Congressional staffer Ron Barber was standing in a receiving line next to 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.
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Tim Gaynor and Brad Poole