Mass shootings often take on an identity, a characteristic shared by the victims or the scene that gives an increasingly commonplace horror something singular by which it can be remembered—nightclub partiers, gap-toothed schoolchildren, perplexed moviegoers.
So it was on Wednesday at a baseball field in the heart of Alexandria, where an unusual group of Type A personalities had gathered for an hour or so of early morning practice before they headed to their day jobs on Capitol Hill. What happened in the five harrowing minutes after a bitter 66-year-old from Illinois trained his rifle on nearly two dozen congressmen, staffers, lobbyists, security detail, family members and bystanders scattered around the diamond was not the worst shooting in recent American history. Though five people were injured—two critically, including a member of Republican House leadership—no one except the gunman died. But in an exceedingly partisan moment, scarred by withering political rhetoric and violent protest, an apparently targeted attack on a group of Republicans by someone who had posted profane rants against President Donald Trump couldn’t help but become a terrible symbol of a divided country.
But while the shooting mercifully set no records for deaths or injuries, it had the effect of turning a number of men—accustomed to being in charge, accustomed to political combat, accustomed to making decisions that affect millions—into average citizens with an average citizen’s control over daily life. Thirteen of those men—11 representatives, one senator (and one devoted, 81-year-old freelance photographer)—shared their experiences in uncommon detail with Politico. Used to speaking in public, some of them even veterans of actual combat, they spoke with candor and bracing detail, and the kind of emotion that grabs you when the adrenaline has subsided. For once, they were speaking about something they had lived through, not just an act of random violence, from some faraway corner of the country about which someone demanded they comment.
‘It was kind of festive’
Rep. John Moolenaar: We started practice about 6:15. And we kind of warm up and take some outfield practice.
Rep. Jeff Duncan: Alexandria is coming alive, and people are exercising and that’s what they do. It’s not uncommon for us to have interactions with citizens who look in the fence and watch us practice a little.
Rep. Bill Johnson: A lot of joviality. A lot of “We’re going to win.” A lot of energy out on the field. Everybody trying to put forth their best effort. And so it was kind of festive.
Johnson: The last thing I did before I walked off the field and grabbed my bag was to fist-bump Steve Scalise. He was standing over there by home plate getting ready to take his round of batting practice. And as he always does: “See you later.” And the last person I spoke to was Matt Mika. As I was walking out of the gate, he was walking in. He said, “You’re leaving early, Mr. Johnson, you must have an early morning meeting.” I said, “Yeah, I do, I’ve got to cut out a little early.”
Duncan: Ron [DeSantis] plays third base, I play shortstop. We were on the field and we had already taken batting practice, already shagged a lot of balls in the infield, and he said, “When do you wanna leave?” I said, “I can leave now, I’ve already practiced enough. And I can get back to the Hill and make an early meeting.” And he said, “Let’s go.” I said, “Well, let’s let Mike Conaway—Chairman Conaway—was in the batter’s box,” I said, “Let’s let him finish his at-bat and then we’ll leave.” So Conaway finished, they started gathering balls up. DeSantis and I walked off the field. I actually fist-bumped Scalise on my way off the field. And then we get to the parking lot. DeSantis is already in the car. I’m getting in when this guy approaches.
Bergman: We were almost four, five minutes to the end of our practice and kind of winding down. I was standing next to the batting cage next to home plate. It was my turn to hit next.
Duncan: Someone in the parking lot asked me if the team practicing was a Democrat or Republican team. I told him they were Republicans. He said, “OK, thanks,” and turned around. I got in the car and left. That was at 7:02. And the reason I know that is I got in the car and commented about what time it was, knowing how long it was going to take us to get back to the Capitol. One minute, one way or the other, makes a lot of difference in traveling back to the Hill. So I know it was exactly 7:02.
‘As I was running, a round hit to my left’
Marty LaVor: I was standing in front of the first base, probably about 10, 20 feet towards home plate. And I was only watching the right hand batters. I happened to turn and look toward third base. I see this guy, and he wasn’t looking at anybody, but I saw the rifle, and it’s pointing skyward. And so my thought was, ‘Why would anybody be out at 6 o’clock in the morning with a rifle to shoot birds?’
Moolenaar: I went over to the batting cages where we have a machine pitch, and I was going to work out some of my hitting—and it was there where we heard the first shot.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk: Right after I put on my helmet, I heard a crack. I knew it was a gunshot, but it’s so out of place, you’re trying to process it. That was to my left over by third base. Instinctively I just looked over to the Capitol Police detail, Scalise’s detail. They’re always there.
Moolenaar: When the first shot rang out, it really sounded like an explosion. It sounded like a gunshot, but all of us were thinking at 7:15 in the morning, in this pastoral setting, where people of the community could watch us practice and ask questions—we just weren’t thinking about gunfire.
Fleischmann: I heard a large bang … I didn’t think anything of it, so I didn’t do anything. I didn’t realize it was a gunshot.
Rep. Mo Brooks: I was on deck about to hit batting practice, on the third base side of home plate, and I hear a loud “bam.” And I look around and behind third base … I see a rifle.
Rep. Gary Palmer: Trent Kelly was at third and [Rodney] Davis was batting and we heard a shot. … I yelled to Trent “That was a gunshot.” Trent yelled, “I know,” turned and said “He’s got a gun. Run!”
Bergman: I remember hearing somebody say something like, “Shooter!”
Rep. Joe Barton: I was by the first base dugout on the on-deck circle, so I looked down there, and I yelled at Brad, my oldest son, “Just get Jack, and get down.” And they both did.
Brooks: And I see a little bit of a body and then I hear another “blam,” and I realize that there’s an active shooter. At the same time, I hear Steve Scalise over near second base scream.
Palmer: When I heard the shot, I knew, especially the next couple of shots. I knew pretty well he had some type of semi-automatic weapon.
Rep. Mike Conaway: There was a delay. The second gunshot went off. People started running off the field.
Palmer: If he had wanted to, Trent and I could have been his first two victims. We were stationary targets. The staffer on the mound, pitching—Wes, I think he works for Sen. Strange—I mean he was standing on the mound. We were all literally yards from the guy.
Fleischmann: An intense fear grips me that I’m literally a sitting duck. I didn’t see the shooter … I had no idea other than the shot had come from the direction behind me, the first one. And so I made the conscious decision then to get up and try to run to the first base dugout.
Palmer: As we were moving to find cover, two more shots were fired. One hit Scalise. I saw Scalise get hit and go down. I knew he was hit low. Didn’t know if he was hit in the leg or hip.
Fleischmann: I got up and all I could think was, “I’m going to run and either he’s going to shoot me in the back and shoot me down, or I’m going to make it to the dugout.” … But when I got in there, I got hurt. I hurt my hands, my elbows. I landed on the concrete. I hit my side. I thought I had broken ribs.
Brooks: I ran around to the first base side of home plate. We have a batting cage that’s got plastic wrapped around it to stop foul balls. And hid behind the plastic. You know that plastic’s not real good, and I was lying on the ground with two or three others as gunfire continued … and there were probably 10, 20, 30 shots fired while two or three of us are lying on the ground seeking cover behind the batting cage.
Moolenaar: Our batting cage, you could hear bullets hitting the metal fence, you could hear the thuds of bullets landing.
Bergman: I went into Marine mode very quickly and literally got into a low crawl and headed toward the back side of the first base dugout. The only safe place was behind it.
Loudermilk: I ran toward the gate to get out of the field. I just wanted to get something between me and the shooter. I couldn’t see him. I knew he was to the left. As I was running off the field a round hit to my left on the ground, and a round hit the fence. So I knew he was targeting us.
Bergman: I was thinking: “I’m in danger. Somebody’s trying to kill me. Somebody’s shooting at me.” The worst fear for a Marine is to be in a gunfight without a gun. At that point, I’m not thinking about my family, I’m thinking about survival. You can’t protect others if you haven’t protected yourself first.
Palmer: We got to the gate—there was only one gate open in the entire field, on the first base side. We got through that and took cover behind a large oak tree.
Loudermilk: I got around the side of the shed. Some of the guys were able to get out of the dugout, some others came over and got behind the shed with us. They stayed there for a little bit. There was a break in the shooting so they ran behind a bathroom, it was a concrete building. There was probably nine or 10 of us around that little shed. Two of us stayed behind because when I got to the shed, I saw Matt Mika laying about 10 feet in front of us. He was already shot, he was lying there.
Conaway: I went over behind the first base dugout, tried to find out where the shooter was. Scalise was down in the outfield. One of the staffers—or lobbyist, he’s down behind a car, he’s been shot in the chest.
Loudermilk: I immediately ran up to where Matt [Mika] was and the gunfire drove us back. And so, I was able to talk to him. He was about 10 feet away. Every time we tried to reach him it would drive us back.
Palmer: Scalise dragged himself off the infield dirt into the outfield grass, about 10 yards. I was yelling at him to stay down.
Loudermilk: Several other shots hit around us. We could see ’em. We could hear them. You could hear ‘em go over your head. One hit the shed we were behind about two feet over my head. So we stayed put, there were fewer targets around us by now because most everyone had been able to get out of there, get out of the area. Some went in apartment buildings across the street.
Moolenaar: There was a woodshed, that wasn’t really a very good barrier. It was very thin wood, and thinking perhaps the vehicles would be a better barrier. But what we realized was the shots were shooting out windows on these vehicles, so I was right behind a vehicle that had been shot out. Miraculously, someone in an apartment right there invited three of us to come inside the apartment.
Bergman: The direction I was going, Scalise would’ve been to my back … Once I got behind the dugout, I had no view of the field.
Brooks: I heard a break in the gunfire and decided to take a chance. Ran from home plate to the first base dugout, which is also cinder block and down two or three feet, so you can get better cover. There were a number of congressmen and congressional staffers, lying on the ground. One of them was wounded in the leg. I took off my belt and myself and another congressman, I don’t remember who, applied a tourniquet to try to slow down the bleeding.
Rep. Roger Williams: They’re real dugouts, they’re about six feet in the ground. And they’re concrete. I just dove into there head first … like diving in a swimming pool with no water.
LaVor: I heard that sound and I turned and there were other people, other members and staff, running for the dugout. And I was running in back of a congressman who I literally don’t know who it was. And we got to the end of the dugout. He dove in, and I dove in on top of him. I would have been severely injured if I had done the same dive because of the concrete floor. Jumping on a congressman’s back apparently was a little softer.
‘There was blood all over the dugout.’
Williams: I don’t know how long I was there, but all of a sudden, at the top came running in was Zack Barth, who works for me. He dove in and yelled “I’m shot.” And I don’t know, I’ve got to figure this out in my head how God made this work, but he came to me. I mean all of these people—we got together and I held him as Mo Brooks ripped his belt off and Flake and I put a tourniquet on his leg to keep his leg from losing more blood. And then we all just stayed down, yelling at everybody, “Keep your head down,” yelling at Scalise not to move.
Fleischmann: There was blood all over the dugout. Some of that because there was one gentleman there who had been shot in the leg. And other of it was because of people who had jumped in there like me got bloodied up and hurt hitting the concrete.
Williams: In this dugout there were probably 10 of us. But there were generations in the dugout. You had somebody like me, some of the older guys, say the 60-70ish group. And then you had a 10-year old in there, Joe Barton’s son was in there … and there I was with Zack, who works for me, who’s 23, we’re holding each other.
Bergman: Joe Barton was [in the dugout]. I know for sure because his son, Jack, was outside the fence underneath the Suburban. I’m yelling at Jack Barton, Joe’s son, to stay under the truck. As a 10-year-old he was popping his head out, wondering what the hell was going on. “Stay under the truck!” He’d look out. … I’m used to leading Marines, and in that situation, if you have to tell someone to sit down or duck and they turn around and ask why, they’re dead.
Williams: So Zack [Barth] is shot, he’s bleeding, we’re trying to tie a tourniquet up [for] him, telling him “Keep your head down,” and he’s texting his mother that we’re under attack and he’s doing fine. To me, that’s got some bravery to it.
Bergman: I saw the Capitol Police move toward the gunman. Joe [Barton] and I both hustled, we grabbed Jack [Barton]. We both flew into the dugout. Because now, best scenario, the end of the dugout, the home base side of the dugout was keeping us out of the line [of fire].
Barton: By the time I got into the dugout, I couldn’t see [Jack]. And I said ‘Where’s Jack?’ They had put him under the bench, and then two members had placed themselves in front of him so had the gunman got to the dugout, he wouldn’t have got shot.
Fleischmann: So while we were in the dugout, I kept saying to myself, “Please, please, somebody take this shooter out. Somebody subdue him because he’s continuing to shoot people.”
Brooks: We had people in the first base dugout who were screaming into their telephone that we were under attack and to send help immediately. And I think that’s because of our concern that our security detail may be outgunned.
Fleischmann: While I was in the dugout, I called my chief of staff Jim Hippie. And I remember being so visibly upset, saying, “We’re under attack, please call for help, I’m in a dugout, there’s an active shooter.”
LaVor: Now, once I was in the dugout, I clearly heard the pop, pop, pop, pop. I assume it was eight bullets. And it stopped. Well, because I’m not a rifle shooter, you know, I thought he was finished. And so I started to stand up and look around. A staffer who was in the dugout in front of me, screamed, ‘Get down and get next to the wall.’ Well, he saved my life, because a bullet came past the spot where I would have been looking out, hit the cinder block in the back of the dugout, took out a chunk of cinder block. From that point on, until it was over, I just stared at the dirt on the floor, and I talked to God.
‘There was a different sound to their pistols’
Brooks: In the meantime, I’m towards the right-field side of the dugout and there’s gunfire within about five or six, seven feet of my head. And I look up and there’s 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 shooter’s rifle along the third baseline just outside the chain link fence, and he was ordering us to stay down.
Moolenaar: You could tell there was a different sound to their [pistols] as opposed to the rifle that the shooter was using.
Conaway: The shooter is actively shooting. Two Capitol Hill police guys are returning fire. They’re trying to find the guy, I’m trying to point the guy out to him. [Shot] ricochets around, goes through a tire, ricochets around, hits a Capitol Hill policewoman in the ankle, so she’s down.
LaVor: Once the Capitol Police became engaged, it was like Fourth of July, where you see everything go off in the last burst. Bing, bing, bing, and it’s all over the sky, and it’s very loud. You could hear the different kinds of sounds but it was non-stop.
Palmer: The gunman moved from the third base side around toward home plate, firing at people, then moved on around to first base side where Capitol police officers continued to engage him. Special Agent [Crystal] Griner was hit in the left leg. I saw her go down with a bullet wound, and she pulled herself, she was lying beside their SUV. She pulled herself into a firing position and continued to engage the shooter.
Loudermilk: The second officer went out and drew fire. He got wounded too. I think it was shrapnel. At that point, I backed off and went behind an oak tree. It was about five feet behind me where I could get a better vantage point. Then I saw the gunman come out carrying a handgun—apparently he’d run out of ammo. He pointed at the officer and [the officer] told him, “Drop the gun, drop the gun.” He took a couple shots at the officer.
Barton: I finally saw one of the security officers rush the shooter with his pistols drawn and said, “Drop the pistol, drop the pistol, put the pistol down,” and when he didn’t do that, I think this is the officer who shot the attacker.
Conaway: About that time the Alexandria police engage, so between them and our one remaining Capitol Hill policeman, the guy is down to his handgun, the guy has dropped his rifle, they shoot him, he goes down. I go over there. They put him in handcuffs.
Fleischmann: The shooter had been subdued and they said it’s OK to get up. I got up, I was bleeding, other people were bleeding. And I remember looking right out toward second base and Steve Scalise was lying there, out in the field. And he was being attended to by that time.
‘Can you call his wife?’
Bergman: After the shooter was down, I headed directly out to the field. Dr. [Brad] Wenstrup was there, Flake was there, Congressman Palmer was there as well. I checked on the rest of the wounded, on Matt Mika. I moved over to within about 20 feet of where the shooter was down.
Palmer: I don’t remember if Brad [Wenstrup] was first out there but he was a doctor. When I got out there, I think it was Mike Conaway and Chuck Fleischmann and a couple other members. Barry Loudermilk got an emergency kit out of the SUV and brought it out. Brad was trying to press on the wound and create a tourniquet. I was digging in the kit trying to find bandages or gauze or whatever we could come up with to stop the bleeding. Brad was fabulous in terms of keeping Steve alert and getting him to drink. Steve was alert.
Loudermilk: I knelt down. [Mika] was still conscious. I put my hand on his head and I prayed for him. And then I asked the officer if she was hit. She was, in the ankle. And I went and got the medkit out of the back of the car. By the time I got the medkit, EMTs were already at Matt. So I took the med kit out to Brad Wenstrup.
Sen. Jeff Flake: As soon as the shooting stopped, that’s when I ran out to Steve, and we applied pressure to the wound to try to keep the bleeding down until the medics arrived. As soon as that occurred, I went to the dugout to get my phone. But one of the staff members grabbed Steve Scalise’s phone and handed it to me and said, “Can you call his wife?” and that’s what I did first.
Palmer: With Steve, when we got out there and were able to get his pants down and see where the wound was, I knew we would have a hard time getting a tourniquet. But while we were waiting, Wenstrup fashioned a tourniquet out of Steve’s belt. Just to increase pressure on the bandages we were applying to the wound. Then the EMT got there and they had a tourniquet that’s for mid-body pressure.
Bergman: I saw [the shooter] down, laying on his right side. A man in his early 50s, stocky build, slightly graying hair. I took a quick look at his face. What I was looking for first was: Did the officers have him safely down so he could not get up and do anything else? I didn’t see any laborious breathing. He was being securely held down. It was a quick call: Was he a threat or was he not?
Palmer: Special Agent Bailey, we sat him down to get a look at him, and he wouldn’t leave Steve’s side. He just kept saying he wouldn’t leave him.
Bergman: [Matt Mika] was right next to the vehicle, he was laying on his back. The paramedics on site were just literally taking his knife and cutting his T-shirt. I got a chance to see the exit wound on the front of his chest. I just kind of looked him in the eye, touched his knee for a couple of seconds, probably said something to him.
Barton: I did call 911, I also called the Capitol Hill police on my cell phone, and as soon as it was apparently safe to get up I checked on everybody who was down and then made a phone call to try to get the Speaker [Paul Ryan] on the phone and let him know what was going on.
Palmer: I didn’t really feel anything until a couple of hours later. It kind of hits you once you’ve had time to think about it. And that’s not bravado, I just think that’s what happens to you in the moment.
LaVor: When my wife finally picked me up, she said, ‘Well, what was happening in your mind? You know, were you pleading with God and everything else?’ And I said, ‘It was the calmest I have ever been in my life.’ I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t frightened, I was lying down looking at the dirt and talking to God. And I said, at one point, ‘If it is my time to go, I am ready.’ That’s not the way I normally think or talk, although I’m very religious, I’m a churchgoer, I don’t miss. But this was beyond anything I had ever experienced in my life, and I still can’t explain it two days later.