She arrived right on time — smiling, as Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords so often did, as she made her way through the small crowd that had assembled for her first “Congress on Your Corner” gathering of the new year. The meetings had become one of her hallmarks as a congresswoman, a way to get face-to-face with the people she served and hear them out, from those who cheered her close re-election to those who opposed her positions on health care or immigration.
Her Twitter account extended an invitation to one and all for the event at La Toscana Village, a suburban shopping center dotted with a nail salon, bakery and a Jenny Craig on the northern outskirts of Tucson: “Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind …”
Some two dozen people did stop in, collecting out front of a Safeway store. At 10 a.m. sharp, standing near a banner adorned with her name and the U.S. House of Representatives seal, Giffords began to greet the crowd. Among them were old friends, such as John Roll, a federal judge who put off household chores to go say hello after Mass.
There was also at least one new admirer, a third-grader with ebony hair and a big smile of her own who’d been elected to her school’s student council. A neighbor brought little Christina Taylor Green along, believing she’d enjoy meeting a real politician.
Off to the side, volunteer Alex Villec helped keep things running smoothly.
“There’s a line forming to your right,” he told those who asked. “Give her 25-30 minutes. She’ll be happy to talk to you.”
When the man in the black ski hat, baggy pants and bulky jacket approached, Villec recalled thinking he looked somewhat shady, and yet his question was hardly unusual for this type of function: Where was the congresswoman?
Villec directed the man to the back of the line, and he walked away, appearing almost uninterested.
Giffords had already finished talking with her first visitor and was on to the next two, a couple. Mark Kimble, an ex-newspaperman who works as a communications specialist for Giffords, was answering a question about Medicare reimbursement.
In the slow-motion blur that takes over the mind in times of trauma and tragedy, Villec saw the man in the black hat return.
It took only seconds. Villec saw him raise an arm.
“Get down! Get down!”
As a politician in a nation that seems to grow more divisive with every election, Giffords had come to expect the unexpected. There was heckling at a health care town hall in southern Arizona, a dropped weapon from one visitor at yet another meet and greet, and the vandalization of her district office just hours after last year’s health care vote.
Tempers can sometimes run high, she’d say, or there are “crazies” on all sides of the political spectrum.
A motorcycle rider, gun-owner and self-described Blue Dog Democrat, the 40-year-old Giffords refused to cower, driving herself to the Safeway supermarket Saturday morning. She has a reputation around Congress as a bit of a fighter and a savvy politician. She maintained popularity in her district by bucking her party’s position on some key issues and connecting with constituents with her regular outreach meetings.
“She goes outside a grocery store or someplace where people are going to gather and discusses anything they want to discuss with her, with no appointment, no conditions or anything,” said Kimble, who began working for Giffords a year and a half ago.
Also, with no security.
Saturday’s “Congress in Your Corner” was Giffords’ first of 2011, capping a busy return to Washington, D.C., that saw her sworn in for a third term. She was one of the few Democrats to win in the conservative backlash in November that swept more than 50 incumbents out of Congress and gave Republicans control of the House.
When she took the oath of office, she promised to work hard to solve the challenges facing Arizona and the nation. By week’s end, she was back in Arizona ready to talk with voters about her many ideas to do just that, including her just-proposed legislation to cut the salaries of members of Congress by 5 percent.
Giffords, said Villec, was in her element when going one-on-one with the people she represents. The 19-year-old worked as an intern at Giffords’ Washington office throughout the fall campaign and remembers the sense of relief — and optimism — that filled the air just before the holidays, after she narrowly defeated a tea party favorite in November.
On his last day in December, the congresswoman wished him well and thanked him for his work.
Villec was so excited to see his former boss and ex-colleagues again, he was up early on Saturday to hit the coffee shop and beat the crowds to the Safeway off Ina Road.
Giffords, he said, is a “public servant whose enthusiasm can light up a dark room.”
As soon as the shots sounded, Villec dived for cover behind a concrete pillar. All around him he could hear cries, screams — and still more gunfire, at least 10 shots that he counted.
From his hiding place he saw a man lying on the ground. All he could think was, “This is real. This is happening. Nobody’s going to pinch me and tell me to wake up.”
Somehow, he managed to scamper up off the ground and run, crossing the parking lot for the Wells Fargo bank, where employees were already calling 911. They locked the bank doors, and Villec and the others took refuge inside. He got on the phone to authorities to tell them what little he knew.
Villec had no idea, then, who had been hit or whether anyone had survived or whether the gunman had been stopped. He had no idea that Giffords sat slumped against the glass window of a grocery store, bleeding from a potentially fatal head wound.
Kimble saw the gunman coming from the corner of his eye. Even after he, too, hit the ground, he could see the suspect running past the line of waiting constituents, shooting all the while. Patricia Maisch, 61, was standing farther back in the line when she heard the first shot. As the gunman headed in her direction, shooting people “right down the line,” she laid on the ground next to another woman. Suddenly, that woman was shot, too, and Maisch felt sure she was next, when two men suddenly tackled the attacker as he was reaching for a fresh magazine. “Get the magazine!” someone shouted, as Maisch reached out and snatched it.
When the firing stopped, Kimble scrambled over to Giffords. An intern who once worked as a phlebotomist, drawing blood, was applying pressure to her head wounds and holding her up to ensure she didn’t aspirate blood. “Stay calm,” Kimble heard the young man tell the congresswoman. “Stay still.”
The intern, said Kimble, had been on the job for all of a week.
At 10:11 a.m. — just 11 minutes after the event had begun — 911 calls were pouring in. “It’s Giffords!” one eyewitness told a dispatcher. “I do believe Gabby Giffords was hit.” Another panicked caller from Walgreens asks a dispatcher to hurry and send more help. “We need more than one ambulance. There’s more than one victim down.”
Within minutes, Stuart Rodeffer, a battalion chief for Northwest Fire/Rescue District, got the call over his radio to respond — a “first-alarm medical,” meaning the situation is about as bad as can be.
At 46, Rodeffer is a veteran not only of the fire service but of the first Gulf War, where he served in the Marines Corps. He thought he’d seen his share of bloodshed in combat, but what he saw in that Safeway parking lot left this former Marine still searching for words a day later.
The scene was utter chaos. Bodies, blood pooling all around, were sprawled on the blacktop and the sidewalk near the Safeway — some obviously deceased, he said. One after the other, witnesses ran up to him and EMS workers, grabbing them, urging them to move faster and faster.
“People are dying here,” they cried. “Help us. Help us!”
Rodeffer and his crews immediately set up triage under the covered sidewalk in front of the Safeway and identified seven patients in need of urgent transport — including Giffords and the third-grader with the big smile. In all, 20 were hit — almost the entire crowd that had gathered for what was to have been a morning of friendly civil discourse.
James Palka, an event photographer who arrived late to the function, got there just as police were blocking off the parking lot with yellow tape. He saw streams of blood staining the wall beneath a Safeway window and two bodies in front of the store, sheets covering them.
A man sat at a small table, sobbing.
“I just remember the sound,” Palka said.
By 11 a.m., the wounded had all been transported to hospitals. Kimble and other staff members gathered at University Medical Center, where Giffords had undergone brain surgery. Villec, after hours of police interviews, escaped to his parents’ home.
On Sunday, many telltale marks of tragedy remained across this southern Arizona city.
At La Toscana Village, yellow police tape still snaked through trees, and stores were closed. At Giffords’ district office in Tucson, flowers were propped against a wall under a red, white and blue sign carrying her name and the words: United States Congress. “What a loss,” read another sign nearby.
Still more memorials sat on the lawn outside the hospital where the victims were taken: candles with pictures of saints alongside photographs of Giffords and her friend, U.S. District Judge John Roll.
Roll was among six who perished. The others were Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman, 30; Dorothy Morris, 76; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; Phyllis Schneck, 79; and Christina Taylor Green, who was born on another day filled with so much terror: Sept. 11, 2001. She was only 9 years old.
Throughout the day Sunday, grief-stricken friends, families and even those who had no connection to the victims gathered at churches and vigils to pray for the wounded and begin the process of mourning.
There was, however, one reason for optimism: Doctors treating Giffords reported Sunday that the congresswoman had responded to simple commands and they were hopeful about her chances for survival.
And the pursuit of justice began. Twenty-two-year-old Jared Loughner was charged in the rampage. What’s not known, still, is what may have prompted the attack. Was it the fevered political rhetoric of our times? Mental illness? Or something else altogether?
To those who were there, the answer to why matters less than the question of: What now? They have friends to bury, and others are still healing. And they must tend to their own unseen scars, which will need mending as well.
Villec, who studies economics and government at Georgetown University, postponed his return to school. Before all of this, he saw serving in public office as a possible aspiration. Now, he’s not so sure. “This forces me to sit down and reconsider what that means when you make that commitment,” he said.
During those 10 minutes of shooting, he said, survival mode set it. “It doesn’t cross your mind that lives are being taken before your very eyes.”
Now, he’s focused on the friends he lost and the ones still fighting — and somehow erasing a horror that may be with him forever.