Those at the scene share stories

Tucsonans protect themselves, others during shooting spree at Safeway
2011-01-16T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T11:05:52Z Those at the scene share storiesBecky Pallack, Tim Steller, Alexis Huicochea and Stephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Many Tucsonans will always remember where they were when they heard the news on Jan. 8: Our congresswoman has been shot.

But some are haunted by the memory of those terrible moments that changed Tucson forever. They were there.

With the violence all around, their gut reactions told them to run for safety. Then they thought about how to protect themselves, how to get help to those who needed it, and how to get word to loved ones.

Here are their experiences:

Staying alive

While standing in line waiting to meet Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Randy Gardner struck up a conversation with a stranger, who turned out to be Phyllis Schneck, but they were interrupted by a series of popping noises.

Realizing it was gunfire, Gardner's vision became very narrow.

"Things just started to cave in on me," he said. "It was like tunnel vision. I never saw the shooter, I could only hear the sound and I knew I needed to get away from the sound. I saw forms of people moving, I heard screaming. I could see that people were falling to the ground."

Gardner, 60, suffered a gunshot wound to the foot.

"All I could think was 'OK, I'm going to try to get out of this situation.' "

Gardner eventually made it out to the parking lot where he took cover behind a vehicle. An employee who was outside and called 911 helped him into a nearby Walgreens where he laid on the floor waiting for help.

He was taken to UMC, where he was treated and kept overnight.

Hiding inside Safeway

Sharon Brillhart wanted to treat her 15-year-old son to some doughnuts.

Making her way to the express checkout line, she heard a sound like popping bubble wrap.

People were running to the back of the store. Workers in the pharmacy were rolling down the security window. Someone said something about a gun. Brillhart, 53, ran to the back of the store with 20 or 30 strangers.

Hiding amid pallets of boxed groceries, time moved slowly.

A woman called 911. "Hurry," she implored the dispatcher.

Brillhart called her son. She told him that people had been shot but she was safe and that she would call him again.

Police evacuated the store. Outside, Brillhart was shaking so hard she couldn't walk. She sat down and called her son again. She had heard they caught the guy, she said, and she would be home soon.

She left in her car to make room for emergency vehicles, but sat for half an hour in the traffic jam, watching people at the scene come and go, some on gurneys.

She drove through a Krispy Kreme on her way home, where she hugged her son.

Giving first aid

Forty-seven-year-old Bob Pagano, an optical engineer, saw Giffords and her staff as he walked into the Safeway where he's done his grocery shopping for 17 years.

"They were there, greeting people. She was smiling," Pagano said. "I thought it was nice to see people out like that on a Saturday morning."

Pagano was in the store for about five minutes when he heard what sounded like rapid fireworks.

"For a brief moment, I thought that was strange. Then I immediately ran out the door. Someone was shooting at a politician and I was angry," Pagano said.

As he ran outside, he saw several people lying on the ground. He saw a couple of people on top of the shooter. He called 911, but realized others were doing the same.

So he turned to help Pam Simon, who was shot in the chest and the wrist. She was lying face-down on the asphalt, about 15 feet from Giffords, who was already being helped by a young man who turned out to be Giffords intern Daniel Hernandez Jr. Pagano put his sweater under Simon's head to try to comfort her.

"She was very strong, she was telling me what to do. I was telling her she was going to be fine," Pagano said. "She was uncomfortable but entirely coherent."

He stayed with her as paramedics took over caring for her. Then he followed her to UMC, bringing her purse and other belongings with him. He stayed in the emergency department at the hospital until Simon's husband arrived.

The two met for the first time Friday in Giffords' office.

"I've just been amazingly pleased that she's doing so well," Pagano said of Simon. "She's a strong individual, an incredible person."

Calling for help

Giffords staff member Sara Hummel Rajca was taking pictures at the event when a young man in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans walked up and spoke with intern Daniel Hernandez Jr., standing a few feet away.

While Hernandez was still talking to him, the young man walked away, to the back of the line to see the congresswoman.

Hummel Rajca soon saw him again, a winter cap covering his nearly bald head. He walked up from the back of the line, stood next to Hummel Rajca, took out a gun and shot Giffords.

"That's when I ran," Hummel Rajca said.

"He was to my right. So I ran toward my left, which happens to be where my car was," she said. "I ran straight to my car and hid behind it."

"Once he shot that first shot, it was just like 'blam-blam-blam-blam.'"

She found her phone in the car and called 911. Twenty other people in the area did, too.

"After I called 911, I called my husband, and I started to call anyone I knew."

When she saw the shooter was restrained, she went back out to see if she could help. Then the police and ambulances arrived.

After emergency responders attended to the victims, police and FBI agents interviewed her and other witnesses, and she gave them some pictures she'd taken as the assigned photographer that day. The shooting started just after 10 a.m., and she was released at 2:30, feeling devastated.

Witnessing history

Howard Dow met some friends at Beyond Bread for a quick breakfast before their regular Saturday bike ride.

He was in the parking lot when the shots were fired. It sounded like fireworks - but, he wondered, why would someone set off fireworks in the morning?

As more and more shots rang out, he hid behind his car and then behind a brick pillar. People were running past, including an older man who was holding his leg from an injury.

It seemed like an eternity before authorities responded. In reality it was only a few minutes.

Police cars poured in. Then ambulances. Then three helicopters landed, one right after the other.

Seeing no way to help, the friends went on their bike ride. But Dow, 50, said the events have been playing on a continuous loop in his head.

"Everybody wants to witness history," he said, "but I could have done without that."

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 807-8012.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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