First there was one condolence book at the Russian Embassy. Then there were two, to better accommodate the hundreds of visitors lining up on Labor Day. Yesterday, there were three.
The cream-colored pages were thick to the touch, and the well-wishers turned them solemnly. Then they filled the 18 lines on each page with whole paragraphs, sharing their grief and expressing stalwart support in the mutual war against terror.
On a day when officials in Russia were reporting the death toll in Beslan at 335 people, including 156 children, visitors left prayers in Latin, psalms in English and condolences in Russian. They filed past mirrors covered with black lace and past portraits of ambassadors, including those who served during the Cold War, when such an outpouring from Americans would have been hard to imagine.
"I've never seen such expressions of sympathy at the embassy, not just officials but so many families," said Russian Ambassador Yuri V. Ushakov, greeting visitors because he was too upset to sit at his desk. "The key words I hear is we have to stay together, the civilized world, we have to stay together. They repeat and repeat these words."
For three hours Monday afternoon, more than 225 people recorded their shock at last week's brutal attack on School No. 1 in the town of Beslan, leaving lilies, roses and candles at the embassy's gates.
Yesterday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell offered the nation's condolences to the people of Beslan and began a second day of signatures with his distinctive combination of lowercase and uppercase print.
"As a parent, my heart and my prayers go out to those who lost children," Powell wrote. "The United States stands firmly and with solidarity with Russia in fighting all forms of terrorism. This tragedy will serve to energize our efforts."
He was followed by the ambassador of Vietnam and the Chinese charge d'affaires, as well as host of Washingtonians, including full-time mothers, a nurse, a librarian and at least two people who wrote that they had been directly affected by terrorism.
Like the four condolence books at the Embassy of Spain after the Madrid train bombing in March, the pages at the Russian Embassy are a living document of the public's reaction to terrorism.
"I am so sorry," wrote a 7-year-old girl. Her 10-year-old sister wrote that she prayed "for all of Russia to be safe." Among adults, only Joyce Dominick was as brief: "I will find a way to help," she wrote.
Bridget Overcash, who interrupted her morning errands and brought along her 9-year-old son, Jimmy, called it "a tragedy almost worse than 9/11 because of the children."
"As a mom, it's just really difficult to fathom what went on," she told a reporter. "It just brings everything to a whole new level, the threat and what's going on."
And yet, like others, Overcash didn't let fear seep into her written message. "May God hold you in the palm of his hand," she wrote, dissolving into tears only after recalling her words. "Heaven is filled with your children today."
Xenia Woyevodsky, a consultant who is active in the area's Russian community, was terrified by the audacity of placing bombs in a school.
"My God, it can happen in the U.S.," she said, adding that one of her grandchildren started school Tuesday in West Islip, N.Y., on Long Island. "How do we protect all of our schools? I think we all have to be vigilant, but I think we're coming very quickly to the conclusion that we're vulnerable.
"The fact that [the terrorists] didn't care about international public opinion, didn't care about attacking innocent children, it just shows we're vulnerable," Woyevodsky said. "They want to incite fear in all our hearts, and it's working."
Not everyone saw it that way. Charles "Pete" Perry, who spent years working with diplomats of the Soviet Union while at the United Nations Development Program, found comfort in the solidarity that was so visible yesterday.
"I'm overjoyed that there's been such an outreach and outpouring of grief from the American people," said Perry.
"After spending my career throughout the Cold War dealing with problems, I'm proud of the American people for reaching out."