Va. shooting: ‘He would have taken down (all) of us’

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Alexandria, Va. — First came the ping of baseball bats, a familiar sound of the leafy neighborhood’s morning. Then the crack of gunfire, which isn’t.

It started with a single pop, which for a split second was not alarming to the Republican members of Congress who had gathered for a final practice before a charity baseball game with Democrats this week. As one lawmaker would later note, it could have been a car backfiring.

Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich. talks on the phone while walking past a car with a broken window near the baseball field in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday, June 14, 2017, where a gunman fired on Republican members of Congress practicing for a game.

Then, after a pause, the gunshots came in quick succession and the horror unfolded in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, home to many federal workers, lawyers and lobbyists who commute across the river to Washington.

Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, two Capitol police officers, a lobbyist and a legislative aide from Michigan were wounded as lawmakers, some fighting back tears, sought to understand what had happened and why. In a hail of bullets, police killed the gunman, identified later as James T. Hodgkinson of Illinois. The 66-year-old home inspector from Illinois had several minor run-ins with the law in recent years and belonged to a Facebook group called “Terminate the Republican Party.”

“As we were standing on the field, there was a loud burst of gunfire from about 40 yards away from us,” Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester told The Detroit News. “I saw people going down.”

Bishop said he feared for his life and the lives of everyone else on the field.

“He would have taken down every single one of us because he had several magazines of ammunition ready to reload,” the congressman said. “The only reason we were able to find cover is because we were inside the backstop.

“The only reason we were able to get out because there were guys here with weapons who fired back.”

Bishop and the other Republican members of Michigan’s congressional delegation who were present were safe. But Oakland County native Matt Mika, 38, a former staffer for Republican Reps. Dave Camp and Tim Walberg, was shot multiple times. After surgery, he was in critical condition in the intensive care unit of a local hospital, where his family expects him to stay for several days, they said.

The lawmakers had gathered on a muggy morning, trading suits and ties for sneakers and baseball caps, to practice for Thursday’s annual left-right match-up, a friendly Democratic-Republican rivalry for charity.

Matt Mika

Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks had bicycled nine miles to make the 6:30 a.m. start. More than 20 Republican members from the House and Senate showed up.

The baseball park, home to the T.C. Williams High School Titans, sits in a lively part of Alexandria. So it hardly seemed unusual when a man approached Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina in the baseball field parking lot.

His question was pointed: “ ‘Excuse me sir, who’s practicing today? Democrats or Republicans?’ ” Duncan recalled. “And I said it’s the Republican team. He said, ‘OK, thanks’ and turned around.” Duncan then left, saying later, “It was the guy they’ve identified as the shooter.”

Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico was taking swings in the batting cage along the first base side when he noticed a bystander near the third base dugout. Within seconds, as Pearce left the batting cage and headed toward the dugout, the shooting started.

“I saw the shooter clearly with his rifle, aimed and shooting around one corner of a building,” he said in a video statement.

In this May 17, 2017 photo, Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., speaks with the media on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Chaos ensued. Lawmakers dove for cover. Gravel bounced as shots hit the ground.

Brooks hit the ground with a few others behind the batting cage, but quickly realized that didn’t provide much cover. The gunman wasn’t spraying bullets but rather taking aim, so there was a “little bit of time between shots.”

Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House, was fielding balls on second base when a gunshot crumpled him, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said. The 51-year-old Scalise, serving his fifth congressional term, dragged himself 10 to 15 yards into the outfield to try to get away, Flake said, leaving a bloody trail.

Marty LaVor, a retired Capitol Hill worker, was taking pictures by first base when he saw a man holding a rifle behind a chain-link fence by third base. LaVor saw Scalise go down, then a Capitol police officer.

“Almost within an instant, and I don’t remember the time, somebody said, ‘Get in the dugout.’ And they said it with such authority. You remember when you were a kid, and your parents said something? This was that sound.”

LaVor got in the dugout.

The 911 call went out at 7:09 a.m. To those in the line of fire, it seemed an eternity before city police arrived, but in reality it took just three minutes. Brooks said the Capitol officers were armed only with pistols.

When Capitol police began firing, Brooks said, they were so close that he initially feared a second shooter was involved. Congress members helped apply a tourniquet to the injured leg of Zachary Barth, legislative correspondent for Rep. Roger Williams of Texas, as the shooting continued. Scalise, too, was attended to by his colleagues on the field.

It was over in a matter of minutes. At least 70 shots could be heard in a video. Members of Congress credited the Capitol police officers with shooting the gunman, though authorities did not immediately confirm who shot him. He died in the hospital.

Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township was at baseball practice with the Democratic team on a Washington, D.C., field separate from where the shooting took place.

The players hustled into the dugout after hearing about the shooting at the other field — unsure of what was happening, Kildee said. Then they learned that five people had been hit, including Scalise.

“We had to do something, so we put our arms around one another and said a prayer,” Kildee said.

Scalise underwent surgery and was in critical condition. MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where Scalise was recovering, said he was shot in the left hip, after which “the bullet travelled across his pelvis, fracturing bones, injuring internal organs and causing severe bleeding.” He will require several more operations, the hospital said.

Special Agents David Bailey and Crystal Griner of the U.S. Capitol Police, as well as Barth, were expected to recover fully.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said on the Senate floor that Hodgkinson apparently was a volunteer for his campaign last year. Police are investigating the attacker’s motive, his associates and his social media posts.

President Donald Trump praised the quick response of Capitol Police and other first-responders at the scene of the “brutal assault.”

“We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country,” Trump — who later visited the hospital where Scalise was recovering — said of members of Congress.

“We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans. That our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace, and that we are strongest when unified, and when we work together for the common good. Please take a moment today to cherish those you love.”

Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Charles E. Ramirez and the Associated Press contributed.