Tucson shooting survivor and his savior still coping a year later
She was scared to touch the stranger writhing outside the Safeway grocery store, blood streaming from a bullet wound in his upper left thigh. But he looked at her with pleading eyes and forced out a “help me.”
“If I don’t do something,” she thought, “he’s going to die.”
Anna Ballis inched away from the folding table she’d ducked under while a gunman was spraying bullets into a clutch of bystanders. The gunfire had halted and people were shouting, “Got him!”
Ballis recognized one of the wounded people splayed around her: Gabrielle Giffords, the local Democratic congresswoman, who’d been chatting with admirers on this blue-skied January morning.
Ballis kneeled next to the white-haired stranger, trying to ignore the blood welling around them. Her stomach churned at its coppery smell. Recalling a first-aid course she’d taken, she knew to put pressure on the wound. But how?
She glanced down.
If the Jan. 8, 2011, shootings reaffirmed anything, it was the haphazard nature of tragedy. When suspected shooter Jared Lee Loughner took a taxi to the Safeway, his chief aim, authorities say, was to gun down Giffords with a 9-millimeter Glock.
But the blur of bullets killed six other people: federal Judge John Roll; Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman; Phyllis Schneck; Dorwan Stoddard; Dorothy Morris; and Christina-Taylor Green, who was just 9 years old.
Thirteen people were wounded, including Giffords. Dozens more walked away physically unscathed but psychologically tormented by thoughts of “why me?” and “what if?”
On Sunday, Tucson will join them in marking the one-year anniversary of the rampage with scores of events, including a vigil Giffords is scheduled to attend. Each one will bring together dozens of strangers united in grief. Among them will be Ballis and the man she helped save, Giffords aide Ron Barber. Doctors told him that, without her hands, he might have bled to death.
Barber remembered someone pushing on the wound near his groin with one hand, looking away at first.
“It hurts,” he moaned.
Ballis remembers saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m trying to help.”
The wound pulsed. Hard, as if it were trying to shove her away. So she used both hands and pushed with all the strength she could muster.
Suddenly, he started squirming, patting his jacket and pants. He tried to hoist himself up.
“My phone’s in my pocket,” he pleaded. He wanted someone to call his wife.
Ballis understood. But what if he injured something by moving?
“Enough,” she said. “You need to sit still.”
Ballis kept pushing for more than 10 minutes. When emergency responders took over, Barber grabbed one of her sticky hands.
“Thank you,” he said.
Paramedics rushed him to a hospital. Later that day, when a friend called Ballis to talk about the shootings, she initially struggled to say she had been there. When she finally did, she broke down.
The next morning at the hospital, Barber picked up the local paper, the Arizona Daily Star. He gaped at the giant front-page photo:
Near the Safeway entrance, a white banner with blue letters announces UNITED STATES CONGRESS, a reminder of the Giffords meet-and-greet that began at 10 a.m. Three emergency responders hover over the congresswoman, whom the gunman shot in the forehead.
Nearby stands an ashen-faced, brown-haired woman wearing a black shirt and white sweater vest. So dark are the bloodstains on her jeans that you might mistake them for knee pads. She stares at her right hand, which is also flecked with blood.
“That’s her,” Barber thought.
A few days later, Barber’s family tracked down Ballis, a 54-year-old office administrative manager. “There’s somebody looking for you,” one of his relatives told her over the phone. “You saved his life.”
An anxious Ballis drove to University Medical Center in Tucson, where Barber, 65, was holed up in the intensive care unit. First, she met his two adult daughters and his wife, Nancy, Barber’s high school sweetheart.
Barber was sitting in bed and wearing glasses, a light-blue hospital gown and a warm smile. A bandage covered the spot where a second bullet had pierced his left cheek and exited the back of his neck. Ballis remembered how, outside the Safeway, she couldn’t bring herself to tell him that was why his face stung.
“Do I look better?” he said.
Ballis lingered for hours. There were tears and hugs. A parade of political dignitaries marched through, and each time one did, Ballis offered to leave.
“No, stay. You’re family,” Barber said.
The same day, they visited the growing memorial outside the hospital, a sea of votive candles, stuffed bears, scribbled notes. Someone approached Barber, who was in a wheelchair, and handed him a red rose. He placed it on a photo of fellow Giffords aide Zimmerman.
For much of the day, Barber’s family took pictures. In one, he and Ballis joined hands. His grip felt different to her. Stronger.
In recent months, Barber has thought often of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” In the Thornton Wilder novel, a monk witnesses a bridge collapse, flinging five people to their deaths. Was it chance? Or an act of God?
Both he and Ballis have been haunted by such questions. Why were they thrown together outside the Safeway?
That morning, Ballis was rushing to buy ingredients for a roast: beef broth, tomatoes, green chiles. A Republican, she wouldn’t have normally wandered over to Giffords’ Congress on Your Corner. But Ballis is a hunter, and from afar she mistook a congressional seal for a fish and game emblem. Curious, she headed toward it.
A white-haired man called to her: Stop back later. Meet the congresswoman. It was Barber, though Ballis didn’t know that at the time.
After Barber left the hospital, he invited Ballis and her boyfriend, Rick Selting, to his home. Selting had dashed to the Safeway after the shootings and stayed by Ballis’ side.
Since then, Ballis and Barber have stayed in touch, chatting on the phone and at community events. They exchanged Christmas gifts: a necklace for Ballis, a snow globe for Barber.
Both struggle with memories of that morning. Ballis clicks off the TV when it flashes Loughner’s eerie smirking mug shot. She declined to attend his court hearings, as some survivors have done. She also started seeing a therapist, and that’s helped uncork some of her feelings.
A retired social service administrator, Barber started a fund to raise money for anti-bullying efforts and mental health awareness, a nod to Loughner, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. In July, Barber returned to work part time as Giffords’ district director.
At the Safeway, bullets struck three people near him: Giffords, Zimmerman and Roll. The judge was a friend of his, and authorities have said surveillance video shows him pushing Barber out of the line of fire.
“On either side of me, two people died,” Barber said. “That’s the issue I’ve really had to work through.”
He still has limited feeling below his knee and uses a leg brace and a cane. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he would jump at loud noises and felt vulnerable in cars. For some time, nightmares jolted him awake several times a night. Those symptoms are starting to ease.
When he and Ballis meet up, it comforts both of them. One’s progress reassures the other.
Awhile back, at the urging of her therapist, Ballis wrote something for Barber. In part, it said:
A day of tragedy brought us together forever
Knowing your name provided my soul comfort
Feeling your strength gave me hope and encouragement
Seeing your determination lifted my inner spirit
She superimposed the words on a framed photo, which Barber has hanging in his family room.
It’s a close-up of their clasped hands.