Witnesses at Hasan hearing recall Fort Hood shootings
October 13, 2010
FORT HOOD, Texas — The popping of rapid gunfire, groans of the wounded and terrified pleas for help could be heard on a harrowing 911 call played in court Wednesday during the first day of testimony in the pretrial Article 32 hearing for the Army psychiatrist accused of perpetrating last year’s massacre here.
The prosecution called its first eight witnesses to prove it had enough evidence to bring Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan to trial on 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder for the events of Nov. 5, 2009.
With Hasan watching passively from the wheelchair to which he has been confined since being paralyzed by the police bullets that ended the attack, medical technician Michelle Harper, a civilian who worked at the Army base’s Soldier Readiness Processing Center, described how she dove under a desk and called 911 when the shooting started.
Harper testified in a soft, timid voice that could hardly be heard; the lawyers repeatedly asked her to speak up. She was shaky on the stand from the start, her voice cracking.
Harper said that when the shooting inside the crowded processing center appeared to stop, she got up and attempted to leave the building. But the man took aim again and shot three times a soldier who was standing in front of her.
The loud guttural moaning of that soldier, Pfc. Michael Pearson, could be heard on the 911 tape of Harper’s call. Pearson was one of the 13 victims who died in the attack.
Harper said she took cover under the desk again.
“I just stayed there,” she said. “I didn’t move anywhere and I was just hoping it would stop and I would be able to make my way out.”
From underneath the desk, she could see slow footsteps of a man she believed was the shooter. More shots rang out.
On the 911 tape, Harper is heard telling the operator: “A lot of people are shot. Please hurry!”
When she made it out of the building, Harper said she hid behind a row of cars and witnessed Hasan shoot a female police officer before being shot himself.
Earlier, prosecutors called as their first witness Sgt. Alonso Lunsford, who had been shot five times and lost most of the sight in his left eye.
Using floor plans of the building where the shooting happened, prosecutors led Lunsford through a detailed reconstruction of the events.
“I was wondering why he would say ‘Allahu Akbar,’ ” Lunsford said of Hasan. “He reached up, pulled a weapon out and started discharging the weapon.”
“Allahu Akbar” means “God is Great” in Arabic.
Lunsford said he caught Hasan’s eye during the rampage.
“He looked at me and I looked at him,” Lunsford testified. “He raised the weapon and pointed at me, and the laser [on the weapon’s barrel] came across my line of sight. I closed my eyes, at which point he discharged his weapon.”
The first shot hit Lunsford in the head near his left eye. He said he doesn’t remember getting shot four more times as he fell to the floor.
In later testimony, another victim, Pfc. George Stratton, described the shooter as having "a piercing gaze in his eyes." Stratton said Hasan looked him in the eyes as he reloaded his weapon and raised it to fire.
"As soon as I noticed he was going to pull the trigger … I turned on him as quick as I could and tried to get as low to the ground as I could," Stratton said.
The shooter hit him as he turned around, sending a bullet through his left shoulder. Stratton crawled out of the building.
Two other witnesses described being driven to get to safety by adrenaline so strong that they were unaware of their injuries. Spc. Matthew Cooke, who managed to get out of the building and into a pickup truck, didn’t realize he had been shot four times until he woke up at a San Antonio hospital.
Spc. James Armstrong, a mental health specialist who was shot twice, watched as two men in his reserve unit — Capts. Russell Seager and John Gaffaney — were shot to death. He described the scene in the waiting area where most of the shooting happened as "the worst horror movie you could possibly ever see."
He said there were bloody hand prints on the walls from people trying to get up, pools of blood on the floor, and scattered bodies.
Witnesses have said Hasan used two personal pistols, one a semiautomatic, to fire some 100 shots at about 300 people. Fort Hood police officers returned fire, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
Prosecutors have not said whether they will seek the death penalty if the case goes to trial.
Col. James L. Pohl, a military judge presiding over the hearing as the investigating officer, made no mention Wednesday of a request by Hasan’s lawyers to postpone the hearing until Nov. 8 — after the anniversary of the attacks.
Security has been tight at the Fort Hood courthouse, where soldiers at newly installed barriers restricted traffic. Patrol cars cruised the area and bomb-sniffing dogs scrutinized vehicles. A small group of reporters allowed into the courtroom went through metal detectors, while photographers outside were blocked from any view of Hasan arriving.
At an auxiliary courtroom where other media monitored proceedings on a closed-circuit TV feed, cell phones were collected and access to the Internet was barred.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.