In a rampage lasting 10 awful minutes, a gunman targeted Republican politicians as they held an early-morning practice in a picturesque park
America has been made to endure this pain before when a mass shooting desecrates its most cherished spaces: a schoolroom in Newtown; a cinema in Aurora; a church in Charleston. This time, with the dawn, a baseball park in Virginia became, in the words of Senator Rand Paul, a killing field. What politicians who trade their suits and ties for baseball uniforms lack in fitness, they make up for in earnest enthusiasm. Such is the dedication of Steve Scalise, the number three House Republican, and his colleagues that they regularly start practice at 6.15 or 6.30am at the Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, across the Potomac river from Washington DC. What we know about the Virginia shooting This allows them to beat both the heat, which was heading towards 90F(32C) on Wednesday, and the clamour of Capitol Hill. Their surroundings are a serene, affluent area of detached redbrick houses with porches, clipped lawns and trees where trouble is hard to imagine. The baseball field is close to the park where locals walk their dogs, a childrens playground and a YMCA. It lies about halfway between Washington DC to the north and George Washingtons farm, Mount Vernon, to the south. There were 20 House members and two senators present, according to congressman Joe Barton of Texas, the Republican teams manager, grabbing the last chance to hit some balls before Thursdays annual charity game against their Democratic rivals. Just after 7am, a man who would be identified later as James Hodgkinson, 66, from Belleville, Illinois, walked up to congressmen Ron DeSantis and Jeff Duncan as they were getting into their car to leave the field, the pair recalled.
A view of the baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, after the shooting. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images Texas congressman Roger Williams, who coaches the Republican team, added: We were sitting ducks. We had nothing to fight back with but bats, if it came to that. The first victim was Scalise, 51, who had been fielding balls on second base. He was hit in the hip and collapsed to the ground, screaming. He managed to drag himself to the outfield grass, leaving a trail of blood, witnesses said later. Two Capitol Hill police officers, Crystal Griner and David Bailey, who were in Scalises security detail, immediately returned fire. Senator Jeff Flake yelled: Are you friendly? Are you friendly? One shouted back: Yes! One of the officers suffered a gunshot wound but kept firing. Both were widely praised for saving numerous lives. Alexandria resident Katie Fillus told the Washington Post she saw a female officer pull out a gun and scream, Drop your weapon! but the gunman shot her. She fell on the ground in front of us, and we were all just trying to lay as flat we could. And I belly-crawled, dragging through the mud. I got to the car and I ducked under the car and I laid as close as I could under the car to hide from the person. Then the police seemed to come. Congressman Brooks, meanwhile, had thrown himself down at home plate, but decided to take a chance and run to the first base dugout, where about a dozen congressmen and aides were lying. Among them was congressional aide Zachary Barth, who had been struck in the leg and hobbled across the field. Brooks took off his belt and another congressman applied a tourniquet to try to slow the bleeding. In the meantime, Brooks told CNN, Im towards the right-field side of the dugout and theres gunfire within about five, six, seven feet of my head, and I look up and theres a guy with a gun blasting away. Fortunately, it was one of the good guys, one of our security detail, who was shooting back. Of course it was pistol versus rifle, our pistols versus the shooters rifle on the third-base line just outside the chain-link fence, and he was warning us to stay down. He added: But for the Capitol police and the heroism they showed, it could very well have been a large-scale massacre. All we would have had would have been baseball bats versus a rifle. Those arent good odds. Police arrive By 7.09am,Alexandria police had received a call reporting shots fired at the park, according to its chief Michael Brown. Three minutes later they arrived at the scene.
FBI special agent Tim Slater briefs the press after the attack. Photograph: Zach Gibson/Getty Images The typically tranquil neighbourhood was stunned. Bullets had lodged in or gone through windows of the nearby YMCA. Alex Heimberg, 19, who had arrived at 6am for a morning workout, had been in the basement there during the gunfire. We didnt really know what to think of it, he said. It could be weights dropping from upstairs. Its just something weve never experienced but we were given context when a man came down and said there was an active shooter and we said, Oh crap, we need to get somewhere safe. One patron reacted casually, wrapping himself in a towel and using a sauna, Heimberg recalled. The YMCA was on lockdown for around three hours. A show of solidarity It soon emerged that the shooter Hodgkinson was a leftwing activist with a record of domestic violence. He had signed an online petition calling for Donald Trump to be impeached and wrote on Facebook: Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed our Democracy. Its Time to Destroy Trump & Co. Hodgkinsons Facebook page later removed by the company also featured pictures of Senator Bernie Sanders, who said he had been informed that Hodgkinson had apparently volunteered for his presidential campaign last year. I am sickened by this despicable act, a shaken Sanders said on the Senate floor. Let me be as clear as I can be: violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. The drama in Alexandria all but cancelled the days business at the White House and Capitol Hill. At 11.36am Donald Trump, sombre on his 71st birthday, announced that the assailant has now died from his injuries. In a partisan and rancorous political climate, Trump also made a measured appeal for unity. We are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good, he said.