Sprawled on the sidewalk, blood flowing from an upper-leg wound, Ron Barber contorted his body and reached under his back for, of all things, his BlackBerry.
The reason underlines his passion: He wanted to retrieve the phone number for the parents of his boss, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was slumped, shot through the head, just in front of him. He'd asked intern Daniel Hernandez Jr. to call them, but he couldn't find his cherished digital device, and his rescuers were telling Barber to forget about it and lie still.
Such is the devotion the 65-year-old Barber holds for Giffords, who is 25 years younger: His loyalty shone through as both lay bleeding from gunshot wounds at Giffords' Congress on Your Corner event that Saturday morning outside a northwest-side Safeway.
In a 90-minute interview Tuesday at his midtown Tucson home, Barber explained why he has grown so dedicated to Giffords, told of seeing the gunman shoot him and Giffords, and expressed his hopes for what will result from the shootings that killed six people and injured 13.
"I don't want to be too grandiose and say it's a transformational event, but I think it has the potential to be, for us and for the country at large," Barber said. "There are people now who don't agree politically, who are, I think, coming together to try and figure out how we can work more collaboratively."
Driven to work for Giffords
When Giffords announced in 2005 that she was planning to run for Congress the next year, Barber saw the chance to hop aboard a new mission. After working for 32 years in the Arizona Department of Economic Security, overseeing services for the developmentally disabled and administering the DES's Southern Arizona region, he retired and took a volunteer job on Giffords campaign.
Barber had become acquainted with Giffords when she was a member of the Legislature.
"I was driven to try and help someone who would make a great member of Congress," he said.
After she won, Giffords hired him to lead her transition. Barber, in turn, hired fellow campaign volunteer Gabe Zimmerman to help him. They worked in a small office that Zimmerman called the "transition closet."
After four years of working 12-hour days for Giffords as her district director, Barber's devotion to her has only deepened.
"She's first and foremost a caring and compassionate person. The bonus is that she's got great intellect and curiosity," Barber said.
So it was that Barber got up at 6 a.m. Jan. 8 to have enough time to run into the office and get a few things before driving up to the Safeway for Giffords' first Congress on Your Corner event of the new session. He arrived about the same time as Giffords, just before 10.
Barber recognized John Roll as he approached the table behind which Giffords was talking with constituents. The two had attended the University of Arizona at the same time in the late 1960s, but they had lost touch until Barber took the job with Giffords' office.
In that position, Barber spoke with Roll, the chief judge for the U.S. District Court in Arizona, about the court's surging caseload. The Wednesday before, Barber said, Giffords had written a letter supporting Roll's request for an extension of the time frame in which felony cases must take place.
"He said, 'Hi, I just came by to thank the congresswoman for her help,' " Barber said.
Roll said maybe he'd wait for the crowd to thin out, then return, but Barber insisted that Giffords would love to see him, he said.
"That's really about the last I remember and then the shooting started," Barber said.
The gunman came up quickly, pistol in his hands and shot Giffords in the head right in front of Barber. The shooter looked "intent, determined," Barber said.
Then Barber was on the ground, conscious, near Giffords, and Zimmerman fell between them. Zimmerman had been farther up the line, so the only thing Barber can imagine is that Zimmerman ran toward him and Giffords when the shooting started.
"I remember thinking, 'Gabe's dead,' " Barber said. "The look on his face was so still."
Then Hernandez came up, and Barber told him to take care of Giffords. But he also wanted someone to call his own wife, Nancy, and Giffords' parents.
"He (Hernandez) picked her up and cradled her in his arms and tried to stop the bleeding," Barber said.
About that time, passerby Anna Ballis crawled up to Barber to help him and tried to quiet him. She stanched the bleeding near his groin and in his face until paramedics arrived.
"Amazing things happened that day," he said.
Underwent rush of emotions
Next there was a paramedic, a helicopter ride in which Barber thought he would vomit into his oxygen mask, a rush into the intensive-care unit at University Medical Center, and finally a blank. Because of medications, shock or whatever else, he went unconscious.
Since coming back to consciousness, a family member has always been at his side - his wife, Nancy, his daughters, Jenny Douglas and Crissi Blake, and their husbands, Gawain Douglas and Jason Blake. It was like having another staff, Barber joked.
The last 10 days have been a rush of emotions and unexpected experiences: The honor of a long, personal conversation with President Obama and his wife. The profound sadness of attending services for Roll and Zimmerman. The miracles of the medical treatment by UMC doctors. The overflowing generosity from friends and strangers.
Barber's wounds are healing well. Perhaps the biggest remaining concern is his left foot. From his ankle to his toes he is numb, and nobody knows whether the feeling will come back, though the physical therapy he started Tuesday may help. He's using a walker to get around.
The emotional wounds, too, will take time and effort.
"I'm still trying to deal with how I feel about what I saw and what happened to others," Barber said. "There's the business of, you know, why did I survive and why did others die. Just seeing my boss get shot is pretty horrible. I'm still working that out."
The shooting keeps replaying in his head, though he can interrupt it, and sleep does provide relief.
So does hope.
He keeps hoping, thinking that this can turn into something good for Tucson, that the characteristics he sees in his boss - compassion, intelligence, reason and results orientation - will spread.
"Those values, I think, are the ones that I want to continue to help promote, and I know she (Giffords) will be here to do it. That's what I hope our community will latch onto. I think in that there will be a lot of healing."
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 520-807-8427 or at email@example.com