Washington Navy Yard – I Was There

Washington Navy Yard Shooting - File Photo
Washington Navy Yard Shooting – File Photo

I am a Contractor consultant to Government currently working for Washington Navy Yard clients. My Corporate office is located in one of the “beltway bandit” buildings that line “M” Street SE, just a couple of blocks walking distance from the Navy Yard main gate and my client’s location. Yesterday morning I was at the Yard when America’s most recent mass murder occurred.

For those unfamiliar with the Washington Navy Yard; the complex was once an actual shipyard of over 100 acres, where ships and naval equipment were built right up until the early 1960’s. After a few years of being largely abandoned, most of the old buildings were re-purposed into office space, shops and restaurants, and museum displays. Now, the single largest tenant is the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) which occupies the very large building 197 and several smaller buildings nearby. Several thousand people work within the Navy Yard complex, with over two thousand working in building 197. Access to the shipyard complex itself has always been very open, with people only required to show some proof of ID such as a driver’s license, because of the publicly-accessible museums on the yard. Access into office buildings on the Yard is restricted to people with “Common Access Cards” (CAC) which are very tightly controlled. Most Contractors do not have desks in the buildings, instead walking over for meeting then returning to their nearby corporate offices. Yesterday’s shooting occurred inside building 197, and I was in a smaller building right next door.

I walked over to the Navy Yard to catch our 8:00 Monday morning meeting in my usual routine. Normally my Monday’s consist of an 8:00 meeting with my clients, then a 9:00 meeting in building 197 with other people my clients directly deal with. My 9:00 meeting is followed by scheduled telephone conferences throughout the day as various groups of people around the country who deal with my clients start their week trying to get organized.

The 8:00 meeting started as normal in a fourth floor conference room; various people discussed various issues. At 8:20 we heard a fire alarm go off somewhere in the building, but not on our floor. We all listened for a minute, decided that since our floor wasn’t on fire we didn’t have to evacuate, and continued the meeting. A few minutes later we heard another announcement that there had been a “shooting incident” and we were to remain where we were. The building was in lockdown. We paused for a minute, and then continued our meeting.

Over the next 30 minutes we continued to hear announcements advising everyone not to leave the building. Although we continued the meeting, it was obvious that with every announcement people were more distracted from the discussions at hand. Finally, the meeting was adjourned. The Government personnel and Contractors with desks in the building immediately went to their computers and brought up news sites to find out what was going on.

Security restrictions at the yard are reasonably tight on electronic devices. No personally-owned recording devices, which include cell phones and laptop computers with webcams, are allowed inside Government buildings. Government personnel are issued special Blackberry phones, but contractors are phone-free inside the buildings. We are able to get our company-issued (webcam-free) laptops into the building with a special pass, but gaining that pass is such a hassle I hadn’t bothered as I normally do all my computing in my corporate office. So, yesterday, when the shooting occurred and the yard went into lockdown mode, I had no cell phone and no computer access.

Over the next several hours most of us, Government and Contractor alike, huddled around various computers in stunned disbelief looking at Internet reports of the events just outside our building. Our building has a large atrium with inside balconies on all floors. From our balcony, we could see people apparently evacuated from building 197 being brought inside. Tables had been set up and law enforcement personnel were all over the atrium. Rumors began to circulate about people in the atrium being treated for shock and hyperventilation after witnessing the shootings. News reports on the Internet gradually increased the casualty count from “four injured” to “mass bodies in the building” and then increasingly larger numbers of four, eight, and ten casualties. The numbers of shooters ranged from one to three then back to two.

We were able to look out the windows and see the street between our buildings filled with cars and SUVs from the DC police and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). People wearing various uniforms milled around on the street and went in and out of 197; DC Metro police, DHS, FBI, and military personnel. On the Internet, we saw that “M” Street right outside the Yard was blocked off by police cars. From people who were able to contact their corporate offices we learned that “M” Street was blocked off all the way down to the Nationals Stadium.

Government personnel with phones starting letting us Contractors make calls to our families and corporate offices. I was able to contact my wife, who hadn’t yet heard what was going on. Then I called my mom and left a message that I was OK, expecting she would be hearing the news pretty quick the way Mom’s normally do. I couldn’t call anyone else as all my phone numbers were in my cell phone and not memorized.

Most of the people who didn’t have desks in the building didn’t bring any lunch, as we didn’t expect to be there all day, so by lunchtime a lot of us were getting hungry with no idea how to get food. The vending machines hadn’t been filled before we went into lockdown and they were mostly empty. About 11:30, our Assistant Director came by where several of us Contractors were hanging out and explained that one of the other departments was holding a pot luck luncheon, had plenty of food, and we were all welcomed to join. The room where the pot luck was held had a large-screen television, and while we ate we watched President Obama’s news conference which started out with a few words about the Navy Yard massacre. It was only then that the significance of the shooting event hit me.

Normally, Contractors have to pay their fair share when participating in a Government-sponsored luncheon (Federal ethics rules) but today no one sponsoring the pot luck was accepting money. I finished eating, then wandered over to the office coffee mess and put some money in the till. If not for the generosity of this group, most of us would not have had any lunch.

By 2:00 people in our building were getting restless. Some work was continuing; the various Government people were holding their scheduled telephone meetings and “drive-by” discussions. I was invited to participate in a few discussions related to my tasking. But for most of the time, I was pretty much unable to do any work as I didn’t have my computer, telephone numbers, or even reference documents I needed access to. Most other Contractors were in the same situation. So, we managed to alternate between looking busy and staying out of sight of our Government clients. We were able to catch news reports as we could and speculated on how long the lock down would continue. By now, the news we could catch were mostly reporting 12 casualties and three gunmen, one of whom had been killed with one more still at large.

About 3:00 our Government clients received a mass e-mail informing us that we be getting released very soon. The announced plan was to have us walk across the Navy Yard complex to a conference center and from there get bused over to the Nationals Stadium. Although a lot of the Government people had driven in and parked in the Yard, we were informed that no one would be allowed to drive their cars off the Yard that evening. Before leaving the building we would have to provide the police with our name, birth-date, home address, contact phone number, and our exact location when the shooting occurred. Most of us wrote the required information on our business cards and gathered up our belongings in anticipation of being released.

At about 4:00 our building started being evacuated. We rode down the elevator to the first floor and walked out into the atrium where a police officer was collecting our personal information, then let us out. I walked out with a few colleagues and was directed around the building by Metro police. The police, FBI officers, and military personnel were positioned at each strategic intersection towards the Yard’s main gate directing us. At the main gate, our group was stopped by DC Metro police who announced in a loud voice “you are not allowed to walk off this base. Turn around and go to building 211 where you will be bused to the stadium.” So we turned around and walked across the Navy Yard complex, now without any police providing directions following other people who seemed to know where building 211 was located. Some people started grumbling as they walked but most of us were subdued and quiet.

We arrived at building 211, a large conference center, and milled around waiting for what would happen next. There were a few young sailors outside the conference center issuing out MRE-style meals and water to anyone who wanted it. Apparently, there were a lot of people in the Yard trapped in various buildings who had no food or water all day. I thought providing food and water was a thoughtful touch by the Navy.

After several minutes of waiting, large DC Metro buses began to arrive driven by grim-faced drivers. I managed to get into one of the first buses as it happened to stop right in front of where I was standing. Once the first group of four buses was filled, we drove off and I could see more buses arriving behind us. We drove out a side gate and up to “L” street, paralleling “M” street, and ended the trip at the north side of National’s Stadium at about 5:00. I got off the bus and was greeted by a older gentleman who shook my hand and said “I’m very happy you made it.” Right behind him was a four-star admiral who also shook my hand and said “I hope you’ll be OK after this ordeal.” As I continued walking, one of the people walking with me informed me the first gentleman was the Secretary of the Navy, so I presume the four-star admiral was either the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) or Navy Joint Chief of Staff.

At the stadium I learned that since several thousand people were without the cars they had driven to work in, the Government had made arrangements for free Metro rides leaving from the Washington Navy Yard Metro stop located right next to the stadium. However, my cell phone and personal belongings were back in my office, so I and a colleague walked back to our office located a few blocks closer to the yard. As we got closer to our office we had to walk though gauntlets of media equipment and news personnel lining “M” Street. One block away from our building we were stopped by a DC police officer who told us the road was closed. We showed our Company IDs, explained we worked in the building, needed to get to our phones and house keys, and he let us pass.

Once in my office I retrieved my phone and saw that several people had either called or texted me throughout the day. I had slugged into work that morning so taking the metro home was my only commuting option. My colleague suggested we walk up to the Eastern Market Metro and avoid the Navy Yard crowds, which sounded like a really good idea. We left our office building, walked back through the media gauntlet and towards Eastern Market. As we walked, both of us were on our phones calling back the people who had contacted us letting them know we were OK. Once we arrived at the metro, I called my wife to tell her how I was getting home and asked her to meet me at the Metro stop closest to our house.

The Metro ride was more crowded than normal, but otherwise uneventful. At my stop, I saw dozens of people exiting the Metro who had received free rides home. The Kiss N’ Ride stop was packed with cars picking up people, much more than normal for so late in the evening. I found my wife, jumped in the car, and we drove back to the commuter lot so I could retrieve my SUV.

Once we were finally home, we gave each other a really big, really long, hug.

Cross-posted on Daily Kos at “Washington Navy Yard; I Was There

This story was used as the basis for a news article in our local on-line newspaper “Potomac Local,” titled “Shooting Survivor from Woodbridge Recounts Hours Spent in Lockdown at Navy Yard.

Edited: February 28, 2015, corrected the number of people working in building 197

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One Comment

  1. […] morning of September 16, 2013, when a shooter walked into Building 197 and killed twelve people. I was on the Navy Yard at the time, but thankfully not in that building. Afterwards the building was closed to perform approximately […]

    July 3, 2015

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