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Tucson shootings: How Gabrielle Giffords's event for constituents turned to tragedy

By Philip Rucker and Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 10, 2011; 4:21 AM

TUCSON - The invitation from Gabrielle Giffords arrived via Twitter on a bright Saturday morning in the southern Arizona desert: "My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind or tweet me later."

The House had wrapped up business at noon Friday and would not begin its first full week of work until Tuesday morning - plenty of time for Giffords, just sworn in for her third term in Congress, to jet back to Tucson for a weekend of retail politics. Giffords made the 2,300-mile trip most weekends and had it down to a science. She could squeeze six events into two days and still have time to hang out with friends and family before heading back.

Former labor secretary Robert Reich, who delivered a toast at her wedding, said Giffords, 40, "moves at a velocity that exceeds that of anyone else in Washington."

On Saturday just before 10 a.m., she drove her SUV from her midtown house to the Safeway on North Oracle Road, just outside the Tucson city limits in one of the area's first suburbs, Casas Adobes, where houses have Spanish-tiled roofs and palm trees and paloverdes, the Arizona state tree, frame the horizon.

Under a clear sky, the morning beckoned those who needed help from their woman in Washington - and those who just wanted to say hi to a moderate Democrat, one who seemed like a salve against the bug-eyed shouting that filled so much time on the cable talk shows.

Steven Rayle came just to meet his congresswoman; he liked her moderate approach. Christina-Taylor Green, who was born on Sept. 11, 2001, came to learn more about her government; the third-grader had just been elected to student council and could use a few tips. Gabe Zimmerman was there to work; he organized Giffords's forums. A social worker by training, he was engaged to marry a nurse. They planned to explore Greece and Turkey on their honeymoon.

Jared Lee Loughner took a cab to the Safeway, police said. The fare was $14, but the passenger had only a $20 and the cabbie didn't have change. They walked into the supermarket to break the bill.

The woman who brought these people together believed that, especially in this place where few have deep roots, it was essential to create a sense of community and show that government could be more than a target of anger. Gabby Giffords was troubled by her last campaign, by an atmosphere in which Sarah Palin's Web site put Giffords's district in the cross hairs of a gunsight, in which someone shot a pellet through the glass door of Giffords's Tucson office, and in which her Republican opponent invited supporters to a Saturday morning campaign event where they could shoot an M16 and "Get on Target for Victory in November."

Giffords told friends that she came home nearly every weekend, even before House Democrats started organizing "Congress on Your Corner" events, to try to build a sense of hope in a place just 78 miles from the Mexican border, where the debate over immigration had turned neighbor against neighbor.

She and her husband, Mark Kelly, were talking about having a baby, even though they didn't get to spend a lot of time together. Based in Houston, Kelly is an astronaut getting ready for a shuttle launch in April.

They met in China, as young leaders selected to learn about U.S.-China relations. He was a married Navy captain; she, a state senator who was dating someone. A year later, they met again, and by then Kelly was divorced and Giffords had broken up with her boyfriend. They began seeing more of each other, and when Kelly was prepping for the launch of Discovery in 2006, Giffords selected a song that Mission Control could use to wake him each morning. "It's a beautiful day," U2 sang. "Sky falls, you feel like it's a beautiful day. Don't let it get away."

Steven Rayle, a Tucson doctor, came to the event with a friend, eager to meet Giffords. "She's pretty moderate. I like the way she's done things," he said.

When he walked up, Giffords was standing on the sidewalk in front of the Safeway, talking with two constituents. Only about 20 people had gathered near the two folding tables, under the flags of Arizona and the United States and a banner with Giffords's name.

Giffords, dressed in a red blazer, black slacks and black pumps, "said 'Good morning' to everyone, gave each of us who work for her a hug, and she started talking to people," said Mark Kimble, 57, her media aide. He saw that no news reporters were on hand and went into the Safeway to get some coffee.

A man spoke to Giffords for a few minutes about a military issue. He wanted his photo taken with the congresswoman, and they posed. Then a couple came forward.

A moment later, at 10:11, Rayle saw a young man wearing sneakers and what appeared to be navy-blue sweats approach Giffords with a semiautomatic handgun raised. The man shot Giffords once in the head, Rayle said.

"I walked up, passed by the table, and when I came around the corner, I saw the gunman," he said. "I was about 10 feet away. There was a concrete post I was able to duck behind. The whole thing beginning to end was probably 10 or 12 seconds. It sounded like a pop, like pop, pop, pop rather than in movies where it's a deep roar. He didn't pause at all. He shot her and just continued shooting - pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop - like rapid fire. People had no chance to get away at all."

Rayle's friend Laura Tennen had gone into the supermarket to get towelettes to wipe off her hands after pumping gas on the way to see Giffords. She heard the noise and thought someone must have been making popcorn for the event.

The shooter "came dashing through the area," Kimble said. "Even before he got to the table, he fired one shot. He ran up, three or four feet from the congresswoman and district director, fired several shots at them and anyone close to him, and then he ran by the people waiting in line and fired at everyone."

The man said nothing, Rayle said, but law enforcement sources said several witnesses told them the shooter was yelling something as he fired. After Giffords fell, several people near her sought to flee but were trapped - boxed in by the tables and a concrete post.

"There was nowhere easy to run," Rayle said. "So most of the crowd got it, you know. People that were there were just sitting ducks. I don't think he was even aiming. He was just firing at whatever."

Jared Lee Loughner, 22, lived day after day filled with dreams about a world that should be, but wasn't. He had learned about a mystic tradition in which people across different cultures sought to manipulate their dreams through a method known variously as conscious dreaming or lucid dreaming. The idea was that even as you sleep, you can force your consciousness into your dreams, directing characters in your dreams almost as a stage director instructs actors.

Loughner's dreams, as he portrayed them in a series of posts on MySpace and YouTube, combined classic conspiracy theories about government control of individuals' minds with a concern about the structure of language - a topic often seen in the writing of some disturbed people. All of this was couched in passages heavily influenced by the rules of formal logic: "All humans are in need of sleep. Jared Loughner is a human. Hence, Jared Loughner is in need of sleep."

Weaved into these writings were bursts of anger and dread. "I define terrorist," Loughner wrote last month. A few weeks earlier, he had posted on his MySpace page: "I don't feel good. I'm ready to kill a police officer!"

And in an envelope investigators found Sunday in a safe connected to the suspect, Loughner had written the words "my assassination" and "I planned ahead," along with the name "Giffords." On Nov. 30, he bought a 9mm Glock semiautomatic handgun at Sportsman's Warehouse in Tucson, a store manager said. Loughner passed the federal background check instantly.

His life over the past five years had been a series of rejections and ejections. He dropped out of high school. The Army turned him down for admission. He was thrown out of classrooms and the library at Pima Community College five times last year. "It almost seemed like he was on his own planet," said Lydian Ali, who was in an advanced poetry class with him.

Twice he was arrested on minor drug charges; each time the charges were dismissed after Loughner completed a diversion program.

On Friday night, neighbors saw Loughner walking around, listening to his iPod, wearing a black hooded sweat shirt.

He posted on YouTube a scene in which a man in a brown, monklike robe burns an American flag; Loughner set the scene to a howling, desperately harsh anthem by the metal band Drowning Pool: "Nothing wrong with me! . . . Something's got to give!" the song shouts. "Now, let the bodies hit the floor! Let the bodies hit the floor!"

After a few seconds, Rayle said, the man stopped shooting and tried to flee.

"I laid on the ground as if I'd been shot," Rayle said. He said the gunman passed within five or six feet of him. When Rayle looked up, the gunman had been tackled after running about 10 feet away. An elderly man held the shooter's torso down, with help from a Giffords staffer. Rayle scampered over and held down the man's feet.

Within a minute after the shooting, dozens of people called 911. Eight minutes later, six paramedics reached the scene, but they were held until police were sure the gunman was no longer shooting.

A man who was wounded was the first to reach the shooter, grabbing him so other bystanders could leap onto him, witnesses said.

Joe Zamudio was in the nearby Walgreens - the supermarket is in an affluent area, near a Whole Foods market, a gelato shop, an organic bakery and a Stanford-trained dermatologist - when he heard the shots. He ran to them. "The first thing I saw was the people wrestling with the gunman," he told CNN. "Behind that, it was just kind of like people laying everywhere and kind of falling and crawling."

Rayle and Zamudio saw an older woman wrestling an ammunition magazine from the shooter, preventing him from reloading. That's when Zamudio added his weight to that of two men - Roger Salzgeber and Bill Badger - who were already pinning down the shooter.

Rayle said the woman, identified Sunday as Patricia Maisch, was "the real hero." Maisch, who was waiting to have her picture taken with Giffords, began berating the shooter: "How could you be so hateful? How could you do this?"

"He did not respond," Rayle said. The gunman squirmed and struggled and finally Rayle thought he heard the gunman say, "Stop."

"The only thing he did say was we were hurting his arm," Rayle said.

When police arrived, one officer stepped into the pile of people holding Loughner down and cuffed him, without resistance, witnesses said.

Firefighters fanned out to attend to the most severely injured among the 20 people who were shot.

A former emergency-room physician who helped treat the victims, Rayle said he saw at least five people shot. "People were doing CPR on them," he said. "But on a gunshot wound, CPR can only do so much."

Ambulances did not arrive for at least 10 or 15 minutes, witnesses said. Ten ambulance vehicles and three medevac helicopters eventually removed all of the wounded within 40 minutes.

Five people, including U.S. District Judge John M. Roll and Zimmerman, died outside the Safeway.

Christina-Taylor Green, the 9-year-old, died at the hospital.

Granddaughter of former Philadelphia Phillies manager Dallas Green, she was the only girl on her Little League baseball team, the Pirates. The neighbor who brought her to the event was shot four times and was recovering from surgery.

Laura Tennen, who came to the event with Rayle, connected the shootings with last fall's campaign, which featured sharp attacks on Giffords.

"Instead of seeming like a random, violent act, it comes in a context of not just incivility but un-American activities," she said.

These are harsh times in Arizona - jobs are scarce, friction over illegal immigration has people looking at one another in a different way, and the politics of the place have reverted to a dynamic that recalls the Wild West.

Giffords, a Blue Dog Democrat who supports gun rights and rides a motorcycle, has been attacked on Web sites such as Free Republic as, for example, "a super duper commie lib" and "the sniveling, sobbing baby leftist."

When Palin's Web site pictured Giffords's 8th District in cross hairs, the congresswoman went on TV to say that "when people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that action."

Giffords had little truck for ideologues of any bent; last year, she proudly touted her selection by National Journal as one of the most moderate lawmakers in the land.

Two summers ago, when Giffords was holding a "Congress on Your Corner" event at another Safeway, a man holding a "Don't Tread on Me" banner dropped his pistol from his holster to the floor, causing a scare. Giffords brushed off the incident. "When you represent a district - the home of the O.K. Corral and Tombstone, the town too tough to die, nothing's a surprise," she said, talking about the 19th-century mining camp where President Chester Arthur once declared martial law.

But Giffords wasn't cavalier about the violence that seemed to pervade her district. Last spring, after a sheriff's deputy was shot on patrol in a desert area frequented by drug smugglers, Giffords grew exasperated: "What will it take? Who else will be shot? How much more violence must we endure?" The officer survived.

In the fall, Giffords faced down a challenge from Republican Jesse Kelly, who put out ads depicting himself in combat gear, an automatic weapon in his lap. Kelly's Web site advertised an event at which supporters could "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

"Arizona has sort of become the capital, the mecca of prejudice and bigotry," said Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik. "Pretty soon we won't have reasonable, decent people who are willing to serve in public office."

When Giffords fell, Daniel Hernandez, her 20-year-old intern, held her head and applied smocks from the Safeway meat department as bandages to try to stanch the flow of blood.

It felt "like it took an eternity" before medics arrived, but Hernandez said he was encouraged because Giffords could squeeze his hand in answer to his questions.

About 12 feet away, people gave the little girl CPR, and then they didn't anymore. "She was clearly dead," Rayle said.

Within 38 minutes of being swept into the ER at University Medical Center, Giffords was in surgery. The bullet had entered the rear of her head and sliced through, exiting the front. Doctors removed portions of her skull to reduce pressure from brain swelling.

In Tucson on Sunday, Mark Kelly was at the side of the woman to whom the astronaut had given a wedding ring with this inscription: "You're the closest to heaven that I've ever been."

And Loughner was in custody, his words now playing over and over on YouTube for a curious, troubled nation, the lyrics to a favorite song of the alleged shooter echoing from sea to sea:

"You're all by yourself, but you're not alone. You wanted in, now you're here, driven by hate, consumed by fear. Let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor."

Rucker reported from Tucson, Fisher from Washington. Staff writers Sari Horwitz in Tucson and David Fahrenthold, Paul Kane and Anne E. Kornblut in Washington contributed to this report.

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