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JOHANNESBURG — An emotional Oscar Pistorius broke down in court Tuesday as he struggled to recount his side of what led him to kill girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine's Day last year.

Pistorius told the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria how he had felt vulnerable without his prosthetic legs after hearing a noise coming from the bathroom.

"I wanted to put myself between the person who gained access to my house and Reeva," testified Pistorius, 27, who said he believed there was an intruder in his residence. Moments later Pistorius had his pistol in his hands and fired four shots at the bathroom door.

"My ears were ringing," he told the court. "I couldn't hear anything. I kept on shouting for Reeva to phone the police."

The Olympic sprinter and double-amputee then described how he had retreated to his bed to check on Steenkamp. When he realized his model girlfriend was not there, Pistorius said he broke down the locked bathroom door with a cricket bat.

"I sat over Reeva and I cried," he said. "I don't know how long I was there for. She wasn't breathing."

The wrenching testimony prompted a loud sob in the courtroom from Pistorius' sister, Aimee, which in turn triggered sobbing and loud wails from the athlete.

As the judge called an adjournment, Pistorius' brother, Carl, rushed to his side and held him in a tight embrace as he was led from the courtroom, Times Live.com reported.

Earlier, Pistorius was asked by the court to remove his prosthetic legs and stand by the door that he had fired into last year. The door, which has four bullet holes, was brought into the court as evidence.

Pistorius, a world-class sprinter known as "Blade Runner" for his high-tech racing legs, sat down, took off his prosthetic legs and approached the door — a move to demonstrate his height in relation to the door with both his prosthesis legs on and off.

He also acknowledged that he and Steenkamp sometimes had troubles in their relationship but that they sorted them out, were in love and were planning a life together.

Pistorius said he was "besotted" with Steenkamp when they started dating and "if anything, I was maybe more into her than she was at times with me."

His defense attorney, Barry Roux, presented an extensive list of intimate cellphone messages between the couple, some sent in the days before the shooting, to try and show that they were loving and tender with each other. Prosecutors say Pistorius was often jealous and overbearing in his relationship.

Pistorius referred to a phone message Steenkamp sent him in late January 2013 when she said she was sometimes "scared" of the athlete, who "picked" on her. The prosecution presented the message earlier in the trial as an indicator of Pistorius' threatening behavior.

Pistorius said Tuesday that the couple had a disagreement at a social function that day and he was "maybe just being sensitive, insecure or jealous." Pistorius said he apologized to Steenkamp and sent her a message saying: "I want to talk to you. I want to sort this out. … I'm sorry for the things that I say without thinking."

"My lady, I think it was a bad day in our relationship," Pistorius said, addressing the judge who will ultimately deliver a verdict in the trial that began last month.

Lawyer Roux asked Pistorius if the unhappiness in their relationship had passed and Pistorius replied yes.

Pistorius was being led through questions by Roux, with the defense attempting to counter accusations that the runner was a reckless hothead with an obsessive love of firearms and prone to outbursts of anger.

Pistorius first took the witness stand Monday, making a tearful apology to Steenkamp's family for killing her. Steenkamp's mother, June, sat in the courtroom, staring at him without expression.

Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to charges of pre-meditated murder and three firearm-related offenses. If convicted, he faces 25 years to life in prison.

Pistorius, in his second day of testimony, had earlier told Judge Thokozile Masipa that he didn't plan anything for Valentine's Day except to give Steenkamp a bracelet that he bought from a designer she liked.

Steenkamp, 29, had also planned to give her boyfriend a gift but made him promise not to open it until the day. Pistorius didn't open the gift until August. It was four pictures of the couple together, framed.

Doug Stanglin reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Associated Press

PHOTOS: Murder trial of Oscar Pistorius

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