ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' friends say it's nothing short of a miracle: Days after being shot in the head point-blank, the injured congresswoman opened an eye Wednesday for the first time.
Two of her closest friends from Congress, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., were in Giffords' Tucson, Ariz., hospital room at the time. Both had traveled to Arizona on Air Force One with President Barack Obama to attend a memorial service for the victims of Saturday's shooting rampage.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama immediately headed to University Medical Center after landing in Tucson, and spent about 10 minutes with Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. Soon after, Gillibrand and Wasserman Schultz, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, got their chance to visit.
The women became close friends while they were all serving in the House. Their professional bond turned personal, with Giffords and her husband going on double-dates with Gillibrand and her husband at Matchbox, one of their favorite Washington restaurants, and taking summer vacations to New Hampshire with Wasserman Schultz's family.
These were the memories they were sharing with Giffords when the congresswoman started to signal that she may have known they were there.
Gillibrand said she was holding Giffords' left hand when she started to feel it move. Giffords squeezed the senator's hand, then rubbed her hand with her thumb.
Then Giffords' right eye started to flicker. (Her left eye, damaged in the shooting, is bandaged.) For about 30 seconds, Giffords struggled, before finally opening her eye wide and straining to focus on her friends, husband, parents and doctor.
"We knew she could hear and understand what we were saying," Gillibrand told reporters traveling back to Washington with the president Thursday morning.
It was the first time Giffords had opened her eye since the shooting. Kelly told Giffords to give him a thumbs-up if she could hear him. Instead, she slowly raised her left arm.
"The doctor said this is amazing what she's doing right now and beyond our greatest hopes," Gillibrand said.
"It felt like we were watching a miracle," Wasserman Schultz said. "The strength that you could see flowing out of her, it was like she was trying to will her eyes open."
On ABC's "Good Morning America" on Thursday, Gillibrand added, "Everything that we love about Gabby was all there at that moment."
Kelly told the president and first lady about the development as they drove from the hospital to the University of Arizona's McKale Center, where Obama would speak at a memorial service. Kelly gave the president permission to tell the crowd about his wife's progress.
"Gabby opened her eyes," Obama told the cheering crowd. "So I can tell you: She knows we are here, she knows we love her, and she knows that we are rooting for her through what is undoubtedly going to be a difficult journey."