On a day of unspeakable tragedy, a group of unsuspecting heroes who showed up at a Safeway in southern Arizona may have helped prevent a brutal shooting from being a lot worse.
A wave of dramatic details is starting to emerge about the actions of a handful of bystanders who intervened after a gunman opened fire Saturday on a town hall meeting in Tucson, shooting 20 people including a congresswoman, a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
Choosing to fight instead of flee, one woman grabbed the shooter’s magazine as he tried to reload. Two other men tackled him. And amid the chaos, an intern stayed by critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ side the entire time.
The alleged gunman has since been identified as Jared Lee Loughner, 22, who had federal murder charges filed against him Sunday. In total, six people were killed and 14 wounded in the attack. The shooting sent shockwaves through the Tucson community as well as Washington -- startling neighbors who knew Loughner only as a quiet young man who kept to himself while bringing legislative business on Capitol Hill to a standstill as colleagues pause out of respect for Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in the head and remains in critical condition.
But Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said the actions of a few quick-to-act individuals contained the violence and may have prevented more from being killed.
According to the sheriff’s department, Patricia Maisch, who was in the back of the line waiting to get her photograph taken with Giffords on Saturday, rushed to grab the gunman’s magazine after he started shooting.
That pause gave time for two others, Roger Salzgeber and Bill Badger, to tackle him to the ground. Then another bystander, Joseph Zamudio, who was leaving the local Walgreens at the time, jumped in to restrain the gunman’s legs.
“Everything was happening so fast,” Maisch told Fox News. She said that to push her through the chaos, “I thought about how lucky I was to be alive.”
Maisch struck a modest tone in describing her actions, crediting the men who tackled the shooter with saving the day. “We’re pretty common, everyday folk,” she said. “People in Arizona are pretty assertive and helpful, so I think we all pulled together.”
Dupnik did not hold back in praising Maisch for her actions.
“This is one of the most heroic acts I’ve ever seen,” he told Fox News. “This lady was standing in line to have her picture taken with Gabrielle when all hell broke loose. And for whatever reason, she decided something had to be done. … She might have saved many, many lives.”
But without knowing the gunman's motive, Dupnik argued that political rhetoric has charged the atmosphere to the point of violence.
" The investigation is in its very initial phases. But my belief -- and I've been watching what's been going on in this country for the last 75 years and I've been a police office for over 50 years -- there's no doubt in my mind that when a number of people night and day try to inflame the public, that there's going to be some consequences from doing that. And I think it's irresponsible to do that. .. That's my opinion, period," he said.
While Maisch and others helped law enforcement officials subdue the gunman, another individual stepped up to comfort and care for the victims. Daniel Hernandez, who had been interning with Giffords’ office for just five days, effectively took control of the scene surrounding the wounded congresswoman as soon as she was shot, staying by her side while trying to help those around her.
Hernandez, who had trained to be a certified nursing assistant in high school, told Fox News he used his “basic triage” and “basic first aid” knowledge to assist his boss. He picked her up to keep her from asphyxiating and applied pressure to the wound until paramedics arrived. He said he just “detached myself emotionally” in order to keep a level head.
Hernandez said he knew Giffords was conscious during that period because she would squeeze his hand in response to questions.
“I know Gabbie, she’s a fighter,” said Hernandez, who had worked for the congresswoman before joining the office as an intern. “I wasn’t surprised when she was still alert.”
Though Giffords remains in critical condition, hospital officials said she was able to communicate with doctors through simple commands.
"What was most concerning to us with this injury is the bullet crossing from one hemisphere to the other," Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at University of Arizona Hospital, said during a press conference Sunday. That was not the case in this instance, he said.
"And because of this, Congresswoman Giffords was able to communicate with us this morning through simple commands."
He gave an example of a simple command as "please squeeze two fingers," adding that we take such commands for granted, but "they imply a very high level of functioning in the brain."
"I am cautiously optimistic," Lemole said.
Loughner is scheduled to make an initial appearance in federal court in Phoenix on Monday at 2 p.m. local time. The five-count criminal complaint against him Sunday includes one count for an attempt to kill a member of Congress, two counts of murder in the first degree and two counts of attempted murder.
This comes as authorities announced that the man previously thought to be associated with the suspect has been cleared of any involvement. Fox News has confirmed that the white man in his 40s or 50s who was photographed by a security camera arriving at the "Congress on Your Corner" event at the same time as the suspect was eliminated as a person of interest.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said earlier on Sunday that Loughner may face additional charges under the domestic terrorism statute.
According to an FBI agent affidavit filed with the criminal complaint, authorities executed a search warrant at Loughner's home and found a letter inside a safe that Giffords wrote to Loughner on Aug 30, 2007, thanking him for attending a "Congress on Your Corner" event.
"Also recovered in the safe was an envelope with handwriting on the envelope stating ‘I planned ahead’ and ‘My assassination’ and the name ‘Giffords,’ along with what appears to be LOUGHNER's signature," the criminal complaint reads.
The motive in the shooting remains unclear. Dupnik described the shooter as "unstable" with a troubled past. Those who had brushes with him described Loughner as a troubled individual.
Ben McGahee, a math professor who taught Loughner at Pima Community College, told Fox News that Loughner was “very disengaged” in class and often put bizarre answers on his tests. McGahee said he was concerned for his students’ safety.
“I felt he was planning something all along,” McGahee, adding that he just didn’t know when or where Loughner would carry out his plans.
Loughner was eventually suspended from the college – he reportedly withdrew after his suspension.
Neighbors of the Loughner family on Sunday said they were shocked by the attack. They didn’t know the family too well, but described them as quiet types, not necessarily friendly, who kept to themselves. Neighbors recalled occasionally seeing Jared Loughner around the neighborhood, walking his dog with his headphones on, but that was about the limit of their interaction with him.
One neighbor, Anthony Woods, who was three years behind Loughner in school, said the father in the household was argumentative.
Woods told FoxNews.com the dad would complain about trivial things in the neighborhood, like somebody standing too close to his property by the fence. He said law enforcement officials interviewed the mother and father at the Loughner house late Saturday night, while other officials confiscated files and other belongings from the home.
Nobody answered the door at the Loughner house Sunday morning. The front walkway was littered with empty paint buckets and a gnarled garden hose, but it was not clear whether anybody was home.