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Giffords’ Staff Keeps Office Open While Coping With Shooting’s Aftermath

January 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Members of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' staff have kept her office open, even as the Congresswoman fights to recover from a gunman's attack. Tom Bearden reports from Tucson.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: coping with the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Arizona on how survivors are dealing with their losses.

TOM BEARDEN: The street corner where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ Tucson office sits is covered with mementos left by hundreds of people. A constant stream of visitors stop to read the placards, some of them kneeling, as traffic roars through the busy intersection.

Evidence of the outpouring of sympathy is even stronger inside the congressional office, where thousands of letters have poured in. Stacks of envelopes are methodically opened by young volunteers. Some are former interns and staffers who’ve come to help log the contents on laptop computers.

MAN: It kind of helps heal, the time — understanding that people actually really care.

TOM BEARDEN: C.J. Karamargin is Rep. Giffords’ communications director. He says the congresswoman has always been diligent about responding to constituents, that the staff will continue that practice even during this difficult time.

C.J. KARAMARGIN, communications director for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: But this is — this is Gabe.

TOM BEARDEN: Karamargin showed us a large photograph from happier times.

C.J. KARAMARGIN: It’s a family photo.

TOM BEARDEN: And that’s the feeling in the office among the staffers and the congresswoman?

C.J. KARAMARGIN: Totally. It’s a — we’re a family.

TOM BEARDEN: One member of the staff, 30-year-old Gabe Zimmerman, who was in charge of community outreach, was killed. Two others were wounded. Many on the staff have been working with the congresswoman since she was first elected in 2006.

How are people coping? How are they holding up?

C.J. KARAMARGIN: With difficulty. It is really hard. When you lose a colleague and a friend like Gabe Zimmerman, the emotion sometimes is very hard to come to terms with. We — we — the closeness that we have for one another, I think, is the reason why many of us, myself included, are taking this pretty hard.

TOM BEARDEN: Karamargin says the staff refused to let a gunman shut them down.

C.J. KARAMARGIN: We decided to keep the office open, because the congresswoman would want us to continue doing the job that she’s asked us to do. We opened at 8:00 on Monday morning and yesterday morning. And we went about our business as best we could, given the circumstance.

And it was important for us to be together, but I also think it was important for us to send a message that no act of violence was going to deter us from doing the job that the congresswoman wanted us to do.

TOM BEARDEN: Sara Hummel Rajca is an outreach coordinator and staff photographer. Last Saturday, she was snapping pictures of the representative as she met with voters. She says the gunman stepped right next to her and shot the congresswomen in the head.

SARA HUMMEL RAJCA, aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: I saw it, I heard it, and I just ran. And I was lucky enough that he didn’t shoot after me. I don’t — it was a miracle. It’s — I mean, it was a miracle.

TOM BEARDEN: How have you and the staff been holding up since the shootings?

SARA HUMMEL RAJCA: I think that we just know that it’s what Gabe Zimmerman and Gabrielle Giffords would want — would have wanted, was for our office to continue, for us to be helping our constituents.

TOM BEARDEN: Randy Gardner is a semi-retired former mental-health worker who went to the Safeway to talk to his congresswoman. He was standing about 20 feet way from Hummel Rajca, talking to 79-year-old Phyllis Schneck, when the shooting started.

RANDY GARDNER, mental-health worker: Then we heard the pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. I mean, and then it was just a barrage.

It was difficult to see. I never saw the shooter, and yet he was somewhere in front of me. I turned around and I said, let’s go. And right at that point, I got hit. You know, I took a step, got hit. I turned back around to see — see what she was doing, what everybody else was doing.

TOM BEARDEN: Mrs. Schneck was killed. A 9mm bullet passed through Gardner’s foot.

RANDY GARDNER: It came in down here at a little lower level, and supposedly kind of danced around here for a little bit and then out here. I’ve got two dime-sized holes in it on each side. So, the bullet went in.

TOM BEARDEN: This is not the first time Gardner has been at the scene of a mass killing. He was in the crowd at Kent State University in 1970 when National Guardsmen killed four students. Gardner says he’s discouraged by the fact that these acts of violence have been repeated so often.

RANDY GARDNER: And I kind of resigned myself to hopelessness after the Virginia Tech thing, that, you know, 32 kids lose their lives at such a young age, and, about three weeks later, we wash our hands and we just go on.

I think we need to address that in America. I think we need to have a real talk, and a serious one, about our culture, why it is so violent, and what we can do to improve it.

TOM BEARDEN: As for coping with the experience, Gardner says he’s had some sleepless nights this week, but he’s sure, eventually, he’ll be fine.

RANDY GARDNER: This is something we can, we will get over. All of us will. We’re changed, you know, but — but we will go on.

TOM BEARDEN: The memorial at Rep. Giffords’ office will go on, too. The crowds show no signs of diminishing.