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Evacuating the Washington Navy Yard

The historic Washington Navy Yard is home to a number of Navy organizations: not just the Navy’s Sea Systems Command, but the Navy Installations Command, the Military Sealift Command, and the Navy’s History and Heritage Command, to name a few. The Yard is also home to the Chief of Naval Operations.

The size of a small town, the Yard can have, at any given time, several thousand workers scattered through dozens of buildings.

Shelter in Place Alert
At approximately 0820 on September 16, 2013 — only four minutes after Aaron Alexis started killing — a high-volume, disembodied voice from the outside public address system echoed off brick walls and alerted base employees to “shelter in place.”

At 0834 employees that had access to their computers received a second message that told them again to “shelter in place.” A black call-out box with an audible siren alert appeared on the bottom right corner of their computer monitors.

Even before 0834, workers heard sirens and witnessed helicopter activity that seemed closer and more frequent than that to which they had become accustomed. Many learned there was an active shooter on the Yard from Internet news reports. Others first discovered details about the shooting from telephone calls and text messages sent by concerned friends and family.

By 0930 the media machine was up and running. They reported that there may have been more than one murderer, not a bad assumption given the circumstances. The reports also made the crisis sound similar to Mumbai, where terrorists went about their business, killing as many innocents as time permitted. Given that many of the buildings were open to the public, such reports contributed to the unease.

Clearing the Yard
Soon after the shooting began, law enforcement evacuated victims from Building 197. Many sheltered in the nearby Navy Museum. There, sailors who had experience in Afghanistan and Iraq quickly chained and barricaded the doors behind the evacuees.

Most employees remained in place as directed and waited several hours for word on what to do next. As soon as was practical, police began to systematically account for and evacuate hundreds of people who had barricaded themselves in offices scattered around the Yard.

Sixty workers of the Navy’s History and Heritage Command found themselves shuffled into the Navy Library (Building 44), where they remained while officers cleared the building. Police also locked down nearby federal buildings, including the Department of Transportation and the Coast Guard headquarters.

Like many buildings on the Navy Yard, what had once been two separate buildings (Buildings 44 and 52) were now connected, with a warren of halls, storage rooms, and cluttered offices that all had to be carefully cleared. One of the officers that cleared the building had the unmistakable signs of dried blood on his uniform.

Staging and Screening
Around noon, authorities moved those in the library into the Town Center cafeteria, about 50 yards away. They joined several hundred others in what had become a secure area for screening for possible witnesses and staging for eventual evacuation off the Yard.

The cafeteria had four televisions mounted on the ceiling and another on a wall near a cluster of soda machines. All but one carried live news of the event. Incongruously, one television broadcast a re-run of a Washington Nationals baseball game.

Once in the cafeteria, those present became immediately aware of the scope of the law enforcement response. Men and women wearing blue coats with NCIS, FBI, Police, and JTTF were everywhere.

Lucky to Be Going Home
Between 1430 and 1500 law enforcement officers began to evacuate those from the cafeteria off the Navy Yard. Before leaving, each gave their name and contact information to a law enforcement officer. They then walked by a light cordon of police out to the 6th and M Street gate.

Once outside the gate, another group of law enforcement officers told evacuees they were free to go and, if they wanted, could ride a bus to the Washington Nationals ballpark where they would receive help getting home.

Emergency vehicles lined the middle of M Street, and police blocked the intersections. As some walked west down the north side of M Street, a young woman told them that if they wanted to talk to the press they could walk straight ahead; otherwise they could cross to the south side and continue unmolested.

Most crossed the street and avoided the press — these people returned home to their families.

Twelve of their co-workers had not been so lucky.

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army’s Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.