misfortune that Nidal Hasan wasn’t killed on the spot.
FORT HOOD, Tex.—The first few of dozens of witnesses to the 2009 massacre on this sprawling Army base gave chilling testimony on Wednesday in a pretrial hearing for Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged in the attack.
The witnesses described a scene of chaotic horror in which unarmed soldiers were mowed down, or jumped out of windows, or clawed over one another in a desperate reach for safety.
“He looked at me, I looked at him,” said one witness, Sgt. Alonzo M. Lunsford Jr., as he described how he and Major Hasan made eye contact when the major trained a laser-guided handgun on soldiers in a processing center on base. “The laser comes across my line of sight. And I closed my eyes. And I get hit in the head, I spin around and I hit the floor.”
Sergeant Lunsford was shot five times. He has had reconstructive surgery on his face, and has lost most of the sight in his left eye. His testimony was the beginning of what promises to be several weeks, at least, of soul-baring testimony in what is known as an Article 32 hearing, roughly equivalent to a civilian grand jury proceeding.
Col. James L. Pohl, the investigating officer, will decide after the hearing whether Major Hasan should face a court-martial. If he is tried and found guilty, Major Hasan, a 40-year-old Army psychiatrist, could face the death penalty.
An American-born son of Palestinian immigrants, Major Hasan has been charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder. Paralyzed below the middle of his chest after being shot in the attack, he sat quietly in a wheelchair for the first two days of the hearing, mostly avoiding making eye contact with victims or their relatives. He wore his Army uniform and a cap, and frequently touched his face with his hands.
The shootings here last Nov. 5 were the worst on an American military base in modern times, and raised alarms among members of Congress about possible terrorist infiltration of the military. Major Hasan was seen firing about 100 shots before two police officers shot him. There are no other suspects in the case.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the daylong hearing came during the testimony of Michelle Harper, a civilian Army employee with a soft, shaky voice. She described how she and others cowered under a desk as Major Hasan moved through the soldier-readiness center, a place where soldiers undergo medical examinations and complete their wills before going to combat zones. She described the horror of the moment when, while huddled under a pile of bodies, she heard the gunman’s footsteps and then saw his boots as he stomped by the desk.
For six minutes, a tape recording of her 911 call enraptured the courtroom. Sirens, moans and gunfire made the scene sound like a chaotic battlefield. “My God, everybody is shot,” Ms. Harper told the 911 operator, wheezing. “Oh my God, oh my God.” [LA replies: Typical Times perversion, using the word “enraptured” in this context, like Norman Mailer speaking of the “beauty” of the 9/11 attack.]
“Michelle, I need you to take a deep breath, O.K.?” the operator was heard saying, trying to calm her. Howls from bystanders could be heard in the background. “Michelle, I need you to calm down, O.K.?”
When Ms. Harper began weeping in the hearing room, Colonel Pohl asked prosecutors to stop the tape and called for a break. After a few minutes, several more minutes of the 911 call were played.
Sergeant Lunsford, who worked at the readiness center, appears to be one of the strongest witnesses for the prosecution. He said he met Major Hasan several weeks before the attack, and recognized him as the gunman. At the earlier meeting, he said, he clearly remembered having an argument with Major Hasan about transferring a patient from a Fort Hood hospital intensive-care unit to its psychiatric ward.
The two men had another encounter shortly before the shootings, when a co-worker called Sergeant Lunsford over because Major Hasan was arguing that he did not need an immunization shot, although he did not have documentation of a prior injection.
Sergeant Lunsford said he saw Major Hasan a third time at the center, just after 1 p.m. on the day of the shootings, sitting among soldiers waiting for medical examinations. Suddenly, according to Sergeant Lunsford, Major Hasan began to cry out, “Allahu akbar”—“God is great” in Arabic.
“I looked at him and wondered why he said, ‘Allahu akbar,’ ” Sergeant Lunsford recalled. “He pulled out a weapon and started discharging.”
At the hearing on Wednesday, the prosecutor asked the sergeant if he could point out the gunman. He stood up and pointed to Major Hasan.
Throughout Sergeant Lunsford’s testimony, Major Hasan gazed at him intently as if transfixed.
There were a few lighter moments during a day of mostly intense storytelling. When Lt. Col Steve Henricks, a prosecutor, asked Sergeant Lunsford to point out his wounds, the sergeant stood and began to unbutton his uniform. The prosecutor and Colonel Pohl quickly stopped him. The sergeant then simply pointed to five places on his back, side and face where he had been shot.
The hearing is not expected to probe Major Hasan’s motivations, and he is not expected to testify.
It is not clear what defense Major Hasan’s lawyer, John Galligan, is planning. Mr. Galligan has said that his client could not receive a fair trial on the base. The defense moved to have the hearing delayed for almost a month to clear up some paperwork, and has requested information on several federal investigations into the shootings that have either been kept classified or have otherwise been kept from the public.
At times in recent months, Mr. Galligan has hinted that he might mount an insanity defense, but it is not clear whether his client would support that approach.