U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce had just taken his turn at batting practice for the congressional Republican baseball team Wednesday morning when he saw a stranger near the third-base line aim a rifle at the congressman playing third base.
The man began firing.
The terrifying ordeal at an Alexandria, Va., ballfield during a practice for a charity game would leave six people injured -- two critically, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise -- and the heavily armed gunman dead following a shootout with police.
Pearce, sounding emotional in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, said one of the toughest parts of the rampage was seeing young congressional aides injured. "These young staffers, usually in their 20s, to see two of them [get shot], it just breaks your heart," he said.
Pearce, who wasn't injured in the attack, said the episode hasn't changed his position on firearms. A fierce defender of Second Amendment rights, Pearce has consistently voted against gun control measures. "The problem is not the guns. ... The problem is not the weapons," he said. "The problem is the heart."
The harsh political rhetoric of recent years has to be toned down, Pearce said.
Wednesday's attack, by a man with liberal political views who criticized President Donald Trump on social media and volunteered with Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, came as Pearce and his GOP teammates were practicing for the annual Democrats vs. Republicans charitable baseball game, a friendly affair that officials said will go on as planned Thursday night.
For the past two months, Pearce said, the GOP team had been practicing "every day when we're in town."
A former member of the New Mexico State University baseball team, Pearce had aspirations to be a professional ballplayer. "But I didn't have the juice," he said. He's an outfielder on the GOP team, but those positions are filled these days by younger, faster players.
"I'm usually a pinch hitter," Pearce said.
When he was at his spot to bat Wednesday morning, he said, he noticed a man -- later identified as James T. Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Ill. -- who seemed out of place. Most observers stand on the opposite side of the field, near the first-base line, closer to the street, he said.
"I finished batting and walked to the first-base dugout," Pearce said. That's when the man "leveled his gun straight at the third baseman, Trent Kelly," a Mississippi congressman and a former combat veteran in Afghanistan.
Hodgkinson was only about 15 feet away from Kelly, Pearce said, but his shot missed.
"Trent ran," Pearce said. "There was a second shot. Someone screamed, 'Shooter!' "
Scalise, who was playing second base, was struck by a bullet that Pearce said he believes was meant for Kelly. "It didn't look like he was aiming at Scalise." The whip's security detail got out of their cars and told him to take cover.
"I was near the security detail," Pearce said. "Everyone in the outfield was trying to take cover."
Matt Mika, a former congressional staffer who is now a lobbyist for Tyson Foods, stepped out from the dugout and was "standing right where I'd been" and was struck by bullets, Pearce said. "He was the most critically injured."
Then a congressional aide was hit -- Zack Barth, who works for Texas Republican Rep. Roger Williams.
"At this point, I could see the shooter, who was about 20 yards from where I was," Pearce said. "He was behind a storage building near the stands."
Two more victims -- members of Scalise's security detail identified as Crystal Griner and David Bailey -- were shot.
An Alexandria police officer arrived on the scene. She immediately began calling for backup. The gunman "shot at her and missed," Pearce said.
"I could plainly see him go around the building by the stands," Pearce said. "He'd walk out and fire shots. ... It looked like he'd emptied his second or third clip."
He then began firing a handgun. Police ordered him to put down the gun. When he didn't do that, Pearce said, an officer "put one or two shots in him."
Hodgkinson later died from his injuries at a hospital. His attack served as a stunning reminder of the nation's deepening political divisions and prompted calls for unity.
New Mexico's Democratic congressional delegates condemned the shooting and offered words of support for victims and their families.
"Jill and I are praying for Congressman Scalise, my colleagues, their staff, and the heroic Capitol Police officers affected by today's tragic shooting," U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said in a statement. "I want to extend my deepest thanks to the brave first responders on the scene, and I join the entire Congress and country in wishing a speedy recovery for all those injured in this horrific event."
"Today's shooting was a tragic and
despicable act," U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján said. "... Violence like this simply has no place in our society."
Pearce said he often tells fellow Republicans that "Democrats are not the enemy. The enemy is avarice and greed," he said. "... We, as elected officials, we run as Democrats and Republicans, but we serve as Americans."
Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037