TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - Congressional staffer Ron Barber was standing in a receiving line next to U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords at her first outreach event of the year when the gunman opened fire at point-blank range.
Moments later he was lying in a pool of his own blood on the sidewalk when Giffords and fellow aide Gabe Zimmerman fell beside him outside the Tucson area grocery store.
“I saw the congresswoman being shot, I saw myself being shot, I saw Gabe die in front of me,” recalls Barber, 66, Giffords’s district director who was shot in the face and thigh.
“They are memories that will never go away,” added the aide, who has since been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Sunday marks a year since a gunman fired a semi-automatic pistol into a crowd gathered at Giffords’s “Congress on Your Corner” event last January 8, killing six people and wounding 13 others.
As Tucson prepares to mark the somber anniversary, survivors like Barber are at various stages of recovery from the physical and emotional wounds of the deadly spree that ripped apart scores of lives, rocked this close-knit southwest city and shocked America.
“I’ve struggled with the emotions,” said military veteran Bill Badger, 75, who was hailed as a hero for his role in ending the spree by grabbing accused triggerman Jared Loughner and slamming him to the ground before he could reload.
“It changed my life,” he said.
Giffords plans to attend the candlelit vigil in Tucson on Sunday with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, although it remains unclear if she will seek to resume her political career and run for re-election in November.
Loughner was found mentally incompetent to stand trial at a hearing in May and is being treated at a federal prison hospital in Missouri.
Hours after the shooting, Barber underwent emergency surgery at the University of Arizona Medical Center to repair damage from a bullet that struck his cheek and fractured his jaw, and from another that hit near his groin.
In the following months, as Giffords underwent intensive rehab for a head wound at a hospital in Houston, Texas, Barber recovered sufficiently to return to work in July, where he was welcomed by colleagues with balloons and a carrot cake.
“I just love being here. They are wonderful people,” Barber said in an interview at Giffords’s Tucson district office, where he works half time.
“But being here was a daily reminder that Gabe wasn’t here, because he and I would huddle six or seven times a day on issues,” he said.
Zimmerman, 30 and a Tucson native, had worked for Giffords since her first congressional campaign in 2006. Colleagues remembered him as a gentle, thoughtful person.
Barber now walks with a cane and deals with the lingering symptoms of PTSD, which include flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks.
Speaking out about the events also helps him deal with the trauma, and, he hopes, create a greater understanding about PTSD, which also affects other survivors.
Badger, who received a glancing bullet wound to his scalp, was patched up with medical glue after the shooting and promptly discharged from the hospital.
Trauma surfaced the following day after he went to Mass and burst into tears during a dinner time prayer with his son and wife. Then he saw a television news report about stranded travelers sleeping on an airport floor in Boston, which triggered memories of the bodies in the Safeway store parking lot.
“When I saw all those people laying in the airport sleeping, I just broke down,” he said.
‘OUTPOURING OF LOVE’
Help has come from support from other victims, with whom Badger is close. They often talk on the phone and meet for social events. Six gathered at his home for Christmas party.
“One good thing that came out of this was the bonding of the people,” said Badger, expressing a view shared by many of the survivors in Tucson, population 520,000, described by some residents as a “small big town.”
Barber agreed, saying he is frequently stopped by well-wishers who recognize him, including one who hugged him while he was Christmas shopping.
“By coming together and by sharing its kindness, we realize what kind of community we are,” he said. “We are not defined by what happened that morning, we are defined by what happened afterward and is still going on.”
Tucson residents plan to ring bells across the city on Sunday to mark the moment of the shooting at 10:11 a.m. and will hold an interfaith service and a candlelit vigil.
For the family of the youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, an “overwhelming, outpouring of love” has helped as they grieve for the granddaughter of former baseball executive Dallas Green. She is remembered for her passion for dancing and gymnastics and as the only girl on her Little League baseball team.
“Just the letters we received from the nation. All over. Young, old, Christian, Jewish, young children, elderly, all walks of life. It’s been ... very healing,” said Roxanna Green, the girl’s mother.
With her husband John and their son Dallas, she has channeled her energy into a nonprofit memorial foundation in her daughter’s name, which has supported projects including a new school playground and a Christmas toy drive for the Salvation Army.
“Everyone has their way of healing,” she told Reuters.
A rising star among Democrats in the U.S. Congress, Giffords had been re-elected to a third term in the U.S. House of Representatives two months before she was shot.
After life-saving surgery for a “through-and-through” head wound -- meaning the bullet went into and out of her head -- she began months of intensive physical therapy at the TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston, where she has made strides recovering movement and speech.
Walking gingerly and blowing kisses, she made a triumphant return to the U.S. Congress for a vote on raising the U.S. debt ceiling in August, to thunderous applause.
Giffords said in a recorded message in November she wanted to “get back to work” but has not yet announced whether she will run for Arizona’s District 8 again in November.
“She is not right now concerned about whether she’s going to run for re-election,” her spokesman Mark Kimble said, adding she was focusing on her recovery.
“She’ll decide that when she decides it. It’ll be sometime in the first part of 2012, but beyond that it’s up to her,” Kimble said.
Giffords has until May to register to run for re-election, and has an organization in place that is continuing to raise funds for a campaign.
Jeff Rogers, chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party, said he expected her to make a decision before the end of January.
Rogers, who sees no Republican who could pose a serious challenge in a district that is now slightly more Democratic in a recently released redistricting map, has met regularly with Giffords’s staff during her recovery.
“I‘m still optimistic that she is going to be a candidate,” Rogers said, highlighting the gains she has made in the past six months of her convalescence.
“It has been really uplifting, and I think that will continue.”
Editing by Daniel Trotta