WASHINGTON – Standing at an ATM in the first-floor atrium of the building where she works at the Washington Navy Yard, Patricia Ward was startled by a rapid succession of sharp noises that seemed to come from overhead.
Bam, bam, bam.
It was about 8:15 a.m. Monday in Building 197, a brick edifice that houses employees of the Naval Sea Systems Command.
“Was that a gunshot?” one of Ward’s companions wondered aloud. They were on their way to have breakfast in the cafeteria nearby. More loud cracks came almost instantly.
“We knew it then,” Ward said. “We just started running.”
So began a morning of tragedy and terror, a mass shooting that killed a dozen victims and injured 14 others at the historic facility. A 34-year-old Texas man apparently armed with high-powered guns allegedly opened fire, leaving a trail of bodies before he died, too, either from police bullets or his own hand, authorities said.
His motive remains a mystery, and the precise sequence of events has yet to become clear. But for those who survived, who saw or heard what happened from narrow vantage points — crouched under a desk, standing flat against a wall, prostrate on the floor beneath a table — the memory is indelible.
At 8 a.m., reveille crackled over loudspeakers at the Navy Yard as two sailors hoisted an American flag up a pole, marking the official start of the workweek. This being a military installation, many on the grounds, on the north bank of the Anacostia River, had already been busy for a while.
Mark Vandroff, a retired navy captain, had arrived by Metro from his home in Bethesda, Maryland, at 5:50 a.m. He had already worked out in the Navy Yard’s gym, showered and was on the third floor, preparing for a meeting about the planned purchase of Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers.
A floor above him, Anthony Salemi, a logistics expert, was settling in at his desk. Down the hall, a dozen top civilian officials of the navy’s Senior Executive Service were scheduled to soon meet for a briefing on billions of dollars worth of purchases. Then came the sound. A conference table falling, Salemi thought.
“We’re always setting up for seminars and things like that,” he said. “I figured the leg had collapsed and one had fallen.”
But: “I heard someone yell, ‘Call 911!’ And I knew it was a shooting.”
He headed toward a staircase. Then, like Patricia Ward, Salemi heard a second series of sharp cracks — bang, bang, bang — and he broke into a sprint.
Vandroff had heard the initial noise, too, and like the others, he wondered what it was.
“The first sound that I heard, that I now think was gunfire . . . was a loud sound shortly after 8,” Vandroff recalled. “It sounded unusual, and we all looked at each other around the table, like, ‘What the heck was that?’ And then, the second sound — that was definitely gunfire. That was the unmistakable sound of gunfire. And it was very, very loud.
Vandroff and eight others in the third-floor conference room stood up. Someone shut the door, but it didn’t have a lock. They decided to barricade. They flipped the conference table on its side. They wedged it under the door handle and packed chairs behind it. Then they got down on the floor.
Another burst of gunfire sounded, this one closer. Vandroff said he buried his head, then looked up when the sound stopped. There were two bullet holes near the top of a wall, as the gunfire continued.
“At different points, you couldn’t really tell where it was coming from,” he said. “The shot that when we looked up and saw the bullet holes in the wall was definitely close.”
Navy Cmdr. Tim Jirus said that as he was leaving the building, he saw a co-worker who had been shot getting into a police car, and he heard more shots from inside his workplace.
Jirus went to an alley where he thought he would be safe and spoke briefly with a man there about what was going on. Jirus said he heard two gunshots, loudly echoing off the building. He spun toward the sound. When he turned back, the man he had been talking with was lying on the ground, shot in the head.
Uncertain where the shooter was, Jirus ran. “I was just lucky,” he said. “The other person was shorter than me. There were two shots. He got that guy. He didn’t get me. . . . The randomness of it — standing right next to me, one person gets shot.”