TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) – U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, wounded in a deadly mass shooting on January 8 last year, visited a Tucson area park on Saturday as survivors and residents prepared for the somber anniversary on Sunday.
A gunman toting a semiautomatic pistol pumped bullet after bullet into a crowd gathered for a congressional outreach event outside a Tucson supermarket a year ago.
Six people were killed and 13 wounded, including Giffords, who was shot through the head and has been recovering at a hospital in Houston, Texas.
With her husband retired astronaut Mark Kelly at her side, Giffords walked a desert trail outside Tucson named for her slain aide Gabe Zimmerman, her office said, stopping briefly to talk to hikers.
Her appearance, during only her fourth visit to the city since the shooting, came as survivors and residents of this close-knit city came together for walks, story-telling sessions and outdoor festivals ahead of the anniversary of the shooting on Sunday.
“The closer we get to Sunday, the more emotional it gets,” said Bill Badger, a retired Army colonel hailed as a hero for tackling accused gunman Jared Loughner to the ground as he attempted to reload.
A few hundred people swayed to a steel band at Reid Park in central Tucson, at an upbeat music festival attended by Zimmerman’s father, Ross.
“Today is having the effect on me that I hoped it would have on the community. I’m finding this a really positive, uplifting day,” Zimmerman told Reuters.
A few miles to the north, several hundred people visited a trail to remember the youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, shot down at the Congress on Your Corner event.
Several of her school friends sketched pictures with chalk on the sidewalk. A message in a child’s hand read, “Christina we miss you.”
“The recovery and resilience (of the community) are exemplified in events like this today,” said Ray Carroll, a Pima County supervisor who turned out at the trail
“It was a difficult year for everybody. Most people are relieved that 2011 is over,” he added.
Giffords’ spokesman Mark Kimble, who was standing near her when she was shot, said the anniversary was a challenge for the survivors.
“I think very often about it on Saturday mornings, especially this time of year when the weather is similar. It reminds me of it,” he said.
Giffords, who has been undergoing intensive therapy at a Houston hospital since she was shot, will join a candlelight vigil at the University of Arizona on Sunday evening with her husband.
The event is expected to draw thousands of residents of residents of Tucson, a city of 520,000 people that many describe as a “small big town.”
Also taking part in the vigil will be Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Rabbi Stephanie Aaron and Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of the division of trauma, critical care and emergency surgery at the University of Arizona Medical Center, who treated Giffords and others who were wounded in the shooting.
Some survivors have chosen to talk about the traumatic events of the shooting. But Navy veteran Eric Fuller, who was shot in the leg and back a year ago, said he preferred not to dwell on the tragedy.
“I don’t want to go on Dr. Phil and tell him how long I cried after I got shot,” Fuller told Reuters.
Fuller said he would attend events including a church service and vigil on Sunday evening.
Loughner was arrested and charged with crimes including attempting to assassinate Giffords. He pleaded not guilty.
Found mentally unfit to stand trial, he is being treated in a federal prison hospital in Missouri.
(Writing by Eric Johnson in Chicago; Editing by Ian Simpson)
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