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Bush consoles families of shuttle astronauts: "We can pray they are safely home"


WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush sadly informed the nation Saturday of the worst space tragedy in 17 years, saying ``The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.''

He consoled the families of the astronauts in a telephone call. Then in an address from the White House Cabinet Room he said of the seven-member crew, ``We can pray that all are safely home.''

Bush said the tragedy ``brought terrible news and great sadness to our country,'' but he pledged to make sure their lives' mission continued.

``Our journey into space will go on,'' he said. The nation's flags, starting at the White House, were lowered on Bush's orders.

``I wish I was there to hug and cry and comfort you right now,'' an emotional Bush told the family members from the Oval Office. They were holding hands in a NASA conference room in Florida, where they had expected to welcome their loved ones home from space.

Bush took calls of condolence from Mexican President Vicente Fox, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin before the address. He talked to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien afterward.

Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was aboard the shuttle. Bush and Putin discussed how the tragedy would affect plans for a shuttle to bring provisions to the space station manned by both Russian and Americans.

``These men and women assumed great risk in this service to all humanity,'' Bush said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express condolences and received calls from Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The accident occurred as Bush was readying the nation for potential war with Iraq. He received word of the shuttle's loss shortly after a national security briefing at Camp David, where he had planned a restful weekend away from Washington.

The call came from NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

Addressing the nation later, Bush quoted Scripture and said, ``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 but we can pray that all are safely home.''

His eyes were glistening as he asked God to bless the families and their nation.

Flanked by two flags, Bush spoke slowly, his voice falling almost to a whisper at some points, his brows furrowed and his mouth downturned.

He read the names of the seven astronauts _ six Americans and the Israeli.

``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 are not alone,'' he said.

``The cause in which they died will continue,'' Bush said. ``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.''

Earlier, NASA Administrator O'Keefe, announcing the shuttle's demise, said he had spoken with Bush and the president had offered his ``full and immediate support'' to determine what had gone wrong and what to do next. O'Keefe spoke at a news conference in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

After getting word from O'Keefe, the president drove by motorcade from Camp David to the White House. A cold drizzle fell on Bush's shoulders as he strode to the Oval Office.

Later he went to the White House residence with chief of staff Andrew Card, looking down at his feet as they walked along the colonnade.

Inside the West Wing, several top aides, including foreign policy advisers and speechwriters, gathered outside the Cabinet Room. The rectangular room, located a few paces from the Oval Office, was lit brightly with television lights, its chairs taken to a nearby hallway and lined against a wall.

Bush stared into those lights 90 minutes later and spoke of the grief suffered by family members left behind. ``Our entire nation grieves with you,'' he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge coordinated the government response. He contacted officials in five states, including Texas, where debris from the shuttle fell.

FBI spokeswoman Angela Bell said there was no indication of terrorism.

Vice President Dick Cheney was briefed Saturday morning in Texas, where he was spending the weekend hunting, said spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise. She said he was not in the part of Texas where the shuttle was lost.
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