By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times –
TUCSON, Ariz. — Gabrielle Giffords waved her left hand.
Thousands of people cheered.
The Democratic congresswoman’s appearance Sunday, exactly a year after she was shot in the head during a rampage at a meet-and-greet here, provided an emotional crescendo to a day of commemoration.
The attack left six people dead, 13 wounded and Tucson — which likes to think of itself as a “big small town” — nothing short of traumatized. The anniversary showed the city at a crossroads: still mourning “the event,” as it’s sometimes called, yet trying to move on.
Swaddled in a red scarf, Giffords walked onto the outdoor stage at the University of Arizona just after sunset, one of her rare public appearances since the shooting.
With her husband, Mark Kelly nearby, she gripped her right hand with her left — the shooting has affected her mobility on her right side — and tried to pull it as close as possible to her heart. Then she led the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegience, giving extra emphasis to the conclusion, “with liberty and justice for all.” Her voice was strong enough to bring some people to tears.
Giffords remained animated throughout the hourlong vigil: smiling, sometimes standing, nearly always gripping Kelly’s hand. At least once, he leaned his head on her shoulder.
“Gabby! Gabby!” the crowd chanted as the vigil wrapped up.
Giffords is viewed as something of a phoenix here, with her improbable, if still-in-progress, return to health. On Sunday, President Barack Obama called her “an inspiration to his family and Americans across the country” and said he was amazed by the congresswoman’s courage “along her incredible road to recovery.”
At an afternoon event in Tucson, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D.-Colo., held up Giffords as a symbol of political moderation that is needed more than ever. “Although Gabby now struggles with her words at times, we know what she’s trying to say … Words matter, and these days you don’t hear our elected officials using words to bring us together,” Udall said.
Still, the congresswoman’s political future remains uncertain, and some people have raised questions about the long-term impact of her injury. In the coming months, she must formally declare whether she will seek a fourth term in Congress
Giffords, 41, has spent much of the last year in Houston undergoing physical and speech therapy. She cast one vote in Congress — to raise the debt ceiling — and recently gave a televised interview to ABC’s Diane Sawyer. But she’s remained largely out of public view.
On Saturday, Giffords and Kelly, a former astronaut, visited Tucson’s University Medical Center, where Giffords was treated, and a trailhead named in honor of Gabe Zimmerman, a Giffords aide who was killed in the attack.
The couple also returned for the first time to the scene of the shooting, the Safeway that anchors the upscale shopping center La Toscana Village on the city’s northwest side. Kelly tweeted a photo of Giffords, in a dark jacket, jeans and sneakers, standing outside the store and pointing.
“Gabby remembering the parking spot she chose from Jan. 8,” Kelly wrote.
The suspected gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges in connection with the shooting. He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Much of Sunday afternoon was dedicated to honoring those killed, including Zimmerman; federal Judge John Roll; Dorothy Morris; Phyllis Schneck; and Dorwan Stoddard, who died while shielding his wife from gunfire. The most emotional tribute was reserved for Christina-Taylor Green, who was 9 years old.
Two of the girl’s friends — Serenity Hammrich and Jamie Stone, wearing matching black dresses and tights — addressed hundreds of people in a university auditorium. They remembered how Christina-Taylor liked to sing — a particular favorite was “Evacuate the Dancefloor” — and pick clovers outside.
“She wasn’t afraid of boys or sports or anything,” said Serenity, who described her dark-haired friend as looking “just like me, but taller.”
Earlier in the day, a few dozen mourners gathered at the Safeway to offer their own tribute to the dead: ringing bells at the exact time a year ago when the gunman opened fire.
Soon after the shootings, flowers and candles sprung up outside the Safeway. Retired teacher Kati Boehm lives nearby, and each time she went shopping after the killings, she said, she’d buy a single flower and add it to the pile. Even after the flowers were cleared out, the grocery revived memories of the shootings.
Others seemed to feel the same. After the shootings, someone set up six white wooden crosses, each decorated with an artificial bouquet, across the street in a patch of dirt. The crosses still stand, with the names of the dead printed in black.
“I think people want to be connected to one another and sometimes it takes tragedy to do that,” Boehm said.
On Sunday, Boehm joined several dozen residents outside the permanent memorial Safeway has erected: a boulder, marked by a plaque honoring the “Tucson Tragedy,” encircled by six smaller rocks. People lit Virgin of Guadalupe candles, laid down bouquets.
Finally, someone said: “It’s 10:11.”
Boehm clanged her wind chimes. Others shook strands with multiple bells. One woman made due with rattling her keys, while bystanders trembled and hugged.
The chiming stretched to 10:12, 10:13, 10:14, longer.