ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — First came the ping of baseball bats, a familiar sound of the leafy neighborhood’s morning. Then the crack of gunfire, which isn’t.
It started with a single pop, which for a split second was not alarming to the Republican members of Congress who had gathered for a final practice before a charity baseball game with Democrats this week. As one lawmaker would later note, it could have been a car backfiring.
Then, after a pause, the gunshots came in quick succession and the horror unfolded in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, home to many federal workers, lawyers and lobbyists who commute across the river to Washington.
A congressman, two Capitol police officers, a lobbyist and a legislative aide were wounded as lawmakers, some fighting back tears, sought to understand what had happened and why. In a hail of bullets, police killed the gunman.
“Today’s shooting was tragic, and I’m just grateful that my colleague, Steve Scalise, and the others who were injured will be okay. The Capitol Police were heroes today for their actions in the line of duty,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, 4th District.
“You never expect a baseball field in America to feel like being back in a combat zone in Iraq,” said Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Army reservist who served as a combat surgeon in Iraq and was on the field Wednesday when the shooting began. “But this morning it did.”
They had gathered on this muggy morning, trading suits and ties for sneakers and baseball caps, to practice for Thursday’s annual left-right match-up, a friendly Democratic-Republican rivalry for charity in a capital otherwise poisonous in its partisanship.
Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks had bicycled nine miles to make the 6:30 a.m. start. More than 20 Republican members from the House and Senate showed up.
The baseball park, home to the T.C. Williams High School Titans, sits in a lively part of Alexandria. On weekdays, locals head off to work and school. People come and go at the nearby YMCA. Homeowners stroll the sidewalks, walking their dogs.
So it hardly seemed unusual when a man approached Rep. Jeff Duncan, of South Carolina, in the baseball field parking lot.
His question was pointed: “‘Excuse me sir, who’s practicing today? Democrats or Republicans?’” Duncan recalled. “And I said it’s the Republican team. He said, ‘OK, thanks’ and turned around.” Duncan then left, saying later, “It was the guy they’ve identified as the shooter.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, of New Mexico, was taking swings in the batting cage along the first base side when he noticed a bystander near the third base dugout. Within seconds, as Pearce left the batting cage and headed toward the dugout, the shooting started. “I saw the shooter clearly with his rifle, aimed and shooting around one corner of a building,” he said in a video statement.
Chaos ensued. Lawmakers dove for cover. Gravel bounced as shots hit the ground.
From inside Swing’s coffee shop directly across from the field, manager Jon “Scott” Mosel described the popping of gunfire: “Then a wave of players frantically running. It was absolutely frantic. We didn’t know if they were being chased.” The players ran from the first base side of the field across a basketball court and either jumped a fence into a nearby dog park or ran up the hill and crossed the street toward the coffee shop, he said.
Brooks hit the ground with a few others behind the batting cage, but quickly realized that didn’t provide much cover. The gunman wasn’t spraying bullets but rather taking aim, so there was a “little bit of time between shots.”
Rep. Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, the third-ranking Republican in the House, was fielding balls on second base when a gunshot crumpled him, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said. The 51-year-old Scalise, serving his fifth congressional term, dragged himself 10 to 15 yards into the outfield to try to get away, Flake said, leaving a bloody trail.
Marty LaVor, a retired Capitol Hill worker, was taking pictures by first base when he saw a man holding a rifle behind a chain-link fence by third base. LaVor saw Scalise go down, then a Capitol police officer.
“Almost within an instant, and I don’t remember the time, somebody said ‘Get in the dugout.’ And they said it with such authority. You remember when you were a kid, and your parents said something? This was that sound,” he said.
LaVor got in the dugout.
The 911 call went out at 7:09 a.m. To those in the line of fire, it seemed an eternity before city police arrived, but in reality it took just three minutes. Brooks said the Capitol officers were armed only with pistols, and “taking on a guy with a rifle from 90-120 feet away. It wasn’t a fair fight.”
Three officers from the Capitol Hill force were on the scene, two of them assigned to Scalise because of his position in House leadership. If not for that small security detail, lawmakers might have been protected by just one Capitol officer, perhaps watching from a car some distance away, until local forces arrived.
When Capitol police began firing, Brooks said, they were so close that he initially feared a second shooter was involved. Congress members helped apply a tourniquet to the injured leg of Zachary Barth, legislative correspondent for Rep. Roger Williams, of Texas, as the shooting continued. Scalise, too, was attended to by his colleagues on the field.
Katie Filous, an attorney who was walking her dogs near the field, dropped to the ground when she heard “a lot of shots.” A uniformed officer got out of a car, drew a handgun and shouted something to the assailant, she said. She saw the officer get hit with a bullet, and later evacuated by helicopter.
Three hours after the attack, Brooks still wore a batting glove, with dirt from lying face first in the dugout still smeared across his navy blue T-shirt, as he and other lawmakers at the scene described the attack to the AP.
Falisa Peoples, who teaches an exercise class at the YMCA, was walking to her car when she saw a man in shorts and a T-shirt firing. She thought, at first, it was a drill or a paintball game.
“He was very calm,” she said. “He was just walking and shooting as if it was just like he was practicing.” She recalled no other noise until she heard a police officer command, “Get down!” Peoples dropped her belongings and ran back to the Y, banging on the side door until someone let her in.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, of Tennessee, passed the shooter on his way into the dugout to hide. “He decided not to shoot me,” he would later tell CNN. “The fear factor was horrific. There was blood all over, it was horrible.” He said if the gunman had come after them in the dugout, “we would have been sitting ducks.”
It was over in a matter of minutes. At least 70 shots could be heard in a video. Members of Congress credited the Capitol police officers with shooting the gunman, though authorities did not immediately confirm who shot him. He died in the hospital.
Scalise underwent surgery for a wound to the hip, and was in critical condition. Matt Mika, the lobbyist and a former congressional aide, was also in critical condition, with multiple wounds. Special Agents David Bailey and Crystal Griner of the U.S. Capitol Police, as well as Barth, were expected to recover fully.
The attacker was identified as James T. Hodgkinson, of Illinois. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said on the Senate floor that Hodgkinson apparently was a volunteer for his campaign last year. Police are investigating the attacker’s motive, his associates and his social media posts.
Hours later, surrounded by crime scene tape, the field was still set for batting practice. A mobile backstop curved behind home plate, near metal bats. A crate full of baseballs sat near the pitcher’s mound, and balls were scattered on the field among medical bags and supplies. Behind first base, next to a large medical bag, sat a single baseball shoe.
Off the field on the first base side, a medical gurney.
Associated Press writers Chad Day, Matthew Barakat, Kevin Freking, Michael Biesecker, Ben Finley and Erica Werner contributed to this report.