New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called it an "an extraordinary moment."
President Obama and the first lady had just left Gabrielle Giffords' hospital room at Tucson's University Medical Center on Wednesday evening when the wounded congresswoman from Arizona briefly opened her eyes.
Gillibrand was still in the room at the time, along with two other Democratic lawmakers -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. Giffords' family and doctors also were there with the 40-year-old congresswoman, who has been in critical condition since being shot in the head four days ago when a gunman opened fire at a meet-and-greet she was having with constituents in Tucson. Six people have died. Giffords and 12 others were shot.
Gillibrand described the emotional scene in an interview with CNN.
"She was amazing. She was holding my hand at the time. And she was squeezing it and even stroking it. She absolutely could hear everything we were saying. And Debbie and I were telling her how much she was inspiring the nation with her courage and her strength. And we were talking about the things we wanted to do as soon as she was better. And I was saying, 'We'll have another night out for beer and pizza with your husband.' And Debbie started talking about taking them out to their house in New Hampshire."
When Giffords responded by "trying to struggle to open her eyes," Gillibrand said the congresswoman's husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, encouraged her:
"Mark saw that and said, 'Open your eyes, Gabby. Open your eyes.' And then she kept struggling and struggling. And Mark just kept encouraging her. And within a moment she literally opened her eyes.... "And she took a few moments to try to focus.... And then Mark said, he said, 'Gabby, if you can see me, if you can see me, give us a thumbs up..... And she didn't only give a thumbs up, she literally raised her entire hand."
The moment did not last long -- less than a minute, Gillibrand said. But the senator said a doctor who was there was "unbelievably excited because it was such great progress."
The visiting lawmakers soon left their colleague to rest. "We couldn't stop crying," Gillibrand said. "We were so excited."
The news about Giffords' progress was greeted with cheers a short time later, when Obama announced it during a memorial service for all the victims and survivors of Saturday's shooting in front of a Tucson Safeway.
"She knows we are here, she knows we love her, and she knows we are rooting for her through what is undoubtedly going to be a difficult journey," the president said.
Update at 9:25 a.m. ET. CBS News' Mark Knoller has more about what happened. He filed this transcript of comments Wasserman Schultz made to reporters last night on Air Force One as the president and others returned to Washington:
"We told her -- when Kirsten was talking to her, she said -- because she and her husband had just gone and had pizza with Gabby and Mark, so she said, you know, 'come on -- come on, Gabby, you got to get going here, we’re going to go out for pizza.' The last couple of summers, Gabby and Mark and Mark’s kids have vacationed with my family and I in New Hampshire. And I said, 'Gabby, we fully expect you to be up and ready to go to come back up to New Hampshire this summer,' and that’s when she started to open her eye. And the speaker was talking to her this whole time. We just kept alternately talking to her.
"And literally the doctor said, 'no, you don't understand, this is really, really significant progress.' He starts pounding out a message on his BlackBerry. Her mother and father are just crying."
And here's a short audio clip of Gillibrand, also during the flight back to Washington last night, telling reporters about Giffords' struggle to open her eyes and how at that moment she and others in the room were "crying because we're witnessing something that we never imaged would happen in front of us":
(Mark Stencel is managing editor of Digital News.)