Tucsonans lined the streets Friday morning to say farewell to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as she headed to a Houston rehab hospital - and their gesture did not go unnoticed by the woman they came out to honor.
Inside an ambulance that drove slowly from University Medical Center to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, paramedics rolled down a small window so Giffords could hear the applause of people outside, said her spokesman, C.J. Karamargin. When they did, Giffords smiled and began to tear up, Karamargin said.
"It was very emotional and very special," said Dr. Randall Friese, a UMC surgeon who also accompanied Giffords on the trip to Houston.
"I think she understood the immense support our city has for her," Friese said.
Karamargin said he was overwhelmed by the show of support.
"We saw people on the back of pickup trucks, waving flags, blowing kisses," he said. "We saw senior citizens standing at salute or holding signs saying, 'Go Gabby Go.' "
Giffords has been making significant progress nearly every day in her recovery from being shot in the head Jan. 8 during a meet-and-greet with constituents. The attempted assassination left six people dead and 13 wounded. It prompted a visit to Tucson by President Obama that attracted more than 26,000 people, and thousands of Tucsonans have left cards, flowers, photos and keepsakes outside University Medical Center, Giffords' midtown office and the Safeway where the attack occurred.
On Friday, well-wishers started gathering outside D-M and at UMC before 8 a.m. The motorcade, led by Tucson police motorcycle officers, left the hospital at about 9:30 a.m.
Giffords' hometown send-off was carried live on TV and hundreds of people stood at various points along the motorcade's route.
Ray Davies, 82, a retired educator, was one of more than 100 people gathered outside UMC - some carried flowers, signs and cameras - to watch the motorcade pass.
He said the demonstration of support was more evidence of how the community has come together following the shooting rampage.
"I think it represents the very best of what America is all about, the compassion and understanding that we tolerate all beliefs," said Davies, who has volunteered for Giffords' congressional campaigns.
A Sahuaro High School special-education class was among those there to wish Giffords a safe trip. The class planned to drop off a poster of handwritten well-wishes for the congresswoman at the makeshift memorial outside the hospital. When their teacher, Carol Holly, heard Giffords was leaving, she adjusted her students' schedule in order to watch the motorcade.
"We wanted to come here because we brought a card for Gabby Giffords and we wanted to wish her a fast recovery," said Sofia Kerr, 22, one of Holly's students.
The motorcade was on the base about 9:40 a.m., and Giffords was on the medical jet by about 10 a.m. The jet lifted off shortly after that and landed in Houston just after noon, Tucson time.
To keep cabin pressure down during the flight, the pilot flew at 23,000 feet, instead of the normal 37,000, Karamargin said. There was only slight turbulence.
Doris Morris, 62, a bookkeeper, said a prayer on the corner of Swan and Golf Links roads before the start of the motorcade.
"I came to have a moment of prayer for her recovery and for all of us to find a way to have more civil dialogue," she said after her morning jog nearby.
Then 57-year-old Army veteran Yemaya Shimek arrived early for a spot outside the D-M gate.
"I'm a veteran and I respect all the work she has done and hopefully she will be able to do more," she said.
Retired editor Alan Sorkowitz, 58, stood outside D-M, awaiting a glimpse of Giffords' ambulance.
"Gabby Giffords is everything anyone could want from a representative," he said. "Even when I didn't agree with her, she always listened. She is a decent, caring human being."
Sorkowitz held up a sign that read: "Take care of her Houston - Come home to us soon Gabby."
Evangelina Rios, 63, a retired teacher, said she has followed Giffords' political career and is impressed because she "is so good about doing what is best for the people."
"I visited the memorials at Safeway and at UMC, and I left a giant red heart at both.
"I came to say goodbye to Gabby, and I hope she will be back," Rios said, wiping a tear.
The emotional sendoff was a balm that soothed not only Giffords but also her family and her staff, which lost a colleague in the shootings.
"It was just an astounding morning," Giffords spokesman Karamargin said. "It was indescribable.
"It was Tucson at its best."