Giffords' Staffers: 'The Office Is Open'

January 14, 2011

Richard Gonzales

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Since last Saturday's shooting in Tucson, Ariz., Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' district office has become a mecca for mourners and well-wishers, and it has remained open despite her absence.

On Friday, there was a welcome surprise as Pam Simon -- one of the staffers injured in the shooting -- returned to the office for the first time. Simon, who suffered gunshot wounds to her wrist and chest, walked into a sea of happy faces and open arms.

"I happened to get hit by bullets, but all of you, especially those that were there, you got wounded too," she told her colleagues.

Simon's arrival is the most visible sign that Giffords' staffers can perhaps begin their own healing. Since Monday, they have hosted a stream of constituents, friends and volunteers offering condolences and long hugs.

"Well, this is a fraction of the type of stuff that has been happening here," says C.J. Karamargin, Giffords' communications director. "People have been coming by from all over the place."

Karamargin says staff members were still reeling from the initial shock of the shooting when they decided that opening the office on Monday morning as usual would send an important message. "No act of depravity would be enough to close down this small little outpost of our government," he says. "The office is open, our government is open, our democracy is open and that hasn't changed."

So the basic work of a congressional district office goes on, helping Giffords' constituents with their problems, such as immigration, foreclosures and Medicaid denials.

Sara Hummel Rajca handles immigration and veterans affairs for Giffords. She's also the staff photographer, so she was at the congresswoman's side when the alleged gunman started shooting. Rajca managed to find cover.

"Not that I'm trying to repress anything, but working through this by keeping the office open is what Gabrielle Giffords and Gabe Zimmerman both would have done," she says.

The news that Giffords is recovering helps keep the staff strong, Rajca says. But the death of 30-year-old fellow staffer Zimmerman still seems unreal to her.

"Tomorrow I want to walk in, go sit down at my desk and say hi to Gabe as he drinks his Dr Pepper as he comes in and chat about the weekend and, you know, have things be like they were last Friday," she says. "But it's not that way and time doesn't stop and we'll just keep going forward."

Somewhere between the feelings of denial and acceptance, there are moments when the gravity of the week is inescapable.

Zimmerman was a social worker before he became a congressional staffer. Earlier this week, he was honored at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., when House Speaker John Boehner ordered the flags flown at half-mast.

Karamargin's eyes well up as he talks about his friend.

"When I turned on the TV and heard that, I broke down," he says. "He said 'Gabe Zimmerman died in the line of duty.' Soldiers die in the line of duty. Firemen die in the line of duty, police officers. First responders die in the line of duty. When do social workers die in the line of duty? It's just, this is tragic."

As for his own mourning, Karamargin says he really hasn't had time for it yet.

Back outside the office, there's a memorial of countless candles, flowers and dozens of placards with poems and prayers. Carmen Mayer, a semi-retired accountant, reads one that brings a smile to her worried face.

"And love will hold us together, make us a shelter to weather the storm," she reads. "That's what's gonna happen. It's gonna take a while. A long time."

Giffords' staffers will collect the placards and the many boxes stuffed with handwritten notes and letters of sorrow and grief. They plan to collate them in the hope that the congresswoman will, one day, be able to read them. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.