The violence that struck a ballfield in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday abruptly plunged what had been a routine start to the day in the Del Ray neighborhood into chaos. Residents were focused on morning workouts and getting coffee; a congressional contingent had driven over for an early baseball practice. But then the shooting started, and they all scrambled for cover.
Here’s how witnesses — from members of Congress to a passerby — describe the attack, in conversations with Morning Edition and with NPR’s Jessica Taylor, who spent the day reporting from the scene of the attack.
About 25 people had gathered for the Republican team’s practice for an annual charity game, scheduled for Thursday night.
The shooting began around 7 a.m. When the gunman opened fire, resident Katie Filous was walking her dogs on the sidewalk next to the baseball field and a YMCA.
Here is what Filous recalls:
“Somebody from the baseball team starting screaming, and I heard really, really loud pops very close to me. So I started crying and laid flat on the ground with my dogs. And [some of] the baseball team was huddled behind a large tree that was maybe 10 feet from me.
“And we all laid flat, and the pops got louder — so I think the shooter was coming across the baseball field towards everyone. And this security person stepped out of a Suburban and had a handgun and yelled, ‘Drop your weapon!’ And the person shot that guard, and he or she fell in front of us.”
The security contingent was there because of who was practicing this morning: House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was working with his fellow Republicans to sharpen their batting and fielding. Scalise was among five people who were sent to the hospital.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., says:
“Scalise was playing second base, his position, and all of a sudden we heard a loud — what sounded like a gunshot, very loud and very close. But we weren’t certain until the second one a few seconds later, and then just a full rally. And it was clear that there was a gunman.
“We dove for the dugout, those of us who were on the field still. And Steve Scalise went down — and dragged himself off of the infield into the outfield, about 10 or 15 yards, and was laying motionless out there. But there was gunfire going overhead, so I couldn’t get out there. Another staff member with a leg wound who was shot in the field made it to the dugout … and we … got a belt and put pressure on his wound.
“I got a look at the gunman behind the backstop, and he had a line of sight into our dugout. I feared he was going to start firing into the dugout.”
When the baseball field became the scene of a gunbattle, a member of the U.S. Capitol Police was using the dugout as cover, behind which to fire at the gunman, Flake said.
At some point, Flake says, it seemed that the shooter dropped his rifle and began using a handgun. And sometime after that, the assault on the congressional team ended.
“So we finally got — somebody said that the gunman was down. And that’s when I ran out to Steve and applied pressure on the wound,” Flake said. He added that Scalise was bleeding “quite a bit.”
James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill., the man who officials say carried out the attack, was wounded in the fight and later died. No other deaths have been reported from the shooting. Scalise was shot in his hip and underwent surgery; as of Wednesday afternoon, he was listed as being in critical condition.
Photographer Marty LaVor was a witness to the shooting. The 81-year-old from nearby Mount Vernon says he has been photographing the annual charity baseball game for more than 30 years.
He was watching practice, LaVor said, when “I happened to look over, I saw the gunman, white male, behind a chain-link fence, behind third base.”
LaVor says that at first, the sight left him confused:
“He picked up the rifle, and so I saw the rifle, and the thought that ran through my mind … because it was so out of context, why would anybody have a rifle there? And, what ran through my mind was, ‘Why would anybody be trying to shoot birds at six o’clock in the morning?’
“And then, of course, it started. But I didn’t take a picture of him and I heard somebody yell ‘Get in the dugout!’ And, the gunfire rang out. There was a clip with at least eight shots. So, that went off and I thought it was over.”
Someone yelled to get in the dugout — and LaVor dove for cover. Telling the story later, his pants were still scuffed and muddy and his elbows were scratched and bandaged.
“I went in and I landed on a congressman, who I don’t know who it was, and that probably saved my fall from breaking something,” he said.
After the first burst of gunfire, LaVor said, “Then there was silence, I thought it was over.”
“I started to look up and somebody in the dugout — I don’t know who it was — saved my life because he said, ‘Get down!’ and ‘Get next to the wall’ because as I understand … apparently, a bullet came into the dugout and took out some cinder block.”
Witnesses have estimated that anywhere from 50 to 100 shots were fired on the baseball field. Many have credited the U.S. Capitol Police for effectively engaging with the gunman, using their pistols against his rifle — a decidedly uneven matchup across a wide open space.
When the federal officers first began firing, those in the dugout weren’t certain whether there was more than one shooter, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said.
After initially being trapped behind the backstop, Brooks had run over to the first-base dugout, where others had sought cover. They attended to a wounded staff member who had been shot in the leg, he said, and then laid back down in the dugout.
Shortly afterward, Brooks said, he heard “loud explosions and I look up and there is a guy with a gun about 5 feet above me, shooting — and at first you don’t know if that’s a second shooter, but it turned out to be one of our guys.”
The officer, he said, was “shooting back, risking themselves, giving us protection. When I say risking themselves, I mean, they’re shooting 90-100 feet away. One guy’s got a rifle, and you’ve got a pistol. That’s not a fair fight.”
The Capitol Police were directing their fire at the opposite dugout, over by third base, Brooks said. He added, “At some point or another, he goes around the third base dugout towards home plate, where he is taken down.”
Throughout the early moments of the shooting, the feeling in the dugout was one of “helplessness,” Brooks said:
“When you’ve got a baseball bat and the guy’s got a rifle. And you see your friends, Steve Scalise in particular, lying on the ground dragging himself from the infield dirt to the outfield grass while there’s nothing we can do to help. That’s, a long lasting impression I’ll always have.
“But, the second impression would be the bravery that they displayed taking on a guy with a rifle, while they have pistols shooting from long distance. And if they if they had not been successful, then the tragedy here would undoubtedly have been much greater because those of us who are in the first base dugout, we’d [have] no chance.”
Saying that the Republicans’ baseball team has “been practicing here for years,” Flake said that if Scalise hadn’t come to Wednesday morning’s workout, “there would not have been any detail at all.”
The charity baseball game against congressional Democrats will go ahead as planned Thursday night, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said Wednesday.
“We will play for charity, but also for the victims and the heroic officers who took down the shooter,” he said via Twitter.