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Shooting turned GOP baseball practice into 'killing field'
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) was joking with Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.) near third base when he heard a loud bang ring out across the baseball field Wednesday.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), taking batting practice at home plate, heard it, too, but he thought it was a large piece of metal that had been dropped at a construction site – a jarring sound that shattered the early-morning quiet in this residential neighborhood of Alexandria, Va.
Seconds later, there was a barrage of gunshots – pop, pop, pop, pop – and the dozens of GOP lawmakers, staffers and others practicing for Thursday's annual Congressional Baseball Game immediately knew the noise was something far more dangerous.
The rifle shots were coming from behind the chain-link fence along the third-base line, right near Kelly, Fleischmann and former MLB player and manager Larry Hardy, who had been volunteering at GOP practices before the charity game.
Someone yelled out to hit the deck. So Fleischmann and others got down low. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the GOP team's manager, had both of his sons with him at practice; his adult son, Brad, was in the batting cage, while 10-year-old Jack hid under an SUV and then made a run for the dugout, where lawmakers pushed him under a bench.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who had been playing second base, took a round in the hip and was knocked to the ground. He desperately tried to drag himself toward the outfield, leaving a trail of blood.
But the gunfire continued. Fleischmann knew they were all easy targets out there on the field, so he decided to make a run for the first-base dugout.
For the next 10 minutes, the baseball diamond at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria became a "killing field," in the words of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). And the first-base dugout resembled a bunker, filled with bloodied and injured lawmakers and staffers trying to escape the gunman.
"It was sheer and utter chaos and disbelief," a visibly shaken Fleischmann, still sporting his red "Republicans" jersey and an orange University of Tennessee cap, told reporters at the Capitol.
Suddenly, bullets were being fired from behind the dugout as well. Confused, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called out to see if the new shooters were "friendly."
Members of Scalise's Capitol Police security detail, who always travel with the No. 3 House GOP leader and were positioned near the first-base line, began returning fire. But the Capitol Police detail appeared to be having a hard time identifying the shooter's location and only had handguns, while the shooter had a high-powered rifle.
"Stay down! Stay down!" people yelled as gunfire continued, according to video of the shooting.
Witnesses said the shooter, later identified as 66-year-old James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill., began making his way around the home-plate backstop toward the first-base dugout. Fleischmann said he, Flake and others packed tightly in the dugout quickly realized they were "sitting ducks" with no means of escape.
A man lying next to Fleischmann had been shot in the leg and was bleeding.
After a minutes-long gun battle with the police, Alexandria Police officers arrived and joined the firefight, Barton said. Shortly thereafter, the gunman was shot and later died at a hospital.
"He got behind a utility shed, and then darted out in front of the utility shed, and that's when he got shot," Barton told reporters, adding that Hodgkinson never spoke or shouted anything out as he shot at lawmakers.
More than 50 shots were fired during the battle, witnesses said.
When police yelled that the shooter was down, Flake ran out to Scalise to find out if he was OK. He and Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), a physician, applied pressure to Scalise's gunshot wound until emergency personnel arrived.
"I felt like I was back in Iraq," said Wenstrup, a former U.S. Army surgeon and Iraq War veteran.
Flake grabbed Scalise's cellphone and called the congressman's wife to let her know what had happened before she saw it on the news.
Scalise was rushed to nearby MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., where he underwent surgery. The Louisiana Republican, the GOP's chief vote-counter in the House, remained in critical condition after the surgery, the hospital said on Twitter.
In all, there were five victims from the baseball practice shooting. Zack Barth, a congressional aide to Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas), was shot in the leg and managed to crawl to the first-base dugout. Matt Mika, a former Hill staffer who works as a lobbyist for Tyson Foods, was shot in the chest.
Two members of Scalise's Capitol Police security detail – agents David Bailey and Crystal Griner – were also injured in the firefight.
"Without these two heroes, Agent Bailey and Agent Griner, many lives would have been lost," Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told lawmakers who had gathered on the House floor after the shooting.
"Without them, it would have been a massacre. There would have been no stopping this guy," added Paul.
There could have been more victims, if not for some fateful decisions. Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) told The Hill he missed his ride by two minutes and decided to skip practice Wednesday morning. And Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), as well as Duncan's driver and scheduler, Thomas McAllister, had left practice at 7:02 a.m., just four minutes before the first gunshot.
In fact, Duncan believes he spoke to the alleged shooter along the first-base line moments before the shooting – a brief conversation that suggests the shooting may have been politically motivated.
Hodgkinson's social media posts suggest he was a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sanders said Wednesday that he had been "sickened" by the "despicable" shooting.
Hodgkinson also railed online against President Trump and the Republican Party.
"He asked me whether the team practicing were Republicans or Democrats. I told him that was a Republican team. He said, 'OK, thanks,' " Duncan told The Hill. "Lots of residents walk dogs and exercise out there; he just seemed like one of those.
"He wasn't carrying anything. He didn't seem odd. He didn't seem out of the ordinary."
[Source: By Scott Wong, The Hilll, Washington, 14Jun17]
|This document has been published on 19Jun17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.|