On a Saturday afternoon last January, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was pulling out of her Florida driveway, taking her 7-year-old daughter, Shelby, on an hour-long drive to a soccer tournament. Her BlackBerry buzzed, and as she glanced down, the message from one of her staffers made her throw on the brakes: “Gabby Giffords shot???”

Debbie, the petite, blond dynamo who would soon become chair of the Democratic National Committee (in part due to “her ability to deal with adversity,” as Vice President Biden has put it), isn’t easily thrown by crisis. But this was different. “It was like someone gave me a hard kick in the stomach,” she recalls. Months later, her voice still quivers with emotion.

The rest of the world was hearing the shocking news, too. A young man, Jared Lee Loughner, had inexplicably walked up to Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the 40-year-old Arizona Congresswoman, at a Tucson, AZ, shopping center and shot her in the head. Then Loughner had killed six others, including Gabby’s outreach director, 30-year-old Gabriel Zimmerman, and Christina-Taylor Green, a 9-year-old girl born on September 11, 2001.

Debbie struggled to keep her eyes on the road. “I had my iPad on the passenger seat; I was desperately Googling as I was driving; I was crying,” she says, remembering how she kept hitting the Refresh button on Google News, searching for more details about the shooting and Gabby’s status. In the backseat, Shelby kept asking, “What’s the matter, Mommy?” Determined to shield her daughter from the news until she knew more, “I kept the radio low the whole time,” Debbie recalls. “She knows Gabby — our families are close!”

Then came reports that Gabby had died. Debbie began to weep openly, unable to hide her emotions anymore. “I was crying and driving, trying to hold it together,” she says. At home, her husband, Steve, worried not only about their friends — he, too, was close to Gabby and her husband, NASA shuttle commander Mark E. Kelly — but also that his wife was so distraught that it was dangerous for her to be behind the wheel. He kept calling her cell phone. “Debbie, turn around!” he urged. “You’re in no condition to drive.”

At the very same moment, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was sitting down with her husband, Jonathan, for lunch. The New York Senator, close to both Debbie and Gabby, was the third member of one of Washington’s most powerful friendships. Just the week before, the Gillibrands had been at Matchbox, a popular Washington, DC, restaurant, with Gabby and Mark for pizza and beer. In a modern reversal of traditional roles, it had been the women who talked shop during the entire meal — about Gabby’s bruising reelection in politically polarized southern Arizona, where her opponent had posed with a machine gun in his campaign posters. “[We discussed] how aggressive and grueling it had been,” Kirsten remembers, “how you have to rise above the challenges and stand up for what you care about, and present a vision for your state and your district.”

Faith was another subject that came up that evening. Gabby and her husband had just returned from a long-awaited family trip to Rome, where they had gone to the Vatican. “It was such a beautiful, rewarding spiritual moment for them,” Kirsten says, remembering how the couple’s happiness that evening was almost infectious. When she heard the news of the shooting, “I just sat there, crying,” she says in a voice as high and fast as Debbie’s is deep and slow. “My husband — all he did was hold me. We’d just seen Gabby! It was so raw and so real.” But when the false reports came in that Gabby had not survived, the Senator’s inner pit bull came out. She was not about to mourn her friend on the basis of Internet rumors. “I just would not believe Gabby was dead,” she says, displaying the steely determination that saw her through a media mud fight after her appointment to the Senate. “I kept saying to my husband, ‘We don’t know for sure.’ ” When she talked with colleagues during that fraught time, Kirsten remembers, they kept reassuring each other: “She is going to be OK. She is going to be OK.”