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Gabrielle Giffords: One year later, shooting survivors reflect, move forward

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - Bells rang out across Tucson on Sunday to mark exactly one year since a bloody morning when a gunman's deadly rampage shook a community and shocked a nation.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and fellow shooting survivor Ron Barber unveil a memorial plaque in honor of slain staffer Gabe Zimmerman, Saturday in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords)

It's been a year of reflecting on lives shattered, of struggling with flashbacks and nightmares, of replaying the what-ifs before the deadly rampage. And in the middle of it: one woman, Gabrielle Giffords, forging one of the most grueling journeys back of all.

One year after a deranged gunman shot the Arizona congresswoman in the head and opened fire on dozens of others at a Tucson grocery store, the congresswoman and other survivors were gathering Sunday to reflect and move forward.

Many throughout the close-knit southern Arizona community began the day of remembrance Sunday by ringing bells at 10:11 a.m., the exact time the gunman shot Giffords and methodically moved down a line of people waiting to talk to her during a congressional meet-and-greet on Jan. 8, 2011.

Six people were killed, including 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, born on Sept. 11, 2001, and a federal judge. Thirteen others were shot, including Giffords.

Gail Gardiner, 70, who lives about a mile away from the Safeway where the shooting happened, went to the store Sunday and tied a balloon that says "Thinking of you" to a railing next to a memorial of the shooting that reads: "The Tucson Tragedy ... we shall never forget."

"This is my backyard and this is where I want to be and show people that we remember this," Gardiner said. "It just hits so close to home and so many innocent people's lives were taken and changed forever."

She and about 30 others rang handheld bells, hugged each other and cried as the time of the shooting passed. Many bowed their heads in prayer.

Bruce Ellis and his wife Kelly Hardesty, both 50, wept as the bells rang and held each other tight.

"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." Hardesty said she was on the way to the store just before the shooting broke out.

"I'm just thinking about the little girl, Christina, and Judge (John) Roll, and those who were killed and just all that we lost," Hardesty said.

Albert Pesqueira, assistant fire chief for the Northwest Fire District in Tucson, was one of the first responders to the shooting. He came to the Safeway on Sunday to remember and to heal.

His most vivid memories from that day are the sounds of moaning and crying among shooting victims in the aftermath of the attack.

"I can still hear them," Pesqueira said. "We'll never be the same. We'll never be normal again because of what occurred."

The 41-year-old Giffords has spent the last year in Houston undergoing intensive physical and speech therapy.

Doctors and family have called her recovery miraculous after the Jan. 8 shooting; she is able to walk and talk, vote in Congress and gave a televised interview to ABC's Diane Sawyer in May. But doctors have said it would take many months to determine the lasting effects of her brain injury. The three-term congresswoman has four months to decide whether to seek re-election.

"She's making a lot of progress. She's doing great," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, a close friend, said. "She still has a long way to go."

President Barack Obama called Giffords on Sunday to offer his support and tell her he and Michelle Obama are keeping her, the families of those killed and the whole Tucson community in their thoughts and prayers, according to his office. He called Giffords an inspiration to his family and Americans across the country.

Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, went to the scene of the shooting Saturday, and Kelly tweeted a photo and said Giffords was remembering where she had parked that day. They went to University Medical Center, where Giffords was treated after the attack, and visited a trailhead outside Tucson named in honor of slain staffer Gabe Zimmerman.

The couple will join thousands at an evening candlelight vigil at the University of Arizona. Kelly was expected to speak. Close friends of Giffords and of the dead planned emotional reflections on their lives.

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who was born and raised in Tucson, will speak about Giffords, whose recovery has captivated the nation. Federal judge Raner Collins is remembering fellow judge John Roll; Christina-Taylor Green's two best friends will talk about the bright and ambitious girl born on Sept. 11, 2001.

Pat Maisch is set to speak on behalf of everyone who survived. The petite but feisty woman grabbed a gun magazine from Jared Lee Loughner after he was tackled during the shooting and believes she would have been shot next if he hadn't been subdued.

Loughner has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges in the shooting. The 23-year-old, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is being forcibly medicated at a Missouri prison facility in an effort to make him mentally ready for trial.

Many of them also have lobbied for gun legislation in Washington in hopes of preventing similar shootings and started various nonprofits that award scholarships, help needy children and promote awareness about mental illness.

Some shooting survivors, including Giffords staffers Ron Barber and Pam Simon, plan to attend as many events on Sunday as possible, including an interfaith service at a church.

Others, like 76-year-old survivor Mavy Stoddard, whose husband, Dory, was killed as he shielded her from the bullets, plan to stay at home with family. Sunday's events were designed to bring Tucson residents together much like they came together after the shooting last year.

The night of the shooting, more than 100 people showed up outside Giffords' office on a busy street corner in frigid temperatures, holding candles and signs that simply read "Peace" and "Just pray." Strangers hugged, most cried and many sang anthems like "Amazing Grace."

In the days and weeks that followed, thousands of people contributed to makeshift memorials outside the office, the Tucson hospital where Giffords and other shooting victims were treated and the grocery store where it happened.

The memorials turned into massive tributes of candles, cards, photos, stuffed animals and flowers that blanketed areas of up to 60-by-100 feet.

Others that came later include a 9-foot, 11-inch sculpture of an angel forged from World Trade Center steel in memory of Green.

Several of the shooting victims visited the memorials before they were dismantled and put in storage boxes for safekeeping until a permanent memorial is erected in the coming years. Items from the hospital alone filled 60 boxes.

Shooting survivor Susan Hileman called the memorials a "giant hug" from the community. Her favorite memorial sign read, "Plant seeds of peace and love will grow."

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