Virginia Tech survivors of Monday's deadly campus massacre gathered Tuesday for a moving convocation ceremony at which President Bush and the first lady were in attendance, along with several Virginia lawmakers.
"Laura and I have come to Blacksburg today with hearts full of sorrow," Bush said in his remarks. "We've come to express our sympathy. In this time of anguish, I hope you know that people all over this country are thinking of you and asking God for comfort."
Bush characterized April 16 — when 23-year-old student gunman Cho Seung-Hui went on a rampage that claimed 33 lives, including his own — as a day that began like any other but soon "took a dark turn."
"For many of you here today, it was the worst day in your lives," the president said. "It's impossible to make sense of such suffering."
He told loved ones of victims that "people who have never met you are praying for you" and spoke of the power of prayer, urging those angered by the killings not to be overcome by evil.
"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," he said.
And he said that the day would eventually come when life would return to normal, and when it did he encouraged students to remember those who were lost in Monday's tragedy.
Bush — who was meeting privately with victims' families after convocation — was preceded by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who cut short a trip to Japan after news of the mass murders reached him Monday.
"It is a very bitter and sad day, and yet there's no place in the world [my wife and I] would rather be than here with you," said Kaine.
The governor, who invoked Christian Biblical scripture during parts of his speech, said anger is natural during a devastating event like Monday's killing spree, which turned two buildings at opposite ends of campus into virtual bloodbaths.
But he praised students for the "amazing" courage and strength they showed in the face of unspeakable violence.
"You have a remarkable community here," he said.
Kaine was introduced by university President Charles Steger, who, in spite of criticism that his staff didn't act fast enough to warn people about a gunman at large on campus, got a standing ovation from the crowd of students, faculty, administrators and dignitaries.
"No words can express the depth of sadness that we feel," Steger said. "Words are very weak symbols of what we are feeling at times like this."
The university's Muslim leader, Sedki Riad, also spoke Tuesday.
"Death strikes every day and we hear and read about it in the media," he said. He then quoted from the Koran and said: "The Islamic faith reminds us ... that to Allah we belong and to him is our return."
Leaders from the school's Buddhist, Jewish and Christian communities — in that order — also offered prayers and words of comfort to those attending.
Moderating Virginia Tech's convocation was the school's vice president of student affairs, Dr. Zenobia Hikes.
"Because of this, we have lost the sense of peace that comes with learning," Hikes told attendees in opening the ceremony. "We will eventually recover, but we will never, ever forget."
After several moments of silence, school administrators and counselors also made some brief remarks.
"Our core mission is to educate our future leaders in a partnership of learning," said university Provost Dr. Mark G. McNamee. "Nowhere is the relationship between faculty and students more visibly filled than in the classroom."
Quoting Bush, he called the classroom a "sanctuary" and said that haven was "violated" on Monday with the killings.
"We will move forward to be an even stronger bastion of learning," McNamee vowed.
The dean of students told attendees not to worry about their studies and grades for now.
"Don’t be concerned about how your academic situations will all play out," said Tom Brown. "We'll give notice to all of you about how you'll be supported … and get back on track academically."
He urged students to instead allow themselves to mourn and be with those closest to them.
"Please, please take care of yourself," said Brown. "Go to where you need to go where you have the most love and the best support … I always say, where can you get the best hugs? You know where that is."
Brown said students should e-mail his office at firstname.lastname@example.org if they had any concerns or questions for him.
The head of the school's Cook Counseling Center assured the Virginia Tech community that an extensive support network was in place to help them cope with their grief, rage and shock. He said he'd received scores of offers from volunteers who wanted to help the campus get through the tragedy.
"We have been traumatized by the loss of our family and friends … Those of us who were not present in those buildings have been traumatized vicariously," Dr. Chris Cook told the audience. "To help each other, we need to take care of ourselves. Please be careful as you go through this next week so you can be healthy and reach out and care for one another."
He said the counseling center was the point of contact for all mental health services, and that his team of licensed professionals would be on hand during extended hours — from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. — to meet with people individually or in groups.
There would also be someone on call 24 hours a day as usual, according to Cook. He said students could email the center at email@example.com.
At the ceremony's conclusion, well-known poet and distinguished professor in the school's English department Nikki Giovanni delivered some rousing words of inspiration.
"We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid," said Giovanni in her uplifting closing remarks. "We will prevail, we will prevail, we will prevail ... We are Virginia Tech!"