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Tears and Heroes

Southern Arizonans mourned and prayed while the world watched



On Sunday, Jan. 9, Maria Martinez stood, bundled up in the desert evening cold, before a growing vigil of candles, flowers and placards in front of University Medical Center.

She wore an expression of disbelief and cradled a framed photo in her arms.

In that photo, she stands with her husband, Hector; her son, Claudio; and U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords' face beams that familiar wide smile; her arms are extended around Maria and Hector.

"I think of her as a friend," Maria said.

Maria runs Las Vigas Steak Ranch restaurant with her husband and son in Nogales, Ariz. Her restaurant catered Giffords' wedding to Mark Kelly in 2007 at the Agua Linda Farm in Amado, Ariz.

The restaurant was so busy on Saturday, Jan. 8—the day when Giffords and 18 others were shot in front of the Safeway on Ina and Oracle roads—that Maria wasn't able to drive up to Tucson as soon as she wanted.

"So we prayed yesterday, the whole day. I asked my employees at the restaurant to get together at one time and pray for her, and I called my brothers and family to all light a candle for her," Maria said, tears welling up in her eyes.

"She doesn't deserve this. She really doesn't. It is very hard, very hard. I know from the bottom of my heart that she is going to make it, and I promised my Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico that I would go and take (a copy of this) picture with me to the sanctuary in Mexico (City). That's a promise I made for her, because I know (the Virgen) is going to help her."

Maria is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Southern Arizonans who have visited the vigil in front of UMC that began shortly after Giffords and other shooting victims arrived at the hospital's trauma center.

Kathleen Kennedy, who works for the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, said she came to UMC Saturday night to "feel some solidarity with other Southern Arizonans."

"I wanted to come and show support and send whatever kind of healing thoughts and love that I can to the people inside this hospital and their families. I don't know," she said. "It just felt like the right thing to do. ... I just didn't want to be at home. I wanted to be with other people who were thinking, reflecting, trying to do what they can in a sort of unspeakable situation."

Not far from Kennedy, Jenny Hill stood looking down at the vigil's rows of candles and flowers. Hill, from Nogales, Ariz., brought her son to Tucson to spend Saturday night with a friend who is fighting leukemia at UMC's Diamond Children's Medical Center.

"I just knew I was coming here today, and when I heard the news, I figured the congresswoman was here, and so many of the others who were hurt, so I picked up some flowers to bring," Hill said.

"My grandfather was the first city attorney for Tucson after Arizona became a state, so we go way back in this community," Hill said, starting to cry. "... It is all so wrong. It's just wrong. I think that people are two ways: Either people take care of each other, or it's every man for himself. And I think that humanity needs to choose who we're going to be."

Hill paused and looked straight into the candlelight. "I, myself, prefer to take care of everybody else."

On Saturday evening, Gerry Straatemeier and her husband, Darwin Hall, led the crowd in prayer and song before introducing state Rep. Steve Farley and Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"You cannot kill hope with a bullet. You cannot kill love with a bullet. We know that is not possible," Farley said.

He also reminded everyone that the world is watching Arizona.

"I believe our actions in the coming weeks and months will prove what kind of state we really are, and I believe we can reach out in love to those we disagree with. And we can rise above the climate that has created such violence, and reclaim our state for peace and love, regardless of what you believe," Farley said.

Suckling said the Center for Biological Diversity brought many legal cases before Judge John Roll, one of the six people who were killed in the massacre.

"He was a very fair and honest and often humorous judge, and you knew that if you were before him, you were going to get a fair hearing," Suckling said. "... Judge Roll was one of those people you could count on to do what is right."

Toward the end of the UMC vigil, between songs, someone from the crowd yelled, "We love you, Gabby," and everyone then repeated it in unison, looking up at the UMC hospital windows.

"Get well," the same person yelled again. "Get well," everyone repeated.

The Church of Rock

The streets of downtown Tucson should have been packed with people on the evening of Jan. 8 because of Second Saturdays Downtown. However, the morning's tragedy forced organizers to cancel the event.

Instead, the Rialto Theatre's Curtis McCrary (also a Weekly contributor) quickly helped organize a concert to bring people together to share stories about Giffords and others involved in the incident.

Outside, the theater's marquee read: WE LOVE YOU GABBY. Inside, the scene was unusual for the Rialto: Everyone was seated and largely quiet.

Rialto executive director Doug Biggers, a longtime friend of Giffords (and the former publisher of the Weekly), introduced each performance. The slate included Tom Walbank, Courtney Robbins, Marianne Dissard, the Possibles, Al Perry, the Modeens, Billy Sedlmayr, and Salvador Duran performing with his sister, Lupita.

Biggers shared a few stories, including several that came from Stateside Productions' Charlie Levy, who organized a large campaign fundraiser for Giffords in 2008 at the Rialto which included a magical performance by Calexico.

"Charlie told me ... that night, Gabby said, 'Charlie, other than my wedding night, this is the best night of my life.' I think he's not lying," Biggers said. "Another Gabby story: The band Ozomatli, a great band and one of Gabby's favorites ... she was here that night (of a show at the Rialto), and she was way up at the top of the balcony, checking it out and having a good time. At the end of their shows, Ozomatli usually forms a line and marches out into the audience. ... Gabby said, 'Charlie, I've got to go down there. I want to be part of that.' They did, and Gabby marched out with Ozomatli."

Former state Rep. Tom Prezelski took to the stage after Al Perry's set and asked if anyone knew that in high school, Giffords had a crush on Perry.

"Al represents a whole community of artists and musicians in this town who were very important to Gabby, and still are," he said.

Prezelski said he's worried that the shootings could lead to a change regarding the accessibility of leaders in the community.

"One of the things that I love about our community leaders and elected leaders (is) ... they walk among us and don't pretend they are gods or noblemen. They hang out at the Buffet," he said. "We can't let that change. We can't let these people win by separating ourselves from the leadership in this town."

The Prayers Continue

While folks gathered on the front lawn of UMC Saturday night, others were expected to attend another vigil in front of Giffords' office at the southwest corner of Pima and Swan roads.

But the Tucson Police Department wound up closing the intersection while officers took a closer look at what was reported to be a suspicious-looking device. Those arriving for the vigil were moved across the street while police detonated what looked like a coffee can with wires sticking out the top.

Police then allowed the vigil to continue, but limited where folks could gather.

Another vigil was scheduled for Sunday, and more than 300 people attended, mostly gathered under a large mesquite tree that fanned out above the crowd.

Rabbi Thomas Louchheim, of Congregation Or Chadash, helped lead prayers and discussed this week's Torah portion, read in nearly all Jewish congregations, that "talks about the plague of darkness that has come down on the land of Egypt, and it is so dark in the land of Egypt that one neighbor cannot see another, and yet in the households of the Israelites, there is a light that shows from within."

Giffords is Jewish.

"That is a metaphor that we can learn from this weekend as well," Louchheim continued. "There are some who live in ultimate darkness that don't understand that there is someone standing right next to them who can have a relationship with them, who can bring them warmth and calm and understanding. And there is within each of us a divine light that can enlighten not only ourselves to move us in the direction that G-d intends for us, but help others to find the right path as well."

Sami Hamed, a former member of U.S. Congressman Raúl Grijalva's staff who ran for a state House seat last year, attended Sunday's vigil. He said that within the last couple of years, threats to Grijalva and his staff have increased—and the nature of those threats felt different.

"I think free speech is important, of course. I wouldn't tell people to curb their speech, but (to) be respectful, and don't incite violence or anger—like Sarah Palin using works like 'reloading' or 'reload America,' and her targets; that's very scary. Even Gabby's opponent (Jesse Kelly) had a rifle-shooting fundraiser to 'take aim at Giffords.' That's very sad, and having worked for a congressman, that's really scary," Hamed said.

Hamed said that he hopes the tragedy will bring people together and put a spotlight on issues "that have been ignored, that the governing majority may not like in Arizona. For example, we have the law that there is no need to have a concealed-weapons permit. I'll bet you that's one thing that's revisited."

'A Social Worker's Social Worker'

Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords' community-outreach director, is another of the six people who died on Saturday. He was an important part of life at the ASU School of Social Work's Tucson Component, just off St. Mary's Road.

On Monday, Jan. 10, Josephina Ahumada, the school's field-education coordinator, and Craig LeCroy, the school's Tucson coordinator, were still trying to make sense of the loss of their former student and colleague.

Zimmerman graduated in 2006 from the program and had recently worked with social-work interns placed with Giffords' office.

"It's a tragedy for the school," Ahumada said. "He was very involved with the school and the social-work community at large. ... He's a social worker's social worker."

In the present tense, Ahumada described Zimmerman as an active member of Tucson's social-work community. At the age of 30, "He's a rising star," she said.

He was always a voice of moderation, she said, "looking for common ground, like Gabby. He's a peacemaker. We could certainly use more peacemakers like that."

He was expected to teach a class this year at the school, LeCroy said.

"But he was a humble guy, and not self-serving or self-promoting at all. That's what makes him so extraordinary," LeCroy said.

This week, the school will offer a tribute to Zimmerman.

"The cause goes on," Ahumada said.

A Hero Among Us

By Sunday, the world had descended on Tucson, with dozens of national and international camera crews set up in front of UMC.

One of the popular interviewees was Daniel Hernandez, a Giffords intern who had emerged as a hero.

After interviews with CNN, NBC's Brian Williams and numerous others, Hernandez sat in the UMC cafeteria Sunday night. He took off his black suit jacket and prepared to, once again, tell his story.

The 20-year-old UA junior and political-science major said he wasn't supposed to be at the Giffords event on Saturday. His internship technically starts in mid-January, but he knew Giffords' office was short-staffed, so he volunteered to help.

Hernandez was checking in people to talk to Giffords when the shots rang out.

Using his training as a nursing assistant and a phlebotomist, he held Giffords up on his lap so she wouldn't choke on her own blood. Then, with his bare hands, he applied pressure to her head to control the bleeding.

What's also impressive was his apparent calm as he went around checking pulses of victims before reaching Giffords. Ron Barber, Giffords' district director who was wounded near the congresswoman, told Hernandez to stay with Giffords—and not to leave her side.

He did exactly that.

A picture by James Palka, posted on Saturday evening, showed Hernandez walking alongside Giffords (who was on a gurney) and holding her hand. On the way to UMC, he continued holding her hand, and she squeezed it back to let him know he could hear her.

"When I heard there were gunshots, my first instinct, assuming there was a gun, is that Congresswoman Giffords would likely be a target. I wanted to make sure she was OK," he said.

Hernandez said the employees at Safeway were amazing, quickly retrieving freshly laundered smocks from the meat department when he asked for clean linens to slow down bleeding.

When asked about his status as a hero, Hernandez winced.

"I don't think that's a good term. This is a one-off. The people who have dedicated their lives to public service are the real heroes, like Gabby, Ron Barber, Gabe Zimmerman and Pam Simon. They are the real heroes," Hernandez said.

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