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‘I heard a very large bang.’ And then a race for their lives.

Members of Congress described the terror of a shooting at a ballfield in Virginia. (June 15, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

They were taking swings and fielding line drives, Republican lawmakers taking a welcome break from Washington’s political maelstrom Wednesday in an early morning practice on a suburban baseball diamond for a charity game against Democrats.

Just after 7 a.m., they heard a loud pop that didn’t sound quite like the crack of a bat. A few looked at one another, trying to make sense of it.

“I heard a very large bang,” Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), said later. “Most people didn’t do anything…. About 10 or 15 seconds later there was a barrage of pops and it was very clear there was an active shooter.”

About two dozen members of Congress, staffers, a retired major league pitcher and others suddenly raced for cover — and their lives.

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Some zigzagged as they ran, hoping to dodge bullets that echoed across the muggy infield. Others bolted from the batting cage area or ducked behind a nearby building. Unable to escape, two men hugged the outfield facedown. Dirt and gravel sprayed as shots peppered the field.

A dozen or so dived into the first base dugout, where they crowded on the floor. Some cut themselves in the scramble and at least one man bled from a gunshot wound.

Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) helped his 10-year-old son hide under an SUV parked nearby.

“I just kept saying, ‘Stay down Jack, stay down Jack, stay under the car!’” Burton, the team manager, said during a Capitol news conference.

They didn’t know if the fusillade came from one gunman or many. The terror intensified when Capitol Police returned fire from behind the dugout. Those inside felt like sitting ducks, several said, caught in the crossfire.

“Are you friendly?” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) yelled out, feeling relieved when the officers identified themselves.

At one point, Flake spotted the gunman, who had a clear view of the dugout from behind a chain-link fence near third base. Flake jumped back after he made eye contact to avoid making himself a target.

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“It seemed like an eternity,” Fleischmann told reporters. “I kept saying to myself: ‘When are they going to stop this guy?’… My fear was nobody in the dugout was armed.”

Soon more heavily armed local police swarmed to the scene, sirens blaring. The shooting intensified as they engaged and incapacitated the gunman — later identified as James T. Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Ill. He later died of his injuries.

By the time the melee ended — about 10 minutes and 50 shots after it began — four people, including a member of Congress, lay wounded and the nation was left reeling from the political violence.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who is the third-ranking Republican in the House, was shot in the hip as he stood between first and second base.

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Witnesses said Scalise crawled about 10 or 15 yards into the outfield, leaving a trail of blood, to get farther from the gunman, and then lay motionless. He later was taken to a hospital by helicopter and was in critical condition late Wednesday after surgery.

Two U.S. Capitol Police officers assigned to guard Scalise were injured. Crystal Griner was shot in the ankle and David Bailey suffered what police called minor injuries. He was treated and released.

Matt Mika, a lobbyist, was shot in the chest, and Zachary Barth, a congressional aide, was wounded. He hobbled from the outfield to the dugout, where a lawmaker took off his belt and made a tourniquet for him.

“All the time he was bleeding and we were under fire, he was texting … letting people know we were under fire,” said Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas), the team coach, who had played ball in the minor leagues. “We were sitting ducks. We had nothing to fight back with but bats.”

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Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), who was at home plate when the shooting began, ran to a nearby house, where he called 911 and then his wife and children. “Phone calls I thought I’d never have to make,” he told CNN.

The gunfire could be heard blocks away, prompting residents in the sleepy Del Ray neighborhood to cut short morning walks and shoo their dogs back into neatly tended red-brick row houses.

“It was rapid and kept going and going and going,” said Kendra Newman, who was sipping coffee when the shooting began. “It was clear that something was terribly wrong.”

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“This did not sound like a simple shooting,” said Scott, her fiance, who wasn’t willing to disclose his last name. “It sounded like a war zone.”

The park is popular with local families. In addition to the baseball field, it has a tennis court, dog park and a children’s playground. Residents said the shooter first stood in the park’s small butterfly garden and then walked to a chain link fence near third base and opened fire.

Had Scalise’s security team not been on hand because he is a House leader — and the gates to the field not been locked — the bloodshed would have been far worse, “a massacre,” as one lawmaker put it.

Once the shooting stopped, lawmakers ran to Scalise while they waited for emergency medical crews to arrive.

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“He said that he needed water,” Flake said. “He was coherent…. We tried to keep him talking.”

They cut away his jersey and looked for an exit wound, using someone’s shirt and a belt to stanch the bleeding after gauze failed to contain it.

Flake found Scalise’s cellphone and called his wife. “I just didn’t want her to wake up and hear the news and not know what was going on. So I talked to her,” he said.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who served as an Army surgeon during the Persian Gulf War, applied pressure to one of the Capitol Police officer’s wounds, and thought about the war.

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“You never expect a baseball field in America to feel like being back in a combat zone in Iraq, but this morning it did,” Wenstrup said on Twitter.

As the crime scene was locked down behind yellow tape, most lawmakers returned to the Capitol by bus. Some still wore bloodstained uniforms as they roamed Congress and told their stories to reporters.

And some lawmakers who left practice early began reevaluating the morning.

Shortstop Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), who left with third baseman Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) just before the first shots were heard, fist-bumping Scalise as they passed, said he was chilled by an encounter with one man in particular.

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“We get to the parking lot…. I’m getting in [the car] when this guy approached us,” he said.

He asked what team was playing, the Democrats or Republicans.

“I told him they were Republicans. He said, ‘OK, thanks.’”

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Duncan believes it was the shooter, whose social media posts indicate a hatred of Republicans and President Trump.

“I’m shaken up,” Duncan said. “My colleagues were targeted today by somebody who wanted to kill them.”

The Democrats were also practicing, about 10 miles away at Gallaudet University in the District of Columbia.

Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel) was in the batter’s box when play was abruptly stopped. The Democrats were told to go to the dugout while police secured the field.

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“It was really somber. People were talking, but it was in whispers,” Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Whittier) said.

Eventually a sniper team arrived and surrounded the area to allow the lawmakers to leave under guard.

Before they did, the Democrats huddled together to pray for Scalise and the other wounded Republicans.

“It just seems like the world is a crazy, crazy place,” Sanchez said. “It’s hard when you have to send those texts to your loved ones to let them know you’re OK.”

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Staff writers Sarah Wire, Michael Memoli and Christina Bellantoni contributed.

noah.bierman@latimes.com

Twitter: @noahbierman


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