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Bush again forced to lead nation through tragedy

The president must again take on the role of a healer as he consoles the families of the shuttle crew and the nation.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2003

WASHINGTON -- President Bush learned of the space shuttle disaster from the same man who whispered in his ear in a Sarasota classroom on Sept. 11, 2001.

White House chief of staff Andrew Card accidentally flipped to NASA coverage of the Columbia hurtling to earth Saturday morning as he was channel-surfing at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.

Just as he did the day terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center, Card quickly notified the president, this time after calling the White House situation room and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to confirm what he had seen on NASA's closed-circuit TV channel.

Columbia broke up and fell to earth in Texas just a few minutes after Bush, Card and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had completed their daily, 8 a.m. foreign intelligence briefing.

All three anticipated a quiet day at Camp David. Card was channel-surfing to find a weather forecast.

Within four hours, Bush had returned to Washington from Camp David, delivered a television address, personally consoled the grieving families of the seven-member shuttle crew and fielded telephone calls from a number of world leaders.

"The Columbia is lost," Bush somberly told the nation. "There are no survivors."

Because the weather was too overcast for flying, the president traveled in a van from Camp David to the White House after receiving the news. His limousine apparently was not available on such short notice.

When Bush arrived in Washington, his aides already had written the first draft of a speech for him to deliver on national television. But his most important task was to comfort the families of the dead, gathered in a conference room at the Kennedy Space Center.

"I wish I was there to hug, cry and comfort you right now," Bush said, standing at his desk in the Oval Office with the telephone to his ear. "I want the loved ones to know there are millions of Americans praying for you. I hope that brings some comfort to you."

At the other end of the line, the family members held hands as they listened to the president. They said nothing. When Bush hung up the telephone, he retreated briefly to his private office adjacent to the Oval Office to compose himself.

"It was a somber moment in the room," recalled White House spokesman Scott McClelland, one of several aides who were present in the Oval Office. "I don't think anyone spoke until he walked back into the room."

Bush ordered all flags on government buildings lowered to half-staff. Then with Card, he went to his residence in the East Wing of the White House to change into a coat and tie.

From there, he made another telephone call to offer condolences to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose nation also lost an astronaut in the accident.

Just before 2 p.m., Bush made a few last-minute changes in his television speech and then delivered it without much emotion from a podium in the Roosevelt Room.

"May God bless the grieving families," he said. "And may God continue to bless America."

While Bush was sympathizing with the families of the shuttle crew, many Americans were feeling sorry for him.

"Bush has really been slammed up to the wall in his administration," said Jonathan Rodgers, 26, of Greenville, S.C., who visited the National Air and Space Museum on Saturday.

"It's tragic, unbelievable, tragic," said another museum visitor, Angela Keller, 29, Jackson, Mich. "The space program has come so far, but it's obviously not perfect."

The president stayed in Washington, rather than return to Camp David.

For Bush and the nation, it was what he described as "an incredibly tough day."

President Bush's address

My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. At 9 a.m. this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors.

On board was a crew of seven: Col. Rick Husband, Lt. Col. Michael Anderson, Cmdr. Laurel Clark, Capt. David Brown; Cmdr. William McCool, Dr. Kalpana Chawla and Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force. These men and women assumed great risk in the service to all humanity.

In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.

All Americans today are thinking, as well, of the families of these men and women who have been given this sudden shock and grief. You're not alone. Our entire nation grieves with you. And those you loved will always have the respect and gratitude of this country.

The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.

In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."

The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home.

May God bless the grieving families, and may God continue to bless America.

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