Gabrielle Giffords shooting: At the edge of mayhem
A quiet Saturday morning, a peaceful Mass, a friendly gathering, then horror.
This story was originally published in February 2011.
The shadows of the Santa Catalina Mountains had nearly retreated, giving in as they did every morning to the rising sun, when John Roll, the chief federal judge for Arizona, rounded the last curve on Valley View Road and parked outside St. Thomas the Apostle parish church.
The skies were clear, the air was brisk, the sounds of the city quieted by the mesquite and paloverde that clothed the desert landscape. The view, for those who sought it, stretched out for miles to the Tucson Mountains and the Santa Ritas, even as the creosote and acacia hemmed off the outside world.
Roll, 63, attended Mass here every morning. On weekdays, it prepared him for one of the hardest jobs on any bench, presiding over a district where the caseload had become overwhelming, worsened by judicial vacancies. In a letter to 9th Circuit Court judges, he had called the load a tsunami.
On Saturdays, the Mass typically preceded the day's chores, but today, Roll would mix business with pleasure, dropping in on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at one of her "Congress on Your Corner" events to say hello and talk about her efforts to help the judges.
On this Saturday, the reading was from the fifth chapter of 1 John:
"And we have this confidence in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
"And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask, we know that what we have asked him for is ours."
From the church's hilly cloister, Sunrise Drive winds down out of the high foothills, curving gently, the sun providing encouragement from behind. Cyclists hug the edge of the road, slicing through traffic.
Sunrise turns into Skyline Drive. Apartments and businesses edge closer. Skyline turns into Ina Road, growing busier as it passes First Avenue and finally reaches Oracle Road. On the left is La Toscana Village shopping center - a Walgreens, some small shops, and the Safeway where the congresswoman would meet the neighbors.
Gabe Zimmerman was already unloading a pickup truck in front of the Safeway when Pam Simon pulled into the parking lot at 9 a.m. Zimmerman, Giffords' community-outreach director, had brought folding tables and blue-cushioned folding chairs, the good ones from the district office.
Simon pulled a stanchion from the truck bed. The short stands with retracting ropes helped keep people neatly in line.
She struggled with it. It was heavy.
"OK," she told Zimmerman with a laugh. "I'm doing chairs. You're doing stanchions."
Simon, 63, was an outreach coordinator in the district office. Technically, Zimmerman, 30, was her boss, but he wouldn't let her say so. "Pam, we work in a partnership," he would always say.
Together, they emptied the pickup, moving efficiently in the nippy shade of the building. Simon shivered. "I wish I'd brought some gloves," she said.
Zimmerman had also forgotten his gloves. Simon decided to find some cheap mittens in the Walgreens. "Do you want a pair?" she asked Zimmerman. No, he said, he was fine.
When Simon emerged from the drugstore, hands now hidden inside mittens, Zimmerman had more help. Sara Hummel Rajca, Giffords' constituent-services director and designated photographer, had arrived, as had Daniel Hernandez, the new intern, and Alex Villec, an intern who volunteered to help.
Zimmerman directed the setup. These events were practically his creation.
Giffords would greet constituents in a covered walkway on the north side of the Safeway entrance. Brick pillars, part of the architectural arches on the front of the building, helped create a sort of corridor.
A folding table blocked the end closest to the glass Safeway doors. Visitors would enter from the Walgreens side and could stand or sit in a row of chairs.
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An American flag and an Arizona flag provided a backdrop for photos. A round picnic table with benches, bolted to the concrete walkway, offered another place to sit and talk. The stanchions helped rope off the spaces between the pillars. Giffords liked to make sure she saw people in order as they arrived, so a line was vital.
A banner stretched between two poles read "Gabrielle Giffords, United States Congress," with the seal of the House of Representatives. Zimmerman made sure an A-frame sign announcing the event was set up near the parking-lot entrance.
The interns laid out leaflets and issue papers on a second folding table. Sometimes the paperwork alone could answer people's questions. The staff would jump in as needed. Everything would be free-form, no speeches.
Simon liked that aspect of the events. People would show up and say, "I was Gabby's third-grade teacher." Or someone would spot Simon, a retired schoolteacher herself, and say, "Do you remember me, Mrs. Simon? I was in your class in 1985."
People started arriving for the event just after 9:30.
Simon sent Giffords a text. "It's chilly out here. Be sure to dress warm."
A few moments later, Giffords replied: "Too late. I'm on my way."
Simon turned to Zimmerman. "We're pretty much set up. I'm going to run in and get some hot cocoa for Sara and myself. Do you want anything?"
"No, I'm fine," Zimmerman said. He was focused on the event. "But ask Daniel." In the setup, she had almost forgotten the new intern.
Two more staffers arrived: Ron Barber, Giffords' district director, and Mark Kimble, a communications aide. About a dozen people were already in line.
A couple of minutes before 10, the congresswoman pulled up in her green Toyota 4Runner. She preferred to drive herself.
She parked and pulled out her iPad. At 9:58, her fingers tapped out a message: "My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind or tweet me later."
Giffords walked briskly to the walkway. She wore a red jacket with red plastic beads around her neck and a short black skirt.
"Yea, you're here!" Simon said. Giffords greeted the staffers, then turned to her first constituent.
Roger and Faith Salzgeber had been up for hours and wanted to see Giffords and be on their way. They turned into the parking lot at 9:30.
They signed in with the new intern who was working the line, and chatted with the staffers Roger already knew from his work on the campaign. He had worked with Sara Hummel Rajca on solar-energy issues, and talked with her when he put solar panels on the house.
Susan Hileman found a parking spot a little before 10, Christina-Taylor Green bubbling beside her. On the short drive from their neighborhood, Hileman had quizzed her young friend about Congress and the government. Add it up, she would say. How many senators? How many representatives? Don't forget the president and vice president. And Christina-Taylor got it all right, so good with numbers in her head.
"Do you have your question?" Hileman asked. "Do you know what you're going to say?"
Christina-Taylor didn't know yet. She wanted to meet Giffords first.
Hileman gathered her things as she got out of the car. She was always forgetting things, leaving them behind. The young girl knew it was her job to check.
"Do you have the keys?" Christina-Taylor asked.
Hileman held up her hand, jingled the ring and flashed a grin at her friend.
Christina-Taylor left behind her pink sweatshirt, the one with the little peace sign on it. The sun was out. The two headed for the line in front of the store.
Bill Badger found open parking on the Walgreens side of the parking lot, though he noticed there were still not many cars in the lot. He looked at the walkway where the event had begun. He saw Giffords. He could see a young girl talking to a woman. About 10 feet from the line, an aide to Giffords stopped Badger and directed him to a sign-in sheet.
The line formed, ready for the event.
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First up was Matthew Laos, a Giffords supporter who had come at the encouragement of Zimmerman. Laos wanted to chat about a piece of legislation and have a picture taken.
Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard, an older couple who lived just a few blocks away off Oracle, were second and third. They had long wanted to meet Giffords and stopped by early, with plans to go to breakfast afterward.
The Salzgebers were fourth and fifth.
Hileman and Christina-Taylor were next, holding hands and laughing as they waited.
Others began to gather. Patricia Maisch had stopped to pick up a few items at Safeway and wanted to meet Giffords and tell her about how the federal stimulus package had made a difference for the heating-and-cooling business she and her husband run.
Steve Rayle waited outside while his girlfriend ducked into the store. He watched Giffords, near the doorway, talking to an older couple.
Zimmerman stopped to chat with Roger Salzgeber about the John Deere ball cap he was wearing.
Pam Simon talked with the Stoddards. Would they like a picture with the congresswoman? That would be nice, they agreed.
A young man in a hooded sweatshirt and baggy pants emerged from the Safeway and walked over to the table where Villec was checking people in.
"Is Giffords here?" the man asked.
Villec nodded and told the young man he needed to sign in and wait in line. Twenty, twenty-five minutes at most. The young man turned away from the table. Villec watched him walk off, wondering if he'd lost interest. He turned his attention back to the others in line.
Joseph Zamudio was standing at the counter in Walgreens, waiting for his debit card to clear, when he heard the sound.
He had stopped for a pack of cigarettes before heading to work at his mother's art gallery. A quick stop. She would be waiting for him.
Then as he waited, he heard the first pop.
Zamudio, 24, knew about guns. He often carried his 9mm, had it with him that very moment. He knew what he was hearing.
Another pop. Then another.
Another series of pops.
Zamudio's holster was at his side.
He left the cigarettes on the counter and raced out the door.
The events in front of the grocery unfolded so quickly, those who were there barely understood what was happening before it was over.
The sequence can be found only among shattered memories and the limited angles of surveillance cameras.
At 10:10 a.m., a gunman walked up to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, 40, and shot her in the head. She crumpled to the concrete.
Then the gunman turned to the line of people and squeezed the trigger 31 more times.
U.S. District Judge John Roll, 63, was shot after Giffords, possibly as he tried to push Ron Barber out of danger.
Roll fell to the ground.
He died at the scene.
Dorwan Stoddard, 76, who was talking with Giffords when the shooting began, tried to protect his wife, Mavanell Stoddard, 75. She was shot, but survived.
He died at the scene.
George Morris, 76, a retired Marine who had driven down from Oro Valley, tried to protect his wife, Dorothy, 76. He was shot twice but survived.
She died at the scene.
Phyllis Schneck, 79, who retired to Tucson with her husband seven years ago, stopped to see Giffords even though, according to her daughter, she wasn't very political. She was shot.
She died at the scene.
Gabe Zimmerman, 30, a social worker and Giffords' community-outreach director, was engaged to be married. He was shot.
He died at the scene.
Christina-Taylor Green, 9, who wanted to become the first female to play major-league baseball, was shot through the chest and died.
Susan Hileman, 58, tried to shield Christina-Taylor with her own body. Hileman was shot three times.
Ron Barber, 65, Giffords' district-office director, was shot and suffered wounds in the cheek and the leg.
Pam Simon, 63, who worked part time for Giffords as a community-outreach coordinator, was shot in the wrist and in the chest. The second bullet pierced her body and lodged in her hip.
Bill Badger, 74, the retired Army colonel, was injured by a gunshot that grazed his head.
Kenneth Dorushka, 63, was shot in the arm as he pushed his wife, Carol, away.
Eric Fuller, 63, was shot and wounded in the knee and in his back.
Randy Gardner, 60, was shot in his foot.
Mary Reed, 52, had gone to the store with her daughter, Emma McMahon, who worked for Giffords the previous summer as a page. Reed was shot three times as she shielded her daughter from the gunfire.
James Tucker, 58, described by his neighbors as a "gentle bear," was shot.
Kenneth Veeder, 75, a retired Vietnam veteran, was shot in the leg.
The people in line were gathered in an enclosed corridor, just a few feet wide along the front of the store. They were flanked by a brick wall on one side and large concrete pillars on the other. Tables, temporary barriers and a row of folding chairs hemmed them in. There was little room to run.
Alex Villec saw the gunman raise his arm.
"Get down! Get down!" Villec yelled.
Bill Badger heard the noise and jerked his head up. Was someone trying to harass Giffords with firecrackers? Then he saw the gunman, firing into the line of people. Badger dropped to the concrete and seconds later, felt a burning sensation on the back of his head.
Roger Salzgeber had the same thought: Firecrackers? Here? When he realized what was happening, he hit the ground toward the back of the line. His wife, Faith, dived into the row of chairs, trying to pull one over her.
Patricia Maisch knew she had two options: Run and risk becoming a target or hit the ground and risk being shot as the gunman neared. She hit the ground. The woman next to her was shot, and Maisch waited, wondering what it would feel like.
Then the shooting stopped. The gunman had run out of ammunition.
Salzgeber saw the gun, locked open, empty. He jumped up and, without thinking, hit the gunman. He almost collided with Badger, who was struggling to reach the gun. Badger grabbed the shooter's left wrist and pulled back.
The gunman went down on his right side, still holding the gun, fighting to reload. The gun hit the concrete and fell from the shooter's grasp.
"Get the gun!" someone yelled.
Maisch was on the left side and couldn't reach the gun, but she saw the shooter reach into his pocket for ammunition. If he could reload, he could start shooting again.
Maisch grabbed for the extra magazine. The shooter held on to it, then abruptly dropped it. Maisch lunged and scooped it up.
Between them, Badger and Salzgeber held the gunman down. Salzgeber pushed his knee into the shooter's neck and held his left arm back, pulling it. Hard.
Joseph Zamudio had reached the scene. A man had picked up the gun, and Zamudio moved toward him and grabbed the man's wrist.
"No, no, that's the wrong guy," someone else said.
Zamudio looked down and saw the two men holding the gunman. Maisch was sitting on his legs, clutching the second magazine. Zamudio, a former football player, dropped and took her place. Zamudio was aware of his handgun, which he had not drawn.
I just want to shoot him, he thought.
Steve Rayle edged around the corner of a pillar. He saw the gunman still squirming. A big man, at 6 feet 5 and 230 pounds, Rayle crouched over the shooter and pushed his knees into the man's kidneys.
In the rush and panic, people were yelling, but no one would remember later who said what.
"I'll kill you! I'll kill you!" someone screamed at the shooter.
"I can't believe you!" a woman cried. "How could you do this?"
Salzgeber felt a rush of anger as he pushed harder on the shooter. The gunman was pinned.
"You're hurting my arm," the man said, as Salzgeber pulled.
Bill Badger finally caught his attention. "Don't you think he needs to breathe?" Badger asked.
The two men were eye to eye. Badger's blood trickled over Salzgeber's coat.
Zamudio tried to dial 911 on his cellphone, but the emergency system was already overloaded with calls.
Rayle, a former emergency-room physician, rose from his knees and surveyed the scene.
A line of wounded people stretched back from where the shooter was pinned.
Several people, he could see, were already dead.
At the front of the line, the congresswoman moved on the ground. Near her, a young girl lay motionless.
With no one directing them, no one telling them what to do, the uninjured rose to their feet and began tending to the wounded. They strained to hear the sound of sirens. They needed help, a lot of help.
But in the air, only silence. They were alone.
And everywhere, there was blood.
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