AMANDA LEE MYERS
TUCSON, Ariz. — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords led a crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, her words ringing out across a cold Tucson night in a rare public appearance Sunday evening at a candlelight vigil one year after surviving a deadly shooting.
The Democratic congresswoman — who has struggled to re-learn to walk after being shot in the head — stepped onstage to cheers from the crowd. Ron Barber, a staffer who was wounded in the rampage that killed six one year ago, invited her to lead the audience in the pledge.
The crowd chanted: “Gabby, Gabby.”
She limped to the podium, and husband Mark Kelly helped lift her left hand over her heart. After months of intensive speech therapy, Giffords recited the pledge with the audience, head held high and a smile on her face as she punched each word.
The remembrance at the University of Arizona capped off a day of events, including a church service that drew hundreds in the afternoon and a citywide bell-ringing at 10:11 a.m., the exact time a gunman started shooting at a Safeway political event on Jan. 8, 2011.
With hugs and tears, southern Arizonans remembered the dead, the shattered lives and those who acted heroically after a gunman opened fire at an outdoor meet-and-greet that severely wounded Giffords and 12 others.
“Even in the midst of this troubling year, the healing, the courage that we have experienced in our community — each one of us can notice how our cups overflow with the blessings of our lives,” said Stephanie Aaron, Giffords’ rabbi, who recited the 23rd Psalm at an interfaith service at the cathedral Sunday afternoon.
Relatives of the six dead walked solemnly down the aisle with a single red rose, placing the flowers in a vase in front of a picture of a heart.
Hundreds of people at the cathedral — including Gov. Jan Brewer — stood and chanted, “We remember, we remember, we remember with grateful hearts.” Some closed their eyes while others held each other.
At the evening service, 19 candles marked the lost and the survivors. Giffords and Kelly lit one candle together as an orchestra played and many in the crowd wept. The emotional service brought together many who survived the shooting, and those who lost loved ones.
Suzi Hileman, who was shot three times, took the stage, hugged Giffords and walked to the candle area. She lit one, put her hands over her heart and mouthed “thank you” to the crowd.
Giffords, 41, has spent the last year in Houston undergoing intensive physical and speech therapy in a recovery that doctors and family have called miraculous. She is able to walk and talk, vote in Congress and gave a televised interview to ABC’s Diane Sawyer in May.
But doctors have said it would take many months to determine the lasting effects of her brain injury. The three-term congresswoman has four months to decide whether to seek re-election.
Barber said he spent time with Giffords on Friday and Saturday.
“Even though it’s a hard weekend for her and all of us, she wanted to be here with her community to remember,” he said. “She’s sad, we’re all sad, and she’s glad to be home.”
Jared Lee Loughner has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges in the shooting. The 23-year-old, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is being forcibly medicated at a Missouri prison facility in an effort to make him mentally ready for trial.
President Barack Obama called Giffords on Sunday to offer his support and tell her he and the first lady are keeping her, the families of those killed and the whole Tucson community in their thoughts and prayers, according to the White House. He said Giffords was an inspiration to all Americans.
At an afternoon event at the University of Arizona, Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who was born and raised in Tucson, spoke about Giffords.
He praised Giffords for working for the good of the country, and said other politicians can learn from her and move away from incendiary comments.
“Although Gabby now struggles with her words at times, we know what she’s trying to say,” Udall said. “It’s a simple concept. Words matter, and these days you don’t hear our elected officials using words to bring us together. Too often words are used as weapons.”
Of 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, her two best friends recalled a girl who aspired to dance with Beyonce, to be the first woman in Major League Baseball and one day be elected president United States.
“She wasn’t afraid of boys or sports or anything,” Serenity Hammrich said, wearing a black dress and standing with Jamie Stone on stage while many in the audience wept. “When she made student council, I was so happy for her. She believed it was impossible to help others to try to make a difference in the school and to put others first.”
The Rev. Andrew Ross, spoke for shooting victim and his congregant Phyllis Schneck.
“I remember just shaking and as I shared with my congregation, my immediate response was anger, in fact rage, that someone would once again do this to a member of our flock,” Ross said. “And so it’s good for us to be honest and admit it’s not easy remembering this day. We have to be honest about that.”
At the Safeway memorial, Bruce Ellis and his wife Kelly Hardesty, both 50, held each other tight and wept as the bells rang.
“It’s shocking to have a massacre like this occur in your backyard,” Ellis said. “It’s something that happens on the news, not in your neighborhood.”
About 30 others rang bells, hugged each other and cried as the time of the shooting passed. Many bowed in prayer.
Gail Gardiner, 70, who lives about a mile away, tied a balloon Sunday that said, “Thinking of you,” to a railing next to a memorial of the shooting that reads: “The Tucson Tragedy … we shall never forget.”
Albert Pesqueira, assistant fire chief for the Northwest Fire District in Tucson, was one of the first responders to the shooting. He came to the Safeway on Sunday to remember and to heal.
His most vivid memories from that day are the sounds of moaning and crying among shooting victims in the aftermath of the attack.
“I can still hear them,” Pesqueira said. “We’ll never be the same. We’ll never be normal again because of what occurred.”