How a Republican baseball practice in Virginia became ‘a killing field’

In a rampage lasting 10 awful minutes, a gunman targeted Republican legislators 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 dawning, a baseball park in Virginia became, in the words of Senator Rand Paul, a killing field.

What legislators 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 6.30 am 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 90 F( 32 C) on Wednesday, and the clamour of Capitol Hill.

Their surroundings are a serene, affluent region of detached redbrick houses with porches, clipped lawns and trees where difficulty is hard to imagine. The baseball field is close to the park where locals stroll 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 reached some balls before Thursdays annual charity game against their Democratic rivals.

Just after 7am, a man who would be identified afterwards as James Hodgkinson, 66, from Belleville, Illinois, strolled up to congressmen Ron DeSantis and Jeff Duncan as they were get into their auto to leave the field, the pair recalled.

James
James T Hodgkinson, the suspect in the Virginia shooting. Photo: AP

Duncan told reporters that the man asked me if the team practising was a Democrat or Republican team. I told him they were Republicans. He said, OK thanks, turned around.

Minutes afterwards, as the dedicated amateurs were nearing the end of batting practice, there was a loud bang. They stopped and gazed, puzzled. Congressman Rodney Davis of Illinois said later that he thought something heavy had dropped at a construction site.

Hes got a gun! person hollered. Another person hollered: Hit the ground!

He was hunting us

One of the most vivid accounts would come from congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama. I was on deck, about to reached batting practise on the third-base side of home plate, and I heard a loud bam, and I look around and behind third base and the third base dugout, which is cinderblock, I see a rifle, he told CNN. And I see a little bit of a body and I then hear another blam and I realise that theres an active shooter.

Hodgkinson, wearing jeans and blue shirt, was exerting a rifle from behind a chain-link fence near third base. By most estimations, he would fire at least 50 rounds, the bullets kicking up globe and gravel. There was pandemonium. Brutally exposed on the open field, people variously hit the deck, dived into a dugout for cover-up, raced into the dog park or jumped over a fencing and ran for their lives. Team manager Joe Bartons 10 -year-old son Jack hid under an SUV.

Congressman Mike Bishop of Michigan told the New York Times: He was hunting us at that point. There was so much gunfire, you couldnt get up and run. Pop, pop, pop, pop its a sound Ill never forget.

Hodgkinson maintained firing as he moved from near the third-base dugout towards the backstop behind home plate. He never got on to the field because the chain-link fencing around the park was locked. Barton told afterwards: Had he gotten in the fence, it would have been a bloodbath.

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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 made in the hip and collapsed to the ground, hollering. He managed to drag himself to the outfield grass, leaving a trail of blood, witness told 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 wailed 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 handgun and screaming, 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 dirt. 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 or persons. Then the security forces 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 explosion away. Fortunately, “its 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 advising us to remain down.

He added: But for the Capitol police and the bravery they presented, it could very well have been a large-scale murder. All we would have had would have been baseball bats versus a rifle. Those arent good odds.

Police arrive

By 7.09 am, Alexandria police had received a call reporting shootings fired at the park, according to its chief Michael Brown. Three minutes later they arrived at the scene.

Members
Members of the FBI response team search for proof on the field. Photo: UPI/ Barcroft Images

Hodgkinson a home inspector who, it was soon disclosed, had volunteered for Bernie Sanderss presidential campaign was shot at 7.14 am. His rampage had lasted approximately 10 minutes.

Congressman Mike Conaway said: The guys down to a handgun, he dropped his rifle, they shoot him, I go over there, they set him in handcuffs.

It was not clear how much time passed before Hodgkinson succumbed. The cause was multiple gunshots to the torso, according to the coroners report.

The coast eventually clear, Brooks, Flake and others ran towards the wounded Scalise. Arizona senator Flake recalled: I wanted to get to him but there were still shootings going overhead from both sides. Finally, when the shooter was down, I just operated low out to Steve.

They put pressure on the hip meander to stanch the bleeding while Brad Wenstrup, a congressman from Ohio and a physician, checked for any other wounds.

After medical personnel arrived, Flake said he retrieved Scalises mobile. I got his phone and called his wife, merely to make sure she didnt hear the news before. So, fortunately, she hadnt, and I was able to tell her that he appeared to be stable and we were with him.

A helicopter landed in the fields and took five people to local hospitals with gunshot wounds: Scalise, who remains in a critical condition, lobbyist Matt Mika, congressional aide Zachary Barth, a Capitol police officer and the gunman.

Brooks told: At that time, the police were causing all of us to gather outside the first base line and the chain-link fencing and cordoning off the region is to ensure if there was a second shooter we would be better protected.

FBI
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 cellar there during the course of its 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 remembered. 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 Day to Destroy Trump& Co.

Hodgkinsons Facebook page afterwards 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 denounce this action in the strongest possible terms.

The drama in Alexandria all but cancelled the working day business at the White House and Capitol Hill. At 11.36 am Donald Trump, sombre on his 71 st birthday, announced that the attacker 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.

Bernie
Bernie Sanders strongly condemned the shooting after it came out the suspect had volunteered for his presidential campaign. Photo: Saul Loeb/ AFP/ Getty Images

And for a day, at the least, the mood in Washington seemed to have changed. At 4pm, the managers of the Republican and Democratic congressional baseball teams appeared together at a joint press conference and vowed that the game at Nationals Park on Thursday would go on. Barton said: It will be play ball tomorrow night at 7.05.

Mike Doyle, the manager of the Democratic team, added: Were not going to let incidents like this change our way of life or daily routines.

The congressmen also had another message. They believed the attack was a consequence of the increasingly toxic political climate between legislators, the press and the public.

Members are not looked at as people any more, Barton told, reflecting on the change since he was first elected in 1985. People think they can come to our town hall meetings and tell only the most obnoxious things and well not feel anything personally.

As a first step, Doyle said the Democrat invited Republicans to the Democratic Club for dinner. Barton ribbed him that he would order the most expensive steak on the menu. Doyle shot back: Were Democrats. We dont have steaks. Thats your club.

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