Witnesses describe chaotic scene of Fort Hood

Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the Army psychiatrist believed to have killed 13 people at Fort Hood, was supposed to discuss a medical topic during a presentation to senior Army doctors in June 2007. Instead, he lectured on Islam, suicide bombers and threats the military could encounter from Muslims conflicted about fighting wars in Muslim countries.
By Ann E. Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 12:36 AM

FORT HOOD, TEX. - Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan sat impassively in a wheelchair Wednesday as a procession of the wounded testified that they saw him open fire nearly a year ago at a paperwork processing center here, turning a mundane noontime into a massacre.

In voices flashing with anger and quavering with sobs, eight witnesses recounted a scene of carnage and chaos that left 13 dead and nearly three dozen injured. They heard a shout in Arabic, they said, and saw an officer with medical tags stare, raise his weapon and fire. They heard nearly 100 rounds, smelled the sulfur and blood, and watched their close colleagues slump over dead.

Several soldiers listed flatly the wounds they bear from that day: post-traumatic stress disorder, anger issues, uncertainty about whether they will ever regain all of their physical and mental strength. Many described being stunned that a soldier would turn on one of his own.

"I was wondering why he would say 'Allahu Akbar,' " testified Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, who said he ducked behind a counter as soon as he saw Hasan start shooting inside the Soldier Readiness Processing Center here on Nov. 5. He said he watched as Hasan, after shooting a physician's assistant, locked his eyes on him.

"The laser [on the weapon's barrel] comes across my line of sight. I closed my eyes. He discharged his weapon," said Lunsford, who was shot five times, including once in his head, and lost nearly all sight in his left eye.

Lunsford was the first of 32 witnesses expected to be called during the Article 32 hearing for Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder. The military proceeding, which is expected to take several weeks, is similar to a preliminary hearing in a civilian court; at its conclusion, investigating officer Col. James Pohl will rule on whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a court-martial.

On Wednesday, one of the victims, Michelle Harper, broke down in sobs on the witness stand as the prosecution played the tape of the 911 call she made from under a desk, where she dove as the shooting began. A dispatcher's voice pleading for Harper to stay calm cuts through the sounds of gunshots, moans and cries.

A lab technician, Harper testified that she had just returned from lunch when she heard what sounded at first like firecrackers.

Twice in those horrible minutes, she tried to flee, only to be driven back by gunfire. As she huddled with others under the desk, she heard the steady footsteps of the gunman approaching, then saw his boots go by.

When she managed to run outside, still on the line with the 911 dispatcher, she said, she saw Hasan engaged in a gunbattle with Fort Hood civilian police officer Kimberly Munley, who was credited with felling Hasan.

Harper ran for her car, thrust it into drive and peeled away over grass and through a ditch, she said, her voice soft and shaking.

Hasan, 40, is paralyzed from the waist down and has been held for months at the county jail here. He appeared pale and thin as a police officer rolled him into the courtroom Wednesday, and he held a blanket close to his neck throughout the day.

A few family members of those shot in the rampage have attended the hearing; on Tuesday, one clutched a plastic bag with a black-and-white photo of a soldier struck in the fusillade of bullets.

Hasan's lead attorney, John P. Galligan, is a retired Army colonel who was the chief circuit judge at Fort Hood. He has said he is committed to sparing his client the death penalty and has hinted that he might argue an insanity defense.

He consistently has asked for a change of venue, saying Hasan cannot get a fair trial at Fort Hood.

A Muslim born in Virginia, whose parents had immigrated to Jordan from a Palestinian town near Jerusalem, and later from Jordan to the United States, Hasan joined the Army after graduating from Virginia Tech in the mid-1990s with a biochemistry degree.

After medical school, he began a residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Hasan became more religiously observant in recent years, after the death of his parents, acquaintances have said. He began corresponding via e-mail with an imam, Anwar al-Aulaqi, who has been linked to al-Qaeda attacks against the United States.

Hasan's e-mail correspondence with Aulaqi came to the attention of one of the nation's Joint Terrorism Task Forces but was never passed on to the military, according to a review requested by the Pentagon.

Aulaqi praised the Fort Hood shootings.

Although more than 60 news organizations have registered to cover the hearing, according to spokesmen for Fort Hood, only a few journalists have been permitted inside the small courtroom here each day.

The rest, including The Washington Post's reporter, spent Wednesday in a room where they could hear audio of the hearing but couldn't confirm the identity of anyone speaking. Two monitors in the room broadcast only the judge. Reporters were not permitted access to the Internet to corroborate facts while in the room. Nor could they see Hasan, the witnesses or any of the exhibits.

Pohl, who has presided over hearings at Abu Ghraib, rejected earlier defense requests to close the proceeding to the public. He said late Wednesday that the closed-circuit feed should show witnesses.

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