Caught in the crosshairs

Southern Arizona mourns and prays while the world watches

On Sunday, Jan. 9, Maria Martinez stood, bundled up in the desert evening cold, before a growing memorial of candles, flowers and placards that had sprung up in front of University Medical Center in Tucson.

She wore an expression of disbelief and cradled a framed photo in her arms.

In that photo, she stands with her husband, Hector; her son, Claudio; and U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords’ face beams that familiar wide smile; her arms are extended around Maria and Hector.

“I think of her as a friend,” Maria Martinez said.

Martinez runs Las Vigas Steak Ranch restaurant with her husband and son in Nogales, Ariz. Her restaurant catered Giffords’ wedding to Mark Kelly in 2007 at the Agua Linda Farm in Amado, Ariz.

The restaurant was so busy on Saturday, Jan. 8 – the day Giffords and 18 others were shot in front of a Safeway by gunman Jared Loughner – that Martinez wasn’t able to drive up to Tucson as soon as she wanted.

“So we prayed yesterday, the whole day. I asked my employees at the restaurant to get together at one time and pray for her, and I called my brothers and family to all light a candle for her,” Maria said, tears welling up in her eyes.

“She doesn’t deserve this. She really doesn’t. It is very hard, very hard,” she said.

Martinez is one of hundreds of Southern Arizonans who have visited the vigil in front of UMC that began shortly after Giffords and other shooting victims arrived at the hospital’s trauma center.

Kathleen Kennedy, who works for a preservation group called the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection in Tucson, said she came to UMC Saturday night to “feel some solidarity with other Southern Arizonans.”

“It just felt like the right thing to do,” she said. “I just didn’t want to be at home. I wanted to be with other people who were thinking, reflecting, trying to do what they can in a sort of unspeakable situation.”

Not far from Kennedy, Jenny Hill stood looking down at the rows of candles and flowers. Hill, from Nogales, Ariz., brought her son to Tucson to spend Saturday night with a friend who is fighting leukemia at UMC’s Diamond Children’s Medical Center.

“I just knew I was coming here today, and when I heard the news, I figured the congresswoman was here, and so many of the others who were hurt, so I picked up some flowers to bring,” she said.

“My grandfather was the first city attorney for Tucson after Arizona became a state, so we go way back in this community,” Hill said, starting to cry. “It is all so wrong. It’s just wrong. I think that people are two ways: Either people take care of each other, or it’s every man for himself. And I think that humanity needs to choose who we’re going to be.”

On Saturday evening, Gerry Straatemeier and her husband, Darwin Hall, led the crowd in prayer and song before introducing Arizona state Rep. Steve Farley and Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group with offices 
in Tucson.

“You cannot kill hope with a bullet. You cannot kill love with a bullet. We know that is not possible,” Farley said.

He reminded everyone that the world is watching Arizona.

“I believe our actions in the coming weeks and months will prove what kind of state we really are,” Farley said. “I believe we can reach out in love to those we disagree with. And we can rise above the climate that has created such violence and reclaim our state.”

Suckling said the Center for Biological Diversity brought many legal cases before Judge John Roll, one of the six people who were killed in the massacre.

“He was a very fair and honest and often humorous judge, and you knew that if you were before him, you were going to get a fair hearing,” Suckling said. “Judge Roll was one of those people you could count on to do what is right.”

Toward the end of the UMC vigil, between songs, someone from the crowd yelled, “We love you, Gabby.”

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The streets of downtown Tucson should have been packed on the evening of Jan. 8, full of people attending the Second Saturdays Downtown street festival. However, the morning’s tragedy forced organizers to cancel the event.

Instead, the Rialto Theatre’s Curtis McCrary quickly helped organize a concert to bring people together to share stories about Giffords and others involved in 
the incident.

Outside, the theater’s marquee read: WE LOVE YOU GABBY. Inside, the scene was unusual for the Rialto: Everyone was seated and largely quiet.

Rialto executive director Doug Biggers, a longtime friend of Giffords (and the former publisher of the Tucson Weekly), introduced each performance. He shared a few stories, including several that came from Charlie Levy, who organized a large campaign fundraiser for Giffords at the Rialto in 2008, which included a performance by Calexico – Giffords is a music fan and supporter of the local arts.

“The band Ozomatli, a great band and one of Gabby’s favorites [played here],” Biggers said and recounted one of Levy’s stories. “She was here that night, and she was way up at the top of the balcony, checking it out and having a good time. At the end of their shows, Ozomatli usually forms a line and marches out into the audience ... Gabby said, ‘Charlie, I’ve got to go down there. I want to be part of that.’ They did, and Gabby marched out 
with Ozomatli.”

Former Arizona state Rep. Tom Prezelski took to the stage and expressed concern that the shootings could lead to a change regarding the accessibility of leaders in the community.

“One of the things that I love about our community leaders and elected leaders ... they walk among us and don’t pretend they are gods or noblemen. They hang out at the Buffet [bar in Tucson],” he said. “We can’t let that change. We can’t let these people win by separating ourselves from the leadership in this town.”

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On Saturday night, another vigil was planned, this one in front of Giffords’ office at the southwest corner of Pima and Swan roads.

But the Tucson Police Department wound up closing the intersection while officers took a closer look at what was reported to be a suspicious-looking device. Those arriving for the vigil were moved across the street while police attempted to detonate what looked like a coffee can with wires sticking out of the top.

Police later said the device posed no threat to public safety and they allowed the vigil to continue, but limited where people could stand.

Another vigil was scheduled for Sunday, and more than 300 people attended, mostly gathered under a large mesquite tree that fanned out above the crowd.

Rabbi Thomas Louchheim, of Congregation Or Chadash, helped lead prayers and discussed this week’s Torah portion, read in nearly all Jewish congregations, that “talks about the plague of darkness that has come down on the land of Egypt, and it is so dark in the land of Egypt that one neighbor cannot see another, and yet in the households of the Israelites, there is a light that shows from within.”

Giffords is Jewish.

Sami Hamed, a former member of U.S. Congressman Raúl Grijalva’s staff who ran for a state House seat last year, attended Sunday’s vigil. He said that in the last couple of years, threats to Grijalva and his staff have increased – and the nature of those threats felt different.

“I think free speech is important, of course. I wouldn’t tell people to curb their speech, but be respectful, and don’t incite violence or anger,” he said. “Like Sarah Palin using words like ‘reloading’ or ‘reload America,’ and her targets; that’s very scary. Even Gabby’s opponent [Jesse Kelly] had a rifle-shooting fundraiser to ‘take aim at Giffords.’ That’s very sad, and having worked for a congressman, that’s really scary,” Hamed said.

Hamed said that he hopes the tragedy will bring people together and put a spotlight on issues “that have been ignored, that the governing majority may not like in Arizona. For example, we have the law that there is no need to have a concealed-weapons permit. I’ll bet you that’s one thing that’s revisited.”

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Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords’ community-outreach director, is one of the six people who died in the shooting. He was an important part of life at the Arizona State University School of Social Work’s Tucson Component.

On Monday, Jan. 10, Josephina Ahumada, the school’s field-education coordinator, and Craig LeCroy, the school’s Tucson coordinator, were still trying to make sense of the loss of their former student and colleague.

Zimmerman graduated in 2006 from the program and had recently worked with social-work interns placed with Giffords’ office.

“It’s a tragedy for the school,” Ahumada said. “He was very involved with the school and the social-work community at large.”

Ahumada said Zimmerman was an active member of Tucson’s social-work community and called the 30-year-old a “rising star.”

He was always a voice of moderation, she said, “looking for common ground, like Gabby. He’s a peacemaker. We could certainly use more peacemakers like that.”

He was expected to teach a class this year at the school, LeCroy said. Instead, this week the school will offer a tribute to Zimmerman.

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By Sunday, the world had descended on Tucson. Dozens of national and international 
camera crews set up in front of UMC, and one of the popular interviewees was Daniel Hernandez, a Giffords intern who had emerged from the tragedy as a hero.

After interviews with CNN, NBC’s Brian Williams and numerous others, Hernandez sat in the UMC cafeteria and took off his black suit jacket. He prepared, once again, to tell his story.

The 20-year-old University of Arizona junior and political-science major said he wasn’t supposed to be at the Giffords event on Saturday. His internship technically starts in mid-January, but he knew Giffords’ office was short-staffed, so he volunteered to help.

Hernandez was checking people in to talk to Giffords when the shots rang out.

Using his training as a nursing assistant and a phlebotomist, he held Giffords up on his lap so she wouldn’t choke on her own blood. Then, with his bare hands, he 
applied pressure to her head to control the bleeding.

His apparent calm as he went around checking pulses of victims before reaching Giffords was impressive. Ron Barber, Giffords’ district director who was wounded near the congresswoman, told Hernandez to stay with Giffords – and not to leave her side.

He did exactly that.

A picture by James Palka, posted on Saturday evening, showed Hernandez walking alongside Giffords (who was on a gurney) and holding her hand. On the way to UMC, he continued holding her hand, and she squeezed it back to let him know she could hear him.

“When I heard there were gunshots, my first instinct, assuming there was a gun, is that Congresswoman Giffords would likely be a target. I wanted to make sure she was OK,” he said. Hernandez said the employees at Safeway were amazing, quickly retrieving freshly laundered smocks from the meat department when he asked for clean linens to slow down bleeding.

When asked about his status as a hero, Hernandez winced.

“I don’t think that’s a good term,” he said. “This is a one-off. The people who have dedicated their lives to public service are the 
real heroes.”

Mari Herreras is a staff writer for Tucson Weekly, where a version of this story first appeared

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