Representative Gabrielle Giffords led a crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, in a rare public appearance tonight at a candlelight vigil one year after surviving a deadly shooting.
The Democratic congresswoman – who has struggled to re-learn to walk after being shot in the head – stepped onstage to cheers from the crowd. Ron Barber, a staffer who was wounded in the rampage that killed six people one year ago, invited her to lead the audience in the pledge.
The crowd at the University of Arizona chanted: ‘Gabby, Gabby.’
She limped to the podium and husband Mark Kelly helped lift her left hand over her heart. After months of intensive speech therapy, Giffords recited the pledge with the audience, head held high and a smile on her face.
Mr Kelly spoke at the event and said everyday heroes who emerged from the deadly shooting showed that alongside human frailty, there was also strength.
He named each of the victims who died before saying the injured have shown that healing is possible.
‘Those of us who survived were forever changed by that moment,’ he said.
Lean on me: Giffords and husband Mark Kelly, who spoke to the crowd (left) and hugging Pam Simon who was also wounded in the attack
‘For the past year, we’ve had new realities to live with, the reality and pain of letting go of the past.’
Giffords sat onstage in a red scarf and listened, nodding and smiling. As music played, she swayed to the beat and mouthed some of the words of a song.
Bells tolled earlier today at Tucson’s packed St Augustine Cathedral as the names of the six people killed in a mass shooting on January 8 last year were read out.
The day of remembrance began with the ringing of church bells throughout the city at 10:11 am, the exact time the gunman shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head and methodically moved down a line of people waiting to talk to her during a public event outside a Safeway supermarket.
Moving forward: Gabrielle Giffords smiles broadly as the crowd chanted her name during the memorial vigil at the university
Honoured: Gabrielle Giffords is helped by her husband Mark Kelly during the ‘Remembering January 8th Candlelight Vigil’ held at the University of Arizona
People rang handheld bells, hugged each other and cried as the time of the shooting passed. Many bowed their heads in prayer. Children laid flowers and candles at a memorial.
‘Even in the midst of this troubling year, the healing, the courage that we have experienced in our community – each one of us can notice how our cups overflow with the blessings of our lives,’ said Stephanie Aaron, Giffords’ rabbi, who recited the 23rd Psalm at an interfaith service at the cathedral on Sunday afternoon.
Relatives of the six dead walked down the aisle with a single red rose, placing the flowers in a vase in front of a picture of a heart.
Hundreds of people at the cathedral – including Governor Jan Brewer – stood and chanted: ‘We remember, we remember, we remember with grateful hearts.’
Girls in white dresses and red sashes danced down the aisle as a song called Hero in the Dark played, and a pastor called on everyone to celebrate those who were lost and those who acted to save lives during the shooting.
Ron Barber, a Giffords staffer who survived two gunshot wounds, said he woke up Sunday dreaming about Giffords, who was severely wounded, and Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman, who died.
‘You have to think about the six people whose loved ones don’t have them today,’ Barber said before the church service began.
At the Safeway memorial, Bruce Ellis and his wife Kelly Hardesty, both 50, held each other tight and wept as the bells rang.
‘It’s shocking to have a massacre like this occur in your backyard,’ Ellis said. ‘It’s something that happens on the news, not in your neighborhood.’
About 30 others rang bells, hugged each other and cried as the time of the shooting passed. Many bowed in prayer.
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made a surprise return to the Tucson grocery store where she was wounded on January 8 last year.
Ms Giffords, who has been in rehabilitation in Houston after she was shot in the head a year ago to the day, returned to the store on Saturday evening. She was accompanied by her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.
‘Gabby just visited the Safeway for the 1st time since 1/8/11,’ Mr Kelly tweeted. ‘It’s been a tough year, but we’re lucky to have so many people standing w/us,’ he added.
Ms Giffords has only visited the southwest city four times since the deadly shooting spree last year that killed six people and wounded her and 12 others.
In another unannounced visit earlier in the day, Ms Giffords hiked outside Tucson on a desert trail named for her slain aide Gabe Zimmerman, her office said, stopping briefly to talk to hikers.
The unannounced visits on Saturday 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 Mr Zimmerman’s father, Ross.
‘I’m finding this a really positive, uplifting day,’ Mr Zimmerman told Reuters.
A few miles to the north, several hundred people visited a trail to remember the youngest victim, nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, who was born on September 11, 2001.
Several of her school friends sketched pictures with chalk on the sidewalk. A message in a child’s hand read, ‘Christina we miss you.’
Ms Giffords’ spokesman Mark Kimble, who was standing near her when she was shot, said the anniversary was a challenge for the survivors.
Embraces: People hugged and placed flowers to mark the solemn day
‘I think very often about it on Saturday mornings, especially this time of year when the weather is similar,’ he said.
Ms Giffords, who has been undergoing intensive therapy at a Houston hospital since she was shot, joined the candlelight vigil at the University of Arizona on Sunday evening with her husband.
The event drew thousands 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 Centre, who treated Ms 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,’ Mr Fuller told Reuters. Mr Fuller said he would attend events including a church service and vigil on Sunday evening.
President Obama called Gabrielle Giffords on the anniversary of the Arizona congresswoman’s shooting and noted her ‘incredible road to recovery.’
The White House says Obama expressed ‘amazement at the courage and determination’ that Giffords has shown in the aftermath of the shooting outside a Tucson grocery store last January.
In the midst of this, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is on a mission to return to the job she so clearly loved.
Mr Kelly and people near the three-term congresswoman say she is highly motivated to recover from her injuries and get back to work in Washington, potentially using her inspirational story as a way to mend political differences in the U.S. capital.
She faces a May deadline to get on the November ballot, meaning she has a few months to decide her next step.
Her future will depend on a recovery that has progressed in remarkable fashion over the past year as she is now able to walk and talk.
Her only television interview occurred with ABC’s Diane Sawyer nearly ten months after the shooting and showed how far she has come, but also how far she has to go.
At the time, she did not speak in complete sentences and repeated her words to make her point.
‘No, better. Um, better, better,’ she said when asked about returning to Washington.
The day after the interview ran, her congressional office released an audio recording that showed she had made progress in her communication skills in the two weeks that had elapsed between the interview and its airing.
She read from a script and an aide said it took multiple tries before she was comfortable with the result.
‘I’m getting stronger. I’m getting better,’ said Giffords, who has been undergoing intensive rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston as she recovers.
‘There is a lot to say. I will speak better.’
Jared Lee Loughner, 23, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the mass shooting January 8, 2011, outside a Tucson supermarket where Ms Giffords was meeting with her constituents.
He is being forcibly medicated at a federal prison facility in Missouri in an effort to make him mentally ready for trial.
Ms Giffords returned to Tucson on Friday from Houston to attend ceremonies to mark Sunday’s one-year anniversary of the shooting that killed six and wounded her and 12 others.
Her first stop was her office, where she participated in an emotional ceremony to honor staffer Gabe Zimmerman who was among those slain a year ago.
Her staff dedicated a life-size photo of Mr Zimmerman and a memorial plaque that will greet visitors as they arrive.
Her husband posted a photo of the couple on a visit Saturday morning to a trailhead outside Tucson named in honor of Mr Zimmerman.
Ms Giffords has cast one vote since the shooting. She surprised colleagues in August by returning to Washington to vote for legislation raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
The debate leading up to the vote had been among the most bitter and partisan of the year.
Never to forget: Ross Zimmerman, father of Gabe Zimmerman who was killed during last year’s shooting (left), and Daniel Hernandez (right) who raced to help Giffords as soon as she was shot
On other votes, she is recorded as not voting.
Ms Giffords’ staff consults with her when working on major initiatives, such as trying to fend off the Air Force’s efforts to move the 612th Air and Space Operations Center out of Tucson.
The staff also works on individual constituent requests, such as helping war veterans and their widows obtain benefits or in securing a Tucson woman’s flight out of Egypt during anti-government demonstrations in early 2011.
Aides say that Giffords now participates in teleconferences with members of her staff about once a week, though the call gets put off occasionally based on her schedule.
Ms Giffords has captivated the nation as she recovers. Going into Christmas week, her office had 24,880 letters that had poured in from all over the world.
Students from 428 schools mailed her get-well cards. Many well-wishers send her hand-made gifts, such as quilts, jewelry and paintings. People also send CDs with their favorite music and books with uplifting themes that they hope will cheer her up.
‘Almost every day, we get more gifts,’ said Giffords’ spokesman Mark Kimble. ‘People routinely come in, asking if she’s here and if they can talk to her.’
On Capitol Hill, colleagues have held several fundraisers on her potential campaign’s behalf, raising more than $800,000 between January 1 and September 30, a number that will surely grow when a new quarterly report is filed later this month.
The lawmakers say they’re optimistic that she’ll come back, but are sensitive about getting ahead of Giffords.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she called Giffords’ husband earlier in the day to emphasize that Democratic lawmakers were thinking of the congresswoman as the anniversary of the shooting approached.
‘We look forward to welcoming her back, and hopefully that will be soon,’ Ms Pelosi said.
Giffords speaks with her close friend, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, probably more than any other member of Congress. When asked about her colleague’s return, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee said Giffords was focused on her recovery for now.
January to June: Giffords pictured in January 2011 (left) and again after the shooting in June. She had to wear a helmet for some time to cover her head while doctors waited for swelling to go down
‘She’s making a lot of progress. She’s doing great,’ Wasserman Shultz said. ‘She still has a long way to go.’
Ms Giffords has until May 30 to file nominating signatures to have her name placed on the ballot for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.
Mr Kelly told Arizona Public Media that she won’t wait until the last minute to make her decision, and he has suggested that she might wait until 2014 to mount her political comeback.
He said Giffords ‘is the exact same person’ she was before the shooting and just has to learn how to communicate as well as she did before.
‘She doesn’t remember the day she was shot, but if you back up one day, her memory is as good as mine for anything we have done together over the last seven years that I have known her,’ he said.
In attendance: Arizona governor Jan Brewer and intern Daniel Hernandez were both at the Sunday service