TUCSON, Ariz (Reuters) - Bells tolled, girls in white dresses danced and Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords led a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance on Sunday, one year after a shooting spree that claimed six lives and left her gravely wounded.
Giffords, still recuperating from the head wound she suffered in the shooting, topped off a daylong series of anniversary tributes and remembrances by attending a candlelight vigil with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.
The Arizona Democrat drew rousing applause and cheers from several thousand people gathered on the grassy central mall of the University of Arizona campus, as she slowly ascended the stairs of a stage, turned and waved smiling at the crowd.
Wearing a red scarf, Giffords took her seat, and a few minutes later rose again to lead the assembly in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in a clear, strong voice, adding a forceful emphasis to the last few words, “with liberty and justice for all.”
Kelly stood beside his wife with an arm around her, helping to place and hold her right hand, weakened from paralysis, over her heart as she spoke. The crowd erupted again in cheers when she finished.
Survivors and relatives of the victims then took turns lighting 19 large candles in glass jars, one for each of the six people killed and 13 others wounded when a pistol-toting assailant opened fire at Giffords’ “Congress On Your Corner” meet-and-greet for constituents on January 8, 2011.
The dead included a 9-year-old girl, a federal judge and a member of Giffords’ staff. The accused gunman, Jared Loughner, 23, a college dropout with a history of mental illness, is charged with 49 offenses, including first-degree murder and the attempted assassination of Giffords.
Late on Saturday, Giffords returned for the first time to the scene of the bloodbath, paying a surprise visit with her husband to the Tucson supermarket where she was gunned down that day.
Pat Maisch, an onlooker who wrenched a clip of bullets from the assailant’s hand after he was tackled, was one of several speakers who addressed more than 1,000 people who filled a university auditorium earlier on Sunday to hear reflections honoring those killed and wounded in the attack.
She called the people present in the grocery store parking lot that day her “new extended family,” recounting how shoppers and other bystanders immediately rushed to render first aid, calm shocked victims and comfort the wounded until medical personnel arrived.
“These are our first, first responders -- ordinary citizens,” she said.
The official anniversary memorials began with the citywide ringing of bells at 10:11 a.m. local time on Sunday, the exact moment that the shooting erupted one year ago.
Several hundred congregants, including survivors of the shooting and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, later gathered for a mid-day interfaith service at Tucson’s St. Augustine Cathedral, presided over by Catholic priests, a rabbi and Buddhist monks.
A Navajo flutist performed and a group of young girls and teens dressed in white danced through the cathedral.
“It was a beautiful service,” survivor Ron Barber, Giffords’ district director, said afterward, as he leaned on a cane. “The dancing, the singing, the readings, they were kind of what the community was about, which is people all coming together in unity, compassion and love.”
Later at the university campus, Barber recounted how bystander Dorwan Stoddard was killed while shielding his wife, Mavanell, with his own body. “She told me she saw a smile on his face as he lay dying, and she says this was a smile of love for her,” Barber said.
Barber suffered wounds to his face and thigh in the shooting. Among those joining him at the cathedral was Daniel Hernandez Jr., the congressional intern credited with applying first aid that saved Giffords’ life.
An emotional high point of the late-afternoon assembly on campus came as two girls who were best friends and classmates of Christina-Taylor Green, the 9-year-old killed in the shooting, recalled how the three youngsters had all secretly vowed to attend the University of Arizona together.
“Sometimes we would just go to the park and lay on our backs and just chill and look at the clouds,” recounted one of the girls, Jamie Stone.
Gary Huckleberry, whose daughter was traumatized by having witnessed the shooting, emerged from an earlier service at St. Philip’s in the Hills, an Episcopal parish near the scene of the rampage, saying he found the remembrances therapeutic.
“A lot of us have come a long way since that date a year ago. For some people it will take much more time to get over it, but having this service ... was healing,” he said.
Giffords’ appearance on Sunday night culminated an emotional day for Tucson, a southern Arizona city of 520,000 people that many describe as a “small big town.”
“For the past year, we’ve had new realities to deal with,” Kelly told the crowd of several thousand who formed an undulating sea of multicolored glow-sticks handed out to people attending the vigil.
Reflecting on how loved ones can be lost and lives shattered in an instant, he added, “And that is a reality we can do nothing about.”
At the conclusion of the vigil, Barber took the stage to thank his boss for appearing at the event, as the crowd broke into a spontaneous chant of “Gabby, Gabby, Gabby,” which a beaming Giffords, herself, joined in briefly.
Loughner, who was arrested at the scene of the shooting, pleaded not guilty to the charges against him but was later confined to the psychiatric ward of a prison hospital after he was declared incompetent to stand trial.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Bohan