PHOENIX — Suzi Hileman remembers the attack as if it were yesterday, the fear and gunfire as the shooter unleashed a barrage of bullets on a crowd gathered outside a Tucson supermarket to meet then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Hileman was shot three times while trying to save her young friend and neighbor, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. The little girl was among six people killed in the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting. Hileman and 12 others, including Giffords, were severely injured.
As residents of the city prepare to commemorate the third anniversary of the mass shooting Wednesday, Hileman said some good has come from the tragedy.
“I look at it as a celebration of how Tucson came together, how total strangers saved my life,” she said. “I don’t forget the face of a 9-year-old girl whose hand I was holding as she died, but we’re not looking back so much as taking their energy and moving forward.”
Jared Lee Loughner was sentenced in November 2012 to seven consecutive life sentences, plus 140 years, after he pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges in the shooting.
Giffords was shot once in the head. The Arizona Democrat later resigned from Congress as she continues to recover from her injuries.
The third anniversary of the attack will be marked Wednesday with bell-ringing, flag-raising ceremonies and church events across Tucson.
Earlier in the week, officials also announced plans for a permanent memorial in remembrance of the shootings expected to be located downtown at the Old Pima County Courthouse and in an adjacent park. The sites would display some of the thousands of items, including letters, candles and American flags, that were placed in storage after forming makeshift memorials across the city in the days after the shooting.
“Like any community that experiences a tragedy, the citizens want to be connected to it in some way to show their appreciation and understanding and sympathy,” said Stephen Brigham, president of the January 8 Memorial Foundation. “Everyone we talked to reinforced the importance of providing a place to go and remember that tragedy, but also a place to remember and celebrate how the community responded.”
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild will participate in a bell-ringing ceremony Wednesday morning, one of several events planned in the city.
“The wounds are still there. Time helps, but it doesn’t heal all the wounds,” Rothschild said. “I think the commemorations are in large part a recognition of our community’s collective care and compassion and grit to go on.”
Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, went on to found Americans for Responsible Solutions, a political action committee aimed rivaling the powerful pro-gun lobby and, according to their website, “stand up for both the 2nd amendment and safer communities.”
However, since the shooting, and others around the country, including the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, a divided Congress has done nothing to tighten any of the nation’s gun laws.
Some states, including Colorado and Connecticut, pushed ahead with their own gun-control measures, while others, like Arizona, Giffords’ home state, moved in the opposite direction, passing a law that requires municipalities to sell weapons surrendered at buyback programs aimed at getting more guns off the streets instead of destroying them.