President to offer condolences at Virginia Tech memorial service

By DEB RIECHMANN Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Expressing the nation's sorrow, President Bush ordered flags flown at half staff in honor of those killed in the nation's deadliest shooting spree.

Bush also planned to travel Tuesday to speak at Virginia Tech, where 33 people were gunned down in two separate attacks.

He and first lady Laura Bush will attend a campus convocation "as representatives of the entire nation," said spokeswoman Dana Perino. "They will be there as the national representatives on a day that is full of sorrow for every American," she said.

"He will remark about the amazing strength of the community, and I'm not just talking about the city limits of Blacksburg, but as you seen that's there's been an outpouring of support."

Bush directed flags to remain in the lowered position through sunset Sunday, Perino said. The president and the first lady hope to help the university begin healing following the tragedy.

He will speak for roughly five minutes. "They are going to be there to express the sympathies, the support and the prayers of the country," Perino said Tuesday morning.

Bush plans to give three television interviews on campus before returning to the White House, Perino said. Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has sent 12 agents to Virginia Tech and the FBI has contributed some 15 agents as well for the investigation, Perino said.

The federal help, including input from the U.S. Attorney's office in the Western District of Virginia, is being coordinated at a command center set up on the campus.

In addition to helping with the crime scene, the Department of Justice is making counselors available to victims and their families through a special office and the Education Department is offering assistance as well, she said.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, just back from Japan to deal with the tragedy, was traveling with Bush on Air Force One to the convocation.

Perino deflected any questions about Bush's view of needed changes to gun control policy, saying the time for that discussion is not now. "We understand that there's going to be and there has been an ongoing national discussion, conversation and debate about gun control policy. Of course we are going to be participants in that conversation," she said. "Today, however, is a day that is time to focus on the families, the school, the community."

Perino added: "Everyone's been shaken to the core by this event and so I think what we need to do is focus on support of the victims and their families and then also allow the facts of the case to unfold before we talk any more about policies."

After the shooting on Monday, Bush expressed shock and sadness about the killings. He lamented that schools should be places of "safety, sanctuary and learning." "When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom in every American community," Bush said at the White House.

Bush has spoken with Kaine and Virginia Tech President Charles Steger. Two hours after two people were killed at a dormitory, 30 more people were killed at a campus building by a gunman who finally killed himself with a shot to his head. "I told them that Laura and I and many across our nation are praying for the victims and all the members of university community that have been devastated by this terrible tragedy," Bush said Monday.

In Jordan, meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who left a job as president of Texas A&M to take the Pentagon post late last year, expressed his condolences for the tragedy. "As a recent president of a university that only about seven and a half years ago had its own tragedy when 12 students were killed when the bonfire collapsed at Texas A&M, perhaps more than most I can understand the horror and the emotions at Virginia Tech," Gates told reporters traveling with him.

"Knowing the lasting impact of the 1999 bonfire collapse at Texas A&M, I can only imagine the emotional impact of what has happened at Virginia Tech."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)