False Alarm, This Time

Aerial View of Washington Navy Yard
Aerial View of Washington Navy Yard

Yesterday I faced the possibility of a mass shooting in a place I worked, that had seen a mass shooting only 21 months ago. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the response by law enforcement and reactions of people involved showed me just how close to the edge we’re living.

I normally arrive at my office around 7:00AM, and yesterday started out as a normal day. My office is on the top floor of a building located at the foot of M Street Southeast in Washington D.C., about one mile down from the main entrance to the Washington Navy Yard where our clients are located. About 7:30, just as I was settling down to work, I started hearing police and ambulance sirens going up M street. At first I didn’t think anything of it; police and ambulance sirens are a normal part of the background noise in Washington. Then I realized there were a lot of sirens. Looking out my window (facing away from the Navy Yard) I saw a lot of police cars heading up the street. Then people started milling around in the hall commenting on them.

About this point we all started to realize something big must be happening, and our first thoughts were the possibility of another shooting in the Navy Yard. Most of the people in my office building had been working in or near the Navy Yard on the 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 $44 million in repairs and renovations, personnel relocated to temporary accommodations, and had only reopened this past February. Everyone who was in or around the Navy Yard that day can still recall in vivid detail “9/16/2013.”

About 7:45 yesterday, with the number of police and other law enforcement vehicles increasing in number on M street, we collectively prepared for another shooting incident by taking roll call and checking for any colleagues at the Navy Yard. I was following local news and saw the first report of a possible incident at 7:49 on the WUSA9 News website. At 8:10 we learned the Navy Yard was on lockdown due to a possible shooter incident.

About 8:30 we were all called into the main conference room for a briefing and formal roll call. By now my firm had sent out an automated system alert via cellphone text message directing us to report our whereabouts; respond with a “1” if we were in the Navy Yard, “2” if we were in the office. My team leader, who had the good sense to pick that day to work from home, had sent out a priority e-mail to everyone in his team for his own roll call. In the conference room our security officer briefed us on what she knew from working her sources, which wasn’t anything I hadn’t already learned by following WUSA9.

By now multiple helicopters were buzzing overhead. M street was packed with law enforcement cars for almost a quarter-mile down from the Navy Yard’s main entrance, and presumably just as far up the street in the other direction. News was sketchy. There were reports of possibly two shooters, but no casualties reported. The FBI was in charge and on the scene along with the Metro (Washington D.C.) police, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and the ATF. Building 197 was being searched but no shooters found (I idly wondered how much damage was done to the newly renovated building). There were reports of a person on the roof of the adjacent Department of Transportation (DOT) building, but the person was revealed as a hapless worker performing roof repairs. Then law enforcement “stormed” another building on the Navy Yard, with negative results. Unconfirmed reports stated the White House was on lockdown as a precaution.

There were no shooters found, and still no reports of any shooting victims.

Just before 10:00 the FBI announced “all clear.” Police cars started leaving the scene with sirens off. WUSA9 reported that a person inside building 197 had heard noises that sounded like gunfire and called in the alarm. There was speculation that the noise may have been construction work in or nearby the building. Absolutely no one was criticizing the person who made the call. The DC Councilwoman for the district made a brief announcement thanking the first responders, and about 10:45 the DC Mayor made her own announcement. By 11:30 the senior Government person of the department I support announced that all his Government workers were given administrative leave for the rest of the day. My colleagues and I went back to work.

The year-long renovations to Building 197 after 9/16/2013 included construction of a small memorial chapel, dedicated to the twelve people who were murdered that day while sitting at their desks.

No pun intended, but it seems we dodged a bullet yesterday. This time, a report of gunfire was a false alarm. But I see that we now live in a world where people are conditioned to listen for gunshots inside an office building inside a secure military compound, and a single phone call will trigger a response by hundreds of armed first responders.  A world where standard corporate policy includes response plans for a mass shooting in their offices.

I have to wonder if ours is really the best of all possible worlds, and if there isn’t something we can do to change it?

Editors Note: Cross-posted to my diary account on Daily Kos. This post was elevated to the top of the Community Spotlight Section.

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