Medical technician Michelle Harper (Sketch by Pat Lopez)
FORT HOOD (October 13, 2010)—Witnesses remembered the chaos, confusion, fear and blood Wednesday in the first day of testimony in a hearing that will determine whether Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan, 40, stands trial for the deadly Nov. 5, 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood's Soldier Readiness Center.
Hasan is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the worst mass shooting at an American military base.
If tried and convicted, he could be sentenced to death.
Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, now based at Fort Bragg, N.C., who survived the rampage, was the first witness to testify Wednesday.
He said the gunman, whom he identified as Hasan, “yelled 'Allāhu Akbar' before he reached under his blouse pulled out his weapons, and started firing.”
Lunsford was shot five times and took a shot to the head during the rampage at the post’s Soldier Readiness Center that left 13 dead and 32 injured.
He lost most of his eyesight because of his injuries.
He testified that Mike Cahill, 62, of Cameron, who was among the 13 people killed, came out of his office after the shooting started, holding a chair over his head.
He testified that as Cahill attempted to hit Hasan with the chair, Hasan shot him.
Michelle Harper, a civilian employee, who drew blood from soldiers at the processing center, testified Wednesday that she had just returned from lunch and was talking to a friend when the shooting started.
“All of a sudden I heard something that sounded like firecrackers,” she said.
She said she went to see what was happening and encountered smoke and people yelling to get down.
She said she hid behind a desk until the shooting subsided and then came out.
When she did, she said heard another gunshot and saw a soldier who was standing nearby fall to the floor.
She got back under the desk as the gunfire resumed, but said she never saw the gunman fire.
She said she could only see his slow, deliberate footsteps around the building.
When the shooting subsided again, she said she got up and ran for the back door and into the parking lot to try to get to her car.
As she ran, she saw Hasan exchanging fire with two Fort Hood police officers and saw one of them fall to the ground.
Then, she said, “I got into my car and hit reverse and drove away through grass and a ditch and between two barracks.”
She was on the phone with a 911 operator almost the entire time and as a recording of the call was played back Wednesday she was in tears with her head downcast.
On the recording, crying, moaning and gunfire were clearly audible.
Harper is heard telling the dispatcher: "Hurry, hurry, hurry please."
The dispatcher tried to reassure her, saying: "They're on the way, sweetheart."
Col. James L. Pohl, the military judge presiding over the hearing as its investigating officer, ordered the playback stopped and asked whether Harper needed to remain the courtroom as the recording was played.
Latoya Denise Williams, a data entry clerk at the center, also said she heard what sounded like firecrackers.
She testified that someone called “Attention,” and seconds later she heard a “pop, pop, pop.”
“I was like, ‘is this a drill, it's pretty elaborate if it is’,” she recalled, but she quickly realized it wasn’t as she turned, saw smoke and then ran in search of somewhere to hide.
She turned and saw smoke, and then ran for somewhere to hide or take cover.
She said she threw herself to the floor at the end of a cubicle around which several soldiers also crowded.
Asked what she did then, she said simply, “Prayed”
She and the soldiers with whom she took cover eventually made a run for the door.
Pvt. Amber Marie Gatling, who testified after a lunch break, said she didn’t realize she had been shot until after she accompanied two other wounded soldiers to an emergency room and felt a sharp pain in her back when she sat down.
She said she asked an NCO to look at her back and asked him if she had cut herself or something when she was getting into the truck in which she and her friends were taken to the ER.
He told her that she had been shot.
“It was absolute chaos,” she said of the scene in the center.
“There were people trying to hide behind barriers, and lifting up chairs, and just trying to hide themselves from the gunshots,” she said.
Spc. Matthew Cooke was sitting in a chair waiting for another soldier to finish processing when the gunman walked in.
“I heard ‘Allah’ and then I heard the shooting sir,” he said.
“I panicked, I basically thought it was a training exercise,” he said.
He said he didn’t realize until he was out of the center and in a truck that he had been shot, and not until after he woke up in the hospital did he realize he had been shot not once, but four times.
He said he passed out when the truck carrying him and other injured soldiers arrived at the emergency room.
PFC George Oliver Stratton was at the center to make sure his immunizations were up to date for his upcoming deployment and was sitting in a chair waiting for another soldier when the shooting started.
“As I was waiting for Pvt. Avelez, all of the sudden my ears started ringing there was loud gunfire, right in my ears,” he testified.
He said as he made his way with other soldiers to the door he turned around and locked eyes with the gunman, whom he identified as Hasan.
He said as Hasan brought his weapon around to fire, he dropped to the floor and tried to get as close to the ground as he could.
He said he felt something in the back of his left shoulder, and then he couldn't move his left arm.
At that point, he said, he began crawling as fast as he could.
He said when he got outside he saw a trail of blood leading around the corner of the building and followed it to a soldier who was lying on his back, with no vital signs.
Albert Bernard Howard was a staff sergeant at the time of the rampage and was at the center to ensure soldiers completed their processing.
He said he was sitting with other soldiers at the check-in station when Hasan walked in.
“Hasan walked through, we didn't pay any attention, he just had a uniform on,” Howard testified.
Then he said he heard yelling and gunfire, but thought it was just a drill until a shell casing landed on the desk in front of him.
He looked back over his shoulder, and locked eyes with Hasan, and that's when Hasan shot him, he said.
After he was shot, he fell to the floor and crawled to the front door.
He remembers going in and out of consciousness and finally waking up in the hospital.
Spc. James Armstrong, a mental health specialist, was a PFC at the time of the rampage and was at the center for medical processing.
He said he was eating lunch and speaking with a captain when he heard “Allāhu Akbar” and saw Hasan with a weapon.
He said he fell to the floor and then noticed that he had a hole in his pants and realized he had been shot.
“The rate of gunfire was as fast as someone can pull a trigger,” he said.
He saw Hasan changing magazines, which he said was “a very fast reload.”
He said he saw someone throw a chair at the gunman, but couldn't tell whom.
When he heard firing outside the rear of the building, he said he tried to get up to run outside but fell.
He said he limped out, using the wall for support.
He called 911 and his wife to let her know he was injured.
He had been shot above the kneecap and in the back.
“There was blood everywhere, he said, “pools of blood on the floor.”
As the hearing resumed Wednesday, Pohl made no mention of the request the defense submitted Tuesday to delay to the proceeding until Nov. 8.
The hearing was recessed Tuesday after the defense sought the delay.
Before the recess Tuesday morning, a military officer denied a defense request to close the hearing.
Dozens of witnesses are expected to provide eyewitness accounts of the terrifying attack over the next few weeks.