Obama visits surviving victims in Tucson, plans to speak at memorial service

By Anne E. Kornblut, Philip Rucker and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 7:08 PM

TUCSON - Arriving in this shaken desert city Wednesday to speak at a public memorial service for victims of the shooting rampage that left six dead, President Obama went first to visit hospitalized survivors, including a congresswoman, and their families at University Medical Center.

Obama spent nine minutes with critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, in the intensive care unit.

After spending time with Giffords and other victims, Obama went by motorcade to the University of Arizona's McKale Memorial Center, where thousands of people lined up for first-come first-served seating at a service that organizers said was expected to draw 17,000 - 12,000 in the auditorium, and the overflow in the football stadium. About 100 seats were reserved for VIPs, including family members of victims.

For Obama, who landed in Tucson at about 3:30 p.m. Mountain time, the memorial service will mark his first opportunity to address the shooting at length - but it is unlikely to be his last.

The remarks - written to last just under 20 minutes - will be focused on the victims and the healing process. He may touch on the current political discourse, calling on individuals to think about the larger meaning of the recent tragedy.

"The President will devote a significant portion of his remarks to the memory of the victims. He'll also reflect on how all of us might best honor their memory in our own lives," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

If Obama is going to make a grander statement on civility, White House officials said, that will come in another context, after the funerals have been completed and the immediate shock of the massacre, less than a week old, has begun to subside.

White House officials - like the rest of the country -- are still grappling with the meaning of the rampage and whether it is appropriate to link it to a polarized political culture. But with the State of the Union address less than two weeks away, officials said it is likely that Obama will raise the subject again in some manner in the days ahead, including in his speech to Congress. He may also give a separate speech.

Obama began working on his Tucson remarks Monday night, after nearly a dozen phone calls to family members and law enforcement officials working on the case, and revised his comments in the intervening days. Leading up to the moment, White House aides were unusually quiet about how he would approach it, tacitly acknowledging that they were sensitive to charges Obama might try to use the occasion for political gain.

Official Washington ground to a halt immediately after the massacre last Saturday, and was still largely in a state of suspension on Wednesday. Obama and the first lady left the White House early Wednesday afternoon. Among those traveling with them on Air Force One, according to the White House, were Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and members of the Arizona House delegation.

The theme of the hour-long service, expected to begin at 6 p.m. Mountain time, is, "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America." I

At an entrance to the stadium, people waited in a packed crowd in the warm afternoon sun. Many had been camped out there since mid morning and said the mood was exciting and generous.

Sandra Kimmelman, 53, said she took the day off from her job at the Pima County tax accessor's office to come hear Obama. She said people in line had given her candy, water and shared their pizza with her.

"There's a sense of community," she said. "I came because I want to hear Obama say we as a nation are all mourning and that we need to fight violence with love and peace. We need to be unified. 9-11 was the most horrific thing that happened to our nation. This comes close."

Nicole Siegel, a freshman at the University of Arizona who is from Columbia, Md., said she was excited to hear Obama speak.

"I am happy to see he's taking this seriously and isn't just staying in the White House," she said, wearing a light blue T-shirt with a picture of Obama on it.

(SEE PHOTOS: The aftermath of the Tucson tragedy)

But in this traditionally conservative state where the administration has been at odds with Gov. Jan Brewer over immigration policy, some residents would rather Obama stay home.

"We don't need that," Ray Algeal, 50, a plumber, said as he fretted about the traffic jams that the president's visit could cause. "It's going to be a fiasco."

Still, many people here said they are eager to attend the service, saying being together with others helps them heal.

"I'm hurting for the community," Bobbie Murray, 62, said as she left an earlier service. "I'm a Tucsonian. I considered Tucson a very tolerant place. It hurts. It hurts a lot. It's going to help my healing process."

Across Tucson, family members of victims and those who did not know the fallen have been coming together in hushed churches to grieve.

Under high security at St. Odilia Catholic Church here Tuesday evening, more than 1,000 mourners paid tribute to Christina Taylor Green at her family's church, just a mile up the road from the strip mall where Saturday's shooting rampage took place.

With the slain third-grader's family in the front pew, the young girls whom Green sang with in choir delivered an emotional rendition of "Amazing Grace" that brought tears to many eyes.

"Everyone in our community is grieving," the Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, said in his homily. "We are in tears. We are pained and concerned about what took place. We are a community questioning, wondering, struggling with how such violence could happen.

"God knows by name Christina and John and Gabe and Dorwan and Phyllis and Dorothy," he continued, naming the six killed in last weekend's carnage. "They are his sons and daughters, beloved in his eyes. He receives them and welcomes them."

(READ: Tucson's retiree community is well acquainted with death -- but not like this)

At a smaller service Tuesday night at Catalina United Methodist Church, a few blocks from University Medical Center where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) is recovering from a bullet wound to her head, several clergy asked people across Tucson to pray for the still-wounded.

"It hadn't hit me yet until now," said Kathleen Sroka, one of the attendees, who cried as the service began. "The severity and solemnness is just so much. This is a way to show our respects. It brings a sense of hope and togetherness."

Teresa Bier, 74, who handed out programs at the St. Odilia service, said the memorials help people find courage.

"The more you can hear, the more you can talk, the easier it becomes," Bier said. "You don't want to keep it all inside. And I think the president of the United States, it's wonderful he's coming to little old Tucson to mourn with us. He will give us strength and courage, and to these families that are going through so much sorrow."

Beatrice Vega, 37, came with one of her daughters and her husband.

"We have children, so it is as if we lost one of our own family," Vega said. "This is our obligation to come together."

Green's mother, Roxanna, sat and closed her eyes during Tuesday night's service. The clergy entered to the hymn"God of Day and God of Darkness," and a women's choir sang "Shepherd Me, O God."

But in a sign of how so much has changed in Tucson since Saturday, a SWAT team stood guard on the church's rooftop, and undercover agents mixed in with the mourners inside.

"God wills that we resist evil, that we live with integrity, that we speak and act with civility and respect," Kicanas said in his homily. "I pray that that tragic moment will inspire us to learn how to work together despite our differences to improve our community. ... Let's rid our communities of violence and all it encourages."

ruckerp@washpost.com hedgpethd@washpost.com Staff writers David Nakamura, Sari Horwitz and Clarence Williams in Tucson contributed to this report.

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