Sunday, 10 April 2011

"I Heard the Shots and Ran Toward the Sound

That's Daniel Hernandez talking, the 21-year-old intern who helped save Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords's life. Here, Hernandez and two other heroes of the Arizona massacre—one of the men who tackled the gunman and the woman who prevented him from reloading—tell Amy Wallace their gripping stories of that dark and sunny Saturday

Daniel Hernandez Jr. (21, junior at the University of Arizona, intern for Representative Giffords): I had thought I wanted to be a physician. Then I volunteered for Hillary Clinton's campaign. I've always been drawn to strong women. They face a double standard, and it's always been a lot harder for them to get half as far, even though they're working twice as hard. The day after Hillary lost the primary, I met Gabby. She had been the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona state senate. I had an interaction with her at an event, and she just left the biggest impression. After that, my plans changed. It wasn't that I didn't like medicine. I just thought I would be able to serve more people if I went into public service.

My internship was supposed to start on January 12, when school begins, but I'd volunteered to start early, because between semesters the office is short-staffed. I've known Gabby for years—I'd worked on her campaigns since I met her in June 2008. She's the kindest, warmest individual you will ever meet. "I don't do handshakes, honey. I do hugs," she always says.

Patricia Maisch (61, co-owner with her husband, John, of Oro Valley Heating & Cooling): I was there to thank Gabrielle for her work over the last several years. So much is reported about how the stimulus package didn't work, but for our small business, it was incredible. There was a $1,500 federal tax credit if you upgraded your heating-and-cooling system, and we had our best year ever in 2009. I went there to tell her I hoped she would run again in 2012.

Bill Badger (74, retired army colonel): I'd never met her, but the congresswoman and I had communicated back and forth on e-mail. Her husband is a captain in the navy, which is equivalent to a colonel in the army. So she's a military spouse, and my wife is a military spouse. Obamacare was one of the issues I e-mailed her about, especially military medical benefits for life. She was exceptionally good at responding. If I had a question, she'd get me an answer. I'm a Republican and she's a Democrat, but she works all the way from the right to the left. I truly admire her.

Hernandez: I had gotten up at seven forty-five that day, like I usually do. Gabe Zimmerman, Gabby's community-outreach director, had organized the 10 a.m. "Congress on Your Corner" event, and he asked me to be at the Safeway at the corner of Ina and North Oracle by 9 a.m. to help with setup. When people started arriving, I went to the back of the line with my clipboard, taking down people's information so if we ran out of time, we could send them a letter acknowledging them for coming. That generally didn't happen, because if there was a crowd, Gabby would rarely leave, even if she was late to the next event. But just to be on the safe side, I was registering people.

Maisch: I got there early, and I signed in with Daniel—I know that's his name now. I was fourth or fifth in line. I asked him, "Are we going to go in order?" and he said yes. I told him I'd be right back and went into the grocery store and bought a banana and a bottle of water and came back out. Now there are twenty to twenty-five people there. I could have pushed back up to the front, but I thought, you know, "I'm not going to be pushy. I'm just going to go to the end of the line. It's a beautiful day. I can stand in the sun."

Badger: When I got there, Giffords had a big banner up with her name on it. I just walked right up and got about ten feet from her, and an aide stepped up and said I had to get in line. So I walked down to the end and registered. It was less than five minutes from the time I parked my car to when I heard the shooting: bang, bang, bang, bang.

Hernandez: I had just checked in Bill Badger when I heard what I thought was gunfire. For about half a second, I'm like, "Oh, maybe it's fireworks." And then I heard someone say "Gun!" and it clicked: I remembered some of the things that had happened over the last several months. There was a campaign event where an angry constituent had brought a gun but dropped it. And then the door of her congressional office in Tucson was shot at or smashed last March, after the vote on health care.

So I hear the shots, and the first thing I think of is Gabby. Making sure she's okay. I was about thirty to forty feet away from the congresswoman. I heard the shots and ran toward the sound.

Maisch: It didn't sound like a car backfiring. It didn't sound like a balloon popping. It had that horrible sound of gunfire. There was this momentary pause, and then it started again in earnest—you know, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. I thought, "What should I do?" My thought was to run, but in that split second, the gunman was already there, and I thought, "If I run, I'm in his line of fire. He's going to turn from there and shoot at me. I'm going to be a target."

Badger: My first reaction was somebody had thrown a pack of firecrackers up where Giffords was talking with the people, just to harass her. But when I turned to look in that direction, I could see an individual shooting. I could see the man standing there with his arm out. He didn't move at first. All he did was turn where he was standing. And he started shooting the people sitting in folding chairs that the campaign had put out for people waiting in line. I knew that soon he was going to be shooting at me. The people on the chairs were hitting the ground. I turned to my left and started to crouch down. When I did, I felt this burning, stinging sensation on the back of my head. I dropped to the ground, and the shooting stopped. Then I stood up, and I was a little bit dazed, because I didn't realize the shooter was walking by right in front of me.

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