The gunman, wearing a beanie and baggy clothes, approached Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ meet-and-greet Saturday wanting to speak with her immediately, a witness says.
Alex Villec, a 19-year-old volunteer, organized the line of constituents outside the Safeway where a young man approached the line.
He said, “Can I talk to the congresswoman?”, or something to that effect, Villec said. He told the man to stand at the back of a line to wait for about 20 minutes.
“He went to the back of the line,” Villec said, “and didn’t seem too interested in what I had to say.”
Minutes later, the man left the back of the line and walked toward Giffords, who was with 20 to 25 constituents, employees and volunteers.
“He was intent,” Villec said. “He was intent when he came back — a pretty stone cold glance and glare.”
“I didn’t see his gun, but it was clear who he was going for. He was going for the congresswoman,” Villec said.
“A few staff members were caught in the crossfire …. His goal was the congresswoman.”
The shooter walked past Villec and to his left, past tables and toward Giffords. He raised his hand. Villec heard gunshots before ducking behind a pillar and later running across the Safeway parking lot to a bank for safety.
“It was bedlam,” he said. “People were getting down on the ground. They were screaming. I just did what I could to keep myself protected.”
Villec worked on Giffords’ 2008 campaign and interned twice in the past year for her, both in Tucson and in Washington, D.C. The Catalina Foothills High School graduate volunteered Saturday in part to see old friends. He was set to return to Georgetown University on Sunday.
The weapon “sounded like a handgun.” He did not hear the shooter speak while firing; from behind a pillar, Villec heard someone cry, “Get down.” Villec did not see two men tackle the gunman, though spoke with one of the men afterward. That tackler, he said, was next in line to greet Giffords.
“It’s heroic,” Villec said.” I’m at a loss for words to describe the courage it takes to do a thing like that.”
At 10:19 a.m., Villec texted his mother, Anne Hoff.
“I’m safe and fine,” it read. “There was a shooting outside Safeway. I’m completely O.K.”
Hoff, who drove to the Safeway lot, said she was thankful for the pre-emptive text.
“I don’t know,” she said, “what makes someone lucky.”
Villec, who was still shocked about his close call, knew the gravity of what occurred outside the Safeway early Saturday.
“It’s clear that this is a contentious district. Passions run deep on these issues, so much so that somebody would be compelled to do something like this,” he said. “However, the kind of bickering that happens on a day-to-day basis never reaches physical violence.
“This is unprecedented — and it’s going to send shockwaves throughout the country.”