -- or in front of him there, obscured right now, but the first lady also present.

We're going to head over to Heidi Collins, who is also standing outside of Cassell Coliseum.

Heidi, are you with us?

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, hi there, guys. I am.

And I've been standing outside, Kiran, Cassell Coliseum. You can see it right behind me here. And I can tell you, for at least the last 25 minutes there have been students filing in without very much space between them to go and to be together, and to talk about what has happened on their campus.

It has been an incredible scene here, and I know you want to get back inside. I believe that the president is coming to the microphones.

(NATIONAL ANTHEM)

ZENOBIA LAWRENCE HIKES, VICE PRESIDENT FOR STUDENT AFFAIRS: Please remain standing until the colors are posted.

The colors are posted.

You may be seated.

HIKES: Good afternoon. I am Zenobia Lawrence Hikes, vice president for student affairs.

We have come together today to remember the cherished and innocent members of the Virginia Tech family whose lives were so abruptly ended in the senseless act that has left us all reeling in excruciating grief. As we share our sorrow, we collectively pay tribute to these young gifted minds who came to Virginia Tech searching for knowledge and understanding, and to these dedicated, talented professors who sought to impact that knowledge and enhance that understanding.

Today the world shares our sorrow and pays tribute with us.

We particularly want the families and friends of those we've lost to know that you have our deepest, most heartfelt sympathy. Please know that we are here for you, and we will do whatever we can to ease your pain even as we deal with our own. Your loved ones are our valued members of the Virginia Tech family, and they can never be replaced, either in our hallways or in our hearts.

What happened here yesterday has reverberated not just throughout the Virginia Tech family, but throughout all of higher education. Indeed, throughout the world. This global tragedy is one we never imagined seeing on our university campus. Because of it, we have lost not just these dear members of our Virginia Tech community, we have lost the sense of peace that comes with learning.

The Virginia Tech family is one of camaraderie, respect, scholarship, pride, and spirit, standing together through the good times and the bad. What has happened to these beloved members of our family has brought us even closer together in our shared grief and our disbelief.

With the help and support of each other and our brothers and sisters all over the world, we will eventually recover. But we will never, ever forget.

At this time I would like to invite President Charles Steger to come to the podium.

(APPLAUSE)

CHARLES STEGER, VIRGINIA TECH PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.

Thank you very much.

You all are going to make it difficult for me to finish this speech, I have to tell you.

As you know, our university community, indeed the entire nation and people from many other nations, come together to mourn and to grieve, all the while hoping that we will awaken from what is a horrible nightmare.

In the last day I've expressed my horror and shock, but there really are no words that truly express the depth of sadness that we feel. In fact, words are very weak symbols of our true emotions at times such as this.

It's overwhelming, almost paralyzing, yet our hearts and our minds call to us to come together to share our individual attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible, to make sense of the senseless, and to find ways for our community to heal, and to slowly and painfully but inevitably to begin to heal and to again move forward. We are very grateful that we do not have to travel this path alone, and we are grateful for all who have attended and joined us today.

The expressions of sympathy and support that have poured in from all corners of our nation and from around the world, literally from around the world, have touched us. They help us cope with the incredible tragedy and have reaffirmed our basic belief in the goodness of people.

We want to thank all the members of the local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, especially the Virginia Tech Police, the Blacksburg Police, the Virginia State Police, and all the emergency responders who rushed to our aid, who continue to monitor our campus, and who have the additional horror of investigating this catastrophe. We cannot thank them enough for their bravery and for their assistance.

We are extremely grateful that you here in the audience today have come to help us and to help each other. We are thankful for our students and their friends and family who have offered solace and comfort to one another. In fact, the student government association and the student body have organized a candlelight vigil for tonight that will take place in the drill feed near the war memorial gym -- the war memorial, rather, at 8:00 p.m.

As I've mentioned previously, but I want to emphasize, there is counseling available for all members of the university community. Counseling for students is available at the McComas Center. And for faculty and staff, at Squire's in the Brush Mountain room.

This afternoon in this convocation, we see further testimony that the events that have occurred in our community yesterday had an impact not just on friends and family, but on millions of people from around the world.

To help us mourn and to begin to heal, we have with us, of course, President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush.

We're very grateful for you being here today.

Also, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and first lady Anne Holton; all of the members of the U.S. Congress representing Virginia, the honorable Bill Bolling, lieutenant governor of Virginia; the Virginia attorney general, Bob McDonnell; members of the general assembly; as well as members who are current and former members of the board of visitors.

We also appreciate having the Blacksburg Town Council and other local officials.

We deeply appreciate your concern.

Now, during his public service, Governor Kaine, who has hurriedly flown back from a trade mission in Asia -- in fact, I spoke with Governor Kaine yesterday twice from Tokyo -- he came back to be with us, he's focused on strong values and expanding opportunities for families. Earlier in his life he served as a missionary and a teacher in a small village in Honduras, utilizing the twin forces of faith and education to help people. As you know, Governor Kaine has offered us whatever additional resources are needed to help cope with and heal from the pain we carry with us today.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming the 70th governor of the commonwealth of Virginia, Governor Tim Kaine.

GOV. TIM KAINE, VIRGINIA: What an amazing community this is. Mr. President and Mrs. Bush, and to all who are part of this Virginia Tech community in this room, on this campus, worldwide, today it is a very bitter and sad day, yet my wife Anne and I are very privileged to be here with you, and there's nowhere else in the world we would rather be than to be with you at this moment.

As Charlie mentioned, Anne and I had left on Sunday morning from Richmond to go on a two-week trade mission to Asia. One of the events is actually an event in India to spotlight a wonderful program of Virginia Tech. We had been in Tokyo in the hotel for about five hours when we were awakened with a call about 1:00 in the morning to report the horrible tragedy on this campus, and we were stunned, and our first thought was we need to get home, we need to be in Blacksburg with this community that we care so much about.

We had the experience of being up in the middle of the night and not being able to get home for about ten hours, so we did what people all across the world have been doing in the last couple of days. We sat there first in our hotel room, and then in a coffee shop, and then in an airport waiting lounge, with the television on, watching to get news about what was happening on this campus and how the campus was handling it.

It was different being away from home, being halfway across the world and seeing what was happening on this campus and what you, you students, were showing to the world. And even in the midst of the darkest day in the history of this campus, what you showed to the world yesterday, you students was an amazing thing, again and again and again, in all these various news outlets, students were called forward to offer their thoughts and asked what they thought about their campus and how they were dealing with this tragedy. And the grief was real and very raw.

The questions were deep and troubling, but again and again what students came back to, wearing the Virginia Tech sweatshirts, wearing the Virginia Tech caps, was the incredible community spirit, and the sense of unity here on this campus, and how before it was about who was to blame or what could have been done different, it was about how we take care of each other on this wonderful, wonderful community, how proud we were even in the midst of a sad day to see how well you represented yourselves and this university to a worldwide community.

There are deep emotions that are called forth by a tragedy as significant as this, grieving and sadness by the boatload. Anne and I have unashamedly shed tears about this, and I know virtually all of you have as well. That is the thing you should be doing. You should be grieving. There are resources here on this campus and others who are on this campus to help you as you find need for consolation. That is so important.

A second reaction that is a natural reaction is anger, anger at the gunman, anger at the circumstance, what could have been done different? Could something have happened? That's natural as well, one of the most powerful stories in the human history of stories is that great story central to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the story of Job from the Old Testament, afflicted with all kinds of tragedies in his family and health, and he was angry. He was angry at his circumstances. He was angry at his creator. He argued with God, he didn't lose his faith, but it's OK to argue, it's OK to be angry. Those emotions are natural as well.

And finally, the emotions of the family members most affected, beyond grief, losing a son, losing a daughter, a brother, a sister, losing a close friend, it can go beyond grief to isolation and feeling despair. Those haunting words that were uttered on a hill on Calvary, my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Despair is a natural emotion at a time like this.

They're all natural, they're all appropriate, but let me ask one thing of you, this community. As you wrestle with your sadness, as you wrestle with your own feelings of anger and confusion, as you wrestle with the despair, even you family members who have lost people close to you, do not, do not let hold of that spirit of community that makes Virginia Tech such a special place, do not lose hold of that.

You need it as a university, because you've always had it. You need to maintain it. We do not need that spirit of community to be a victim of yesterday. No, you need that. You as a community, unified together, there is so much you can do for these family members, to help bear them up, to help them deal with their grief. If you are unified, there's an incalculable amount you can do to help the family members and friends deal with the loss.

We need in Virginia that spirit of community that you have here. We're bold enough to call ourselves not a state, but a commonwealth. A state is a dotted line, a state is a political subdivision. Commonwealth has a meaning. The meaning is what we have, the God- given and manmade resources that we have, we hold in common for a community and you at Virginia Tech can be that community and demonstrate that community for us in a way that will benefit the entire Virginia. And finally, I would say to you from having that vantage point, of hearing about this on the other side of the world, it's not just you that needs to maintain the spirit. The world needs you to because the world was watching you yesterday, and in the darkest moment in the history of this University, the world saw you and saw you respond in a way that built community.

I was reminded in the airport as we got ready to board to come back, I've seen this story before, I've turned on the television and seen the bad news of a shooting or a weather emergency or a famine. I've seen these stories, and there will be more stories, but there was something in the story yesterday that was different, and it was you, your spirit even in the dark day of optimism and community, and hope, and wanting to be together, and you taught something good yesterday even in the dark day to people all around the world and the world needs that example before it.

So I pledge to do all I can, President Steger, and members of the community, and my team as well, to be with you in these coming days, to be alongside of you in difficult times as we sort through and try to work with families and friends.

You have a remarkable community here. Just look around and see this, and see the thousands of students next door. This is a remarkable place. Do not let hold of that sense of community which is so powerful in this room.

In the middle of the evening, shortly after we had received word, I received a call from the president, 3:30 in the morning, calling to ask about Virginia, how Virginia was doing? How were the students doing? President Bush was very engaged in wanting to know how people were doing, but more importantly to say if there was anything he could do, he or the First Lady or the federal government could do to help, they wanted to be helpful. And they were helpful. We couldn't have gotten back here so quickly had it not been from assistance from the White House to enable us to be here today.

President Bush is a man who knows deeply that one of the tough but necessary parts of leadership is comfort and consolation in hard times, first as a governor, and now as a president. He embraces that aspect of leadership, and what a powerful and positive thing it is for the university today to welcome the president of the United States, President George Bush.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Governor, thank you, President Steger, thank you very much, students and faculty and staff and grieving family members, members of this really extraordinary place, Laura and I have come to Blacksburg today with hearts full of sorrow. This is a day of mourning for the Virginia Tech community, and it is a day of sadness for our entire nation. We've come to express our sympathy.

In this time of anguish, I hope you know that people all over this country are thinking about you. And asking God to provide comfort for all who have been affected. Yesterday began like any other day. Students woke up and they grabbed their backpacks, and they headed for class. And soon the day took a dark turn with students and faculty barricading themselves in classrooms and dormitories, confused terrified and deeply worried. By the end of the morning, it was the worst day of violence on a college campus in American history. For many of you here today, it was the worst day of your lives.

It's impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering. Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they're gone and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation.

In such times as this, we look for sources of strength to sustain us. And in this moment of loss, you're finding these sources everywhere around you. These sources of strength are in this community, this college community. You have a compassionate and resilient community here at Virginia Tech.

Even as yesterdays events were still unfolding, members of this community found each other. You came together in dorm rooms, in dining halls and on blogs. One recent graduate wrote this "I don't know most of you guys, but we're all Hokies, which means we're family. To all of you who are okay, I'm happy for that. For those of you in pain or have lost someone close to you, I'm sure you can call on any one of us and have help anytime you need it."

These sources of strength are with your loved ones. For many of you, your first instinct was to call home and let your moms and dads know you were okay. Others took on the terrible duty of calling the relatives of a classmate or a colleague who had been wounded or lost. I know many of you feel awfully far away from people you lean on, people you count on during difficult times, but as a dad, I can assure you, a parent's love is never far from their child's heart. As you draw closer to your own families in the coming days, I ask you do reach out to those who ache for sons and daughters who will never come home.

These source of strength are also in the faith that sustains so many of us. Across the town of Blacksburg and in towns all across America, houses of worship from every faith have opened their doors and have lifted you up in prayer. People who have never met you are praying for you. 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. As the scriptures tell us, don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. And on this terrible day of mourning, it's hard to imagine that a time will come when life at Virginia Tech will return to normal, but such a day will come. When it does, you will always remember the friends and teachers who were lost yesterday. And the time you shared with them and the lives they hoped to lead. May God bless you, may God bless and keep the souls of the lost, and may his love touch all those who suffer in grief. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President Bush, we sincerely appreciate you and the First Lady joining us today and offering your sincere condolences. Ladies and gentlemen, our next speaker will be Jacob Lutz III, Rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors.

JACOB LUTZ III, DIRECTOR OF THE V.T. BOARD OF VISITORS: As a native of Blacksburg, as a graduate of Virginia Tech, and as Rector of the Board of Visitors, I want to express both my horror and shock of the events of yesterday. And also appreciation for the outpouring of support from the people around the world, and for so many prayers that have been lifted up in our behalf.

We gather this afternoon to mourn and pay homage to those innocent lives lost in this unfathomable tragedy. We gather as a family, as a community saddened beyond belief. We also recognize that we are part of a larger community, which is a national community dedicated to teaching of our young people performing critical research and to outreach for all of us.

Education is a critical component of a free and open society. Unfortunately, history teaches us that the horror that befell Virginia Tech yesterday has and could occur at any institution. Our educational system is a national treasure, one that we must preserve and keep safe for our children and for the children of generations to come. As President Bush noted yesterday, our sanctuary has been violated. We feel violated and are filled with sadness and grief, yet in our hearts, we know we must somehow move forward as painful as those steps are.

From somewhere in the human spirit we can and will find the strength and courage to continue. While that may seem like an impossible task, we must move forward and begin the healing process. We're blessed to have four leaders from our local religious community, who are here to assist us with our grief. And in whose strong hands we place our hearts in this most troubling time.

With us we have Dr. Saki Riyadh (ph), a leader in our local Muslim community. Let's come on up here, please all of you. We also have Ms. Julie Still, from Living Buddhism of Virginia Tech. Ms. Sue Kurtz, Director of Hilell (ph) of Virginia Tech and the Reverend Bill King, Director of Lutheran Campus Ministries. We're thankful for their strength and guidance.

DR. SAKI RIYADH, MUSLIM LEADER: In the name of Allah, most merciful and most compassionate. On behalf of the Muslim community in Blacksburg, and as members of the Blacksburg and Virginia Tech communities, we express our sincere condolences to the families and friends of the innocent victims that we lost yesterday. I stand here to tell you that we're all in pain.

All of us here. The children of Adam and Eve, we all unite in pain and we're all hurt. Death strikes every day, all over the world. We see it on television and hear and read about it in the media, but when it hits home, we feel it intensely and recognize its reality.

The Islamic faith reminds us in chapter 2, verse 156 of the Holy Koran (FOREIGN LANGUAGE). Those who say when afflicted with calamity to Allah we belong, and to him is our return. And (INAUDIBLE) chapter 31, verse 34, (INAUDIBLE) reminds us -- (FOREIGN LANGUAGE) nor does anyone know what it is that he or she will earn tomorrow, nor does anyone know in what land he or she is to die. Verily, with Allah's full knowledge, and he (INAUDIBLE) all things.

Death strikes home when we least expect it. To remind us of the only fact of life that we all subscribe to -- rich or poor, young or old, strong or weak, ill or well, in the battlefield or in the classroom, it comes to remind us of how vulnerable we are, no matter what we do, no matter how much security we have, no matter what we believe in, it will happen.

Some would say it doesn't have to happen that way. I remind myself and remind them that there's a creator with a wisdom beyond our comprehension and with mercy and compassion far beyond our appreciation. To Allah we belong and to him is our return.

I pray to God that this one incident will not change the character of our peaceful and friendly town and university. I pray to God that the quality of life that we all enjoy and will continue to enjoy in this community will continue to attract new students to our university, attract professionals who make this place their home and continue to retire here.

Finally, we should not let this tragedy make us lose confidence in our great law enforcement officers. They have kept our community safe and provided for the great quality of life we all enjoy at this university and in this town. We know them as diligent and dedicated professionals, even a singularity of this immense magnitude should never overshadow all the good work these great men and women have done to make this community so safe and so enjoyable. I conclude with the Islamic greetings of peace (INAUDIBLE).

JULIE STILL, REP. FOR BUDDHIST COMMUNITY: I'm here on behalf of the Buddhist community on campus. In the aftermath of the terrible events yesterday, I extend my deepest condolences to all those families who have lost their loved ones. From the bottom of my heart, I pray for the victims, and I pray for all those, especially their families, find inner peace, understanding and compassion leading to healing.

It is impossible not to be outraged at the senseless loss of so many lives. The number of deaths were utterly horrific. Every person lost was irreplaceable and immensely precious, a much-loved sister, father, son, teacher and friend.

The message of all religious teachings is the sacredness and preciousness of life. In the most terrible manner imaginable, we have been reminded of the immense value of human life. Like you, I have been receiving and sending numerous e-mails and phone calls connecting with family and friends. The emotional stress we are all under is overwhelming.

However, the Dalai Lama has said it is under the greatest adversity that exists that there exists the greatest potential for good. Now is our opportunity as a community to unite. We must connect with each other just as we are reconnecting with family and friends.

And the words of poet Jennifer Edwards (ph), "the beauty of life is while we cannot undo what is done, we can see it, understand it, learn from it, and change so that every new moment is spent not in regret, guilt, fear or anger, but in wisdom, understanding and love. Each action we take can embrace or alienate.

In the words of Disacoo Acada (ph), a well-known Buddhist leader, "when great evil occurs, great good follows, but great good does not come about on its own. Courage is always required to accomplish great good." Now is the time for us to demonstrate the courage of non- violence, the courage to engage in dialogue, the courage to listen to what we don't want to hear, and the courage to control our desire for revenge and follow reason.

I am convinced that we are born into this world with an inherit good nature, and together we must restore our faith in humanity. I believe that from this tragedy, courage is the greatest and most endearing honor that we can give in the memory of our loved ones. I'd like to take just a moment for us all to just reflect on everything. Thank you very much.

SUE KURTZ, REP. FOR JEWISH COMMUNITY: At this time of great tragedy, we are left with more questions than answers. For thousands of years, our traditions have looked upon good and evil, life and death, with a sense of awe. In the Bible, the writer, Qohelet, known in English as Ecclesiastes, surveyed the world and found comfort in the mystery of the divine plane. He wrote,"To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heavens ..."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

KURTZ: "A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

KURTZ: "A time to kill and a time to heal, a time to break down and a time to build up."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

KURTZ: "A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

KURTZ: "A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

KURTZ: "A time to seek and a time to lose, a time to keep and a time to cast away." UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

KURTZ: "A time to rend and a time to sow, a time to keep silence and a time to speak."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

KURTZ: "A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

KURTZ: Let us draw strength from one another to move from a time of violence and sorrow to a time of healing and peace. Let us carry the memories of our friends and teachers with us always so that in the words of the Jewish tradition -- (FOREIGN LANGUAGE), the memory of the righteous will be a blessing.

BILL KING, REP. FOR CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY: We gather this afternoon for many purposes. To weep for lost friends and family, to mourn our lost innocence, to walk forward in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. To embrace hope in the shadow of despair, to join our voices and a longing for peace and healing and understanding which is much greater than any single faith community. To embrace that which unifies and to reject the seductive temptation to hate.

We gather to share our hurts and our hopes, our petitions and our prayers. We gather also to drink deeply of the religious streams (ph) which have refreshed parched peoples for many generations.

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