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Tucson woman to 9-year-old: 'Don't you die on me'

In an exclusive interview with Brian Williams, Tucson shooting victim Suzi Hileman — who took Christina Taylor Green to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' event — recalls the tragedy.
/ Source: NBC News

The Tucson woman who escorted a 9-year-old girl to a Jan. 8 political gathering where both were shot pleaded with the child to stay alive as both lay bleeding in a supermarket parking lot.

"Christina-Taylor Green, don't you die on me," Suzi Hileman told NBC News Anchor Brian Williams, recalling her words to the wounded child in an exclusive interview in Tucson on Friday. Hileman said she locked eyes with Christina and demanded that the child hang on. "Don't you go away from me, girlfriend, you stay."

A portion of the interview aired Friday on Nightly News, with the full interview to be broadcast on Dateline at 7 p.m. EST Sunday.

Hileman said that since the massacre, which left 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and six dead, including Christina, she has been consumed by grief and loss.

She and her husband, Bill Hileman, expressed gratitude to their neighbors and the residents of Tucson for their care and words of comfort.

"The level of support that has come out is like a tidal wave," Bill Hileman said. Neighbors cared for the couple's house and lawn. People made sure they had enough to eat while Bill Hileman stayed by his wife's side at the hospital. He described encountering a "cascade of food in front of my front door that you couldn't get in." Donations were so many that some went to benefit the local food banks and shelters, he said.

'I breathe through it'The road to recovery is long and sometimes painful.

"We're all suffering from P.T.S.D.," Suzi Hileman said. "You get a shot up the middle of you and all of a sudden I'm back in the Safeway parking lot. And I really don't need to have that feeling."

"So, I inhale and I breathe through it," she said.

The shooting suspect, Jared Loughner, remained in federal custody Friday in Phoenix. Investigators have described him as an increasingly mentally unstable man kicked out of a community college last year.

He apparently became obsessed with inflicting violence on Giffords since attending one of her campaign events in 2007.

Giffords, who was shot in the head, was moved from a Tucson hospital to a Houston rehabilitation center on Friday.

Hileman, 58, had taken Christina, a neighbor whom she considered a grandchild, to the "Congress on Your Corner" event to meet Giffords. Christina was a newly elected member of the student council at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson.

Hileman said both looked forward to the outing.

The pair, hand-in-hand, made their way through the Safeway parking lot, signed in at the counter and then sat down in folding chairs.

"Congresswoman Giffords came out. And she's stunning. And she's put together," Hileman said. "So, we commented on her clothes and her accessories, because that was where we were. And then the line moved up and forward."

The two watched and waited while the congresswoman shook hands with people in front of the line.

"And I said, 'OK, you have your question. You know what you're going to say?' She goes, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.' So, I needed to take a breath. So, I said, 'All right, Christina, let's do the math.' Christina did math.

"How many Senators do we have? How many? Hold that number. How many representatives do we have? Add that number. Let's add the president and the vice president. You got that number? That's the number of people who make the laws that tell us how we live here in America today. And you are going to get to shake her hand."

Then a gunshot rang out, she recalled.

“There's a moment of deafening silence,” she said. “Congresswoman Giffords slid down with the flags behind her.”

"Next thing I remember is, I'm lying on the concrete — and Christina's to my left. And she was beautiful. She was undamaged. And she didn't talk, but we were eyeball to eyeball. And I'm yelling at her, 'Christina-Taylor Green, don't you die on me," Hileman said. "And she's looking at me, and it was — she was wondering, she was confused, she was asking me, 'What is going on?' And I'm just telling her to 'Stay with me, do not leave me here by myself, young lady.' "

Hileman had been shot three times and suffered a broken hip. Christina was the youngest of the six slain. She died at the hospital.

Hileman said amid the chaos, someone spoke to her and had reassured her about her charge.

"'She is being taken care of. Your friend is being taken care of. Your job is — you are bleeding, you are bleeding! Your job is to stay calm and let us help you,'" Hileman recounted.

Among other topics Hileman addressed in the interview:

On Tucson: "It's a cultural stew. Waiting in the DMV with the Native American lady and the Hispanic lady and the gray-haired Jewish lady. And the baby cries. Everybody's in the diaper bag helping and then everybody's back to their books. Tucson. Tucson makes it possible to be whoever you want to be."

On Christina-Taylor Green: “Christina liked me, I hope. And I know I liked her. She was one of those bright-eyed, open to the world, high self-esteem kids,” Hileman said. “Her parents did a fabulous job.  With unbelievably wonderful raw material. She had the most fabulous skin. She had those eyes. And she just wanted to listen.  Whatever we talked about. She was up for anything."

Call to attend event: "Tucson's a small enough town that you can pretty much meet anybody any time that you want. No, I got a robo-call on my phone. 'Hi, this is Gabby Giffords. Come to Safeway tomorrow and tell me how we can make government work better for you.' Well, I'd been sending her emails all along. Telling her, because, you know, I'm a girl from New York. I know how things should go."

On Giffords:
"I wish her well."