WASHINGTON — In his first interview since being critically wounded in an ambush shooting in June, Congressman Steve Scalise shared harrowing details of an ordeal that nearly cost him his life, but described his passion for politics as undiminished.
Scalise, R-Jefferson, speaking with Norah O’Donnell of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” recalled trying to crawl away from the gunman’s withering rifle fire after being shot at a charity baseball practice for congressional Republicans on June 14. His arm gave out, leaving him lying on the field.
“At that point I just went into prayer and it — it gave me a calmness,” Scalise said in the interview, wearing a bright blue jacket and holding the hand of his wife, Jennifer. “It was a weird calmness while I'm hearing the gunfire. You know the first thing that came to mind? I prayed, ‘God, please don't let my daughter have to walk up the aisle alone.’ That was the first thing that came to mind.”
As gunfire continued to crack across the suburban Washington baseball diamond, Scalise said, he heard the Republican ball team’s first baseman, Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, whispering toward Scalise to try to calm him.
“I just kept remember (Conaway) whispering, you know, ‘Stevie, don't worry. We're going to get ya, we're going to get ya.’ And he just kept whispering and it was — it was really calming. I could just sense that the other members were in the dugout waiting.”
Meanwhile, a pair of Capitol Police officers assigned to Scalise’s security detail — Crystal Griner and David Bailey — began returning fire, despite being wounded themselves. Three more officers from the Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department also took on the shooter, 66-year-old James Hodgkinson, of Belleville, Illinois, killing him. Scalise said he never saw the gunman.
Two others in addition to Scalise, Griner and Bailey were hurt in the shooting but none besides Hodgkinson, the shooter, died. In the “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday evening, Scalise described that as a “miracle.”
“If you look at what happened that morning, you know, a gunman came out with a lot of artillery … just hell bent on killing a lot of us,” Scalise said. “And we're just out there playing baseball — sitting ducks. And he started firing away. If you would have said at the end of this, the only person that would be dead would be the shooter, nobody would believe it.”
Hodgkinson had railed against conservative Republicans in numerous online postings and carried a list naming six Republican members of Congress in his pocket on the day of the attack, according to the FBI. Scalise’s name was not on the list.
“I think it was clear he had a political agenda, if you want to even call it that,” Scalise said, “and it's a sick twisted agenda. I don't think he could have been in the right frame of mind. But it was clear what his intentions were.”
U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, told “60 Minutes” about standing near the dugout of the same Virginia baseball diamond where the attack happened, rushing toward Scalise as soon as the gunman hit the ground. Wenstrup, a physician and Iraq War veteran, fashioned a tourniquet for Scalise out of a belt and tried to staunch the severe bleeding as they waited for a helicopter to fly Scalise to a Washington hospital.
“I was very worried actually,” Wenstrup said. “It reminded me of a case in Iraq where it — it didn't have a good ending.”
“You know, the only time I really started to worry was when they were getting ready to put me on the helicopter,” Scalise said, “and to me it seemed like forever. And I know it was probably just minutes. But I think I told some of the paramedics, ‘Don't let me bleed out on this field.’”
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Dr. Jack Sava, leader of the trauma surgery team at Washington MedStar Hospital Center, where Scalise landed after a short helicopter flight, said nobody there could detect any blood pressure from Scalise when he first arrived and needed massive blood transfusions. The congressman, Sava said, was “hovering on the border between life and death.”
Scalise told CBS much of his body went numb in the minutes after he was shot. Only later did he learn just how severely he’d been wounded by the rifle round, which caused massive internal injuries and left doctors fearing for Scalise’s life.
“My femur was shattered. The hip and pelvis had serious damage where the bullet went through and, you know, did some damage to areas that had to be shored up with steel plates,” Scalise said.
O’Donnell, the CBS reporter, said Scalise lost about 50 pounds during long weeks in the hospital, including more than 20 days in intensive care.
The “60 Minutes” segment included footage of Scalise going through exercises with a physical therapist. When Scalise returned to the U.S House of Representatives on Thursday for the first time since being shot — to cast a vote and deliver an emotional address to a room packed with colleagues and well-wishers — he walked slowly under his own power, using two crutches to steady himself.
Scalise said his muscles have severely deteriorated, requiring hours of exercises to rebuild them. The congressman described the experience as like “learning to walk again.” Jennifer Scalise said seeing her husband walking on his own “was just a huge sigh of relief that he can do this.”
Doctors have given Scalise hope he may be able to walk without crutches and potentially even run, he said.
But Scalise is already back to work following his triumphant return to the U.S. Capitol. He’s shifted to outpatient physical rehabilitation classes as he picks up his work as the Republican majority whip in the House of Representatives.
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Scalise cracked jokes and laughed frequently in the “60 Minutes” interview, at one point comparing his numerous surgeries over the past three months to putting Humpty Dumpty together again. His apparently buoyant mood backed up his assertion in his return address to Congress last week that his “joie de vivre” and south Louisiana-borne love of good times remain undiminished.
As he worked his way back onto the House floor last week, Scalise fist-bumped, hugged and high-fived colleagues from both sides of the aisle. He pumped a triumphant fist and blew kisses while flashing a wide grin throughout the appearance.
In the “60 Minutes” interview, Scalise laughed when asked if his love of politics or baseball have changed.
“Not a bit,” Scalise said “I love the job I have as a member of Congress representing southeast Louisiana. And I love being the House majority whip.”