Chaos reigned in Southeast Washington D.C. on Monday morning as a gunman opened fire in and around Building 197 at the Washington Navy Yard, killing at least 13 people, including the suspected shooter, identified as a 34-year-old Navy contractor named Aaron Alexis. The building, which is the biggest building in the Navy Yard, is the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command, which builds ships and then provides support for the U.S. fleet.
At around 8:15 a.m., police received the first 911 call from the building and, according to D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, Washington’s active shooter team was deployed on base within seven minutes. Patricia Ward, 53, a civilian employee at the Naval Yard from Woodbridge, Virginia, was in Building 197’s cafeteria when the shooting started. She described hearing three shots, “pow, pow, pow” and then a pause, which she described as about 30 seconds, followed by four more shots.
At that point, Ward started running outside, leaving her purse behind. She described a slightly disorderly scene. Others in the cafeteria tried to hide in the back of the room while someone, in an attempt to alert authorities, pulled a fire alarm. Elsewhere in the building, employees reacted like they would in case of fire, according to Alley Gibson, an employee in Building 197. They went to their assigned gathering spots and then evacuated to another building.
Mark Vandroff, a 46-year-old captain in the Navy who works in Building 197, was in a conference room on the third floor with 8 or 9 others when the shooting started. He says they all ducked down and then saw two bullet holes in the wall about 8 feet above the ground. At around 10 a.m., he was evacuated and went to a secure location where he and others gave witness statements. Vandroff said that he had always thought he had worked in "a secure facility" and noted that members of the NCIS were normally stationed for security in Building 197.
In a press conference, D.C. Mayor Vincent Grey confirmed that the shooter was deceased, four wounded were taken to the hospital, and that there were fatalities. He said one police officer was wounded and currently undergoing surgery in stable condition. He said the police were looking for two other potential shooters, one is a white male in a tan uniform and beret carrying a handgun who was last seen about 8:35 a.m.. The other is an African American with gray sideburns, 5’10”, 180 pounds, between the ages of 40 and 50, and wearing a military-style uniform. Lanier has since said the white male has been identified and is no longer considered a suspect.
The Navy Yard, which is the oldest naval installation in the country, is located in a bustling area of the city, blocks from Nationals Stadium. The area glistens with new condos, office buildings, and hotels built at the height of the real estate boom. Most of its employees are civilians and no one, save law enforcement officers, regularly carries around firearms on base. Anyone entering the Navy Yard has to display and swipe a military ID card, but their vehicles are not searched and there are no metal detectors.
Access to Building 197 is somewhat more controlled than the rest of the base. According to Gibson, cell phones are not allowed inside. The building is also always in lockdown mode, according to another base employee, which means that cards have to be swiped to go from room to room there. But, otherwise, the employee likened the atmosphere and security there to any office building in Washington.
Another employee who works in Building 197 and heard the shooting told The Daily Beast that the gunfire sounded like a .22, but noted that AR-15 can sound similar. He described getting into the building a few minutes late, just after 8 a.m. on Monday morning and hearing a noise like "a locker falling to a ground or slamming the door." Ten or 15 seconds later, he heard another couple of bursts. "I didn’t think it was gunshots, you can’t really tell if you're not expecting it and then I heard someone running, which was above me and people pirouetting out of cubicles to find out what was going on."