In dramatic sign of recovery, Giffords transferred to Houston

TUCSON, Ariz. — Two weeks after she was shot and severely wounded, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords left Tucson aboard an air ambulance Friday in a carefully planned transfer to a rehabilitation hospital in Houston.

The dramatic move marks further progress for Giffords, who has shown what doctors consider remarkable signs of recovery since she was shot through the head at a public gathering.

An ambulance carrying the Arizona Democrat left University Medical Center at 9:22 a.m. MST. Led by a dozen police on motorcycles, and tailed by more motorcycles ridden by military veterans, the convoy drove slowly to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where she was put aboard the emergency flight to Houston.

Giffords' aides said the flight would take 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Throngs of well-wishers cheered, waved flags, held up hand-scrawled signs of support, and offered prayers for Giffords' continued recovery as the ambulance passed.

"It's a miracle," said Al Garcia, 47, a Harley-riding Marine veteran outside the hospital, said of her recuperation so far. "It just gives us hope. ... Everyone is down nowadays, and it's great to be part of something that's positive."

"Everyone in the hospital is very emotional," said Rick Morey-Wolfe, a hospital contractor, who held his 3-year-old nephew, Weston. "This is her town."

"I just wanted to give my love and support," said Cindy Harrelson, a grandmother of three, as she leaned on her walker.

Once she lands in Houston, Giffords will be flown by helicopter to the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research at Memorial Hermann hospital. Doctors said she may need several months of intense speech and physical therapy there.

The move marks another sign of progress for Giffords. Doctors said Thursday that she is starting to stand with assistance, can distinguish colors, and is scrolling with an iPad.

"These are all fantastic advances for her," Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurology at University Medical Center, told reporters. "But I do want to caution everyone that she has a long road ahead of her."

Giffords' husband, astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly; her mother, Gloria Giffords; her trauma surgeon, Dr. Peter Rhee; and two congressional aides accompanied her to Texas. Giffords, 40, was shot through the head on Jan. 8 when a gunman opened fire on a crowd that had gathered to meet her at a Tucson supermarket. Six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, were killed, and 13 were wounded.

A federal grand jury has charged Jared Loughner, 22, with the shooting. He will be arraigned in Phoenix on Monday.

(Drogin and Ricardi report for the Los Angeles Times.)