A Risk Analyst's Brush with a Rare Event

Fred Woodaman, IDI Blog Editor

Among our clients here at the IDI, are the Navy’s various offices responsible for aspects of public safety for the Commander Navy Installations Command:  Force Protection, Fire & Emergency Services, Occupational Safety, and Emergency Management.  Our primarily role is to assist them in making risk-informed, resource allocation decisions.  One of the issues we help them grapple with is how to address rare events.   These programs are all headquartred at the Washington Navy Yard.

This past Monday as usual I drove in to spend the day with the client. I entered the Navy Yard at 0820 – as I learned later, literally as the shooting began. The road via which I was entering the base is a one-way street that passes directly in front of building 197.  As I drove into the gate, I presented my ID as normal.  The guard checked and waved me forward.  As I started through the gate and rolled up the window, I heard the guard shouted "What?!? Shut the gate!"  Perplexed I drove forward.  Immediately in front of me on the right side of the road building 197, a very large rectangular build.  I noticed as I pulled forward that people were streaming out of it in droves.  People of all types running, sprinting. 

My only way to go (legally) was in that direction.  I felt something was wrong but didn't know quite what to do.  To the left and right of me, pedestrians were calmly walking forward but I noticed they were slowing down.  I was reaching the northwest corner of the building and road had filled with people.  A man running from the building jumped in front of my car and screamed unintelligibly at my car pointing to an alley to my left.  As I turned, I caught a glimpse of a police car with flashing blue lights coming towards the front of 197 from the other side of the streaming crowd.  The alley ran by the gym.  The double doors were open and I saw  people lifting weights, while around me people were running down the alley.  I ended up going down a couple more alleys that are normally "Do not enter", outpacing the running crowd.  In my mind I was convinced a fire had broken out.  However, as I passed the fire station I didn’t see any action within.  Hmmm.

 I made it to the other side of the base where I normally park in a surface lot that is usually last open parking area at that hour.  Everything was quite there, other than occasionally I would see in the distance somebody running – sometimes away from 197, sometimes towards.

From my parking spot I called the client.  He said he wasn't aware of any drills or problems so told me to go ahead and come in.  I had nowhere to go since I remember that they had shut down the gates.  It was about 0830.

As I walked towards my client’s office, I could see the roof of 197.  I kept waiting to see black smoke because of my hypothesis that a fire would explain what I had seen.  I think I didn’t want to contemplate the alternative.  I made it halfway to his office, stopping to pick up coffee.  As I went to leave the little coffee shop, I hear the loud speaker turn on for the first time ever, telling us there was a base emergency and to shelter in place.  I entered the lobby of building immediately adjacent to me, which was the Headquarters for Naval District Washington, of which the Navy Yard is a subordinate command. 

Initially it was just myself and a Navy Chief Petty Officer.  Military folk will recognize that he was checking in – had his orders, and medical records, etc.  He asked me if this was a normal event.   People started coming into the lobby from various directions.  I don’t recall when, but at some point I think the PA announced that we had a shooter active on the base.  Armed policemen, Sailors, and eventually Marines were going past the building, back and forth.  I called my wife who had learned that this was going on – probably around 0900.  She asked if my building was secure.  I told her I didn’t know how to answer that (typically analyst response).

At one point while in the lobby with a now some 20 people loitering around the entrance with the door open trying to see what was going on.  A passing police yelled at them to get inside and take cover.  Some, hearing this, believed that he was communicating that a threat was imminent.  The movement of these few to hurry and get all the way insides caused an instant wave of panic to course through the lobby and most of the 20 or so people there fled like a covey of quail up into the building.  The flight instinct is a powerful thing.  With all the dignity I could muster I collected my belongings, put my jacket back on, and went looking for an out of the way place. 

As I walked to a stairwell to get further into the building, I remember seeing a man's shoe by itself next to the door.  I climbed the stair well and entered an office space with a cube farm.  All the workers from that office, were huddled in a corner office which I passed.  They had the door cracked and watched me pass in silence.  It was eerily quiet with only the sound of the helicopter in the distance.  I hunkered down in the most deepest out of the way cube and... well, got to work on the computer via my tethered cellphone. 

After about an hour of emailing and texting and pretending that I was being productive, there was a loud crash at the door into the office space as a security team of 5-6 Navy Yard sailors and civilian police entered the room AUTHORITATIVELY and forced all the occupants of the building’s wing into a corner (me and the 10 or so who had been hiding in the corner office) away from windows.  I had to leave everything - I just didn't move quick enough to put my cellphone in my pocket.  Ladies had to leave their purses.  Fortunately my wallet was in my back pocket. 

I noticed the sailors  and civilians were in different states of attire and battle-gear - helmets, soft hats, or no hats; some rifles, some pistols; some vests and utility chief, with a Navy Chief in charge just in his khakis, with a badge and pistol but no holster.  There weapons were perpetually pointed in all directions.  I noticed the Chief had blood on outside of his trousers, blouse, hands, and elbows.  Had he been treating the casualties?  They all were on edge.  Their radios were broadcasting an ongoing discussion between two parties as to whether or not there any Navy Yard police officers down.  The sailor leading us down the stairs with his pistol pointing forward kept yelling for other personnel to announce themselves.  He looked over his shoulder at me and muttered something about being back in Iraq.

They herded us with all the other folks that other security teams had collected from this building into a large group on the ground floor of this bldg.  A few minutes, once sure they had the entire building population, they moved us via a security cordon to building 200 which is literally the furthest building on the base from the shooting. 

This is a building with controlled entrance.  I ended in the Navy JAG Defense Counsel office, using the legal waiting room with leather chairs, a wide screen TV with CNN, and a 6 month old copy of the Economist.  And that's where I stayed for the next 8 or so hours while periodically calling my wife on the land line (huh?) which they kindly let us use.

People were quite chipper and helpful of each other. Somehow in building 200, we ended with a lot of the folk from the floor on Bldg 197 where the shootings took place.  I met several people who had had to hunker down in offices with the doors blocked in Bldg 197 until rescued by police.  I met several who had lost co-workers. 

As you would imagine, there were several announcements made, but usually the information was no more enlightening than what we heard on the news.

At 1530, we heard over the announcement, that the FBI was emptying one building at a time, and out-processing people, putting them on buses to be dropped off at Nationals stadium.

But it wasn't until 1800 that they finally arrived at our bldg.  I had just spoken to Michelle and agreed with her suggestion that she go ahead and drive up to the stadium from Stafford.   We thought the FBI out-processing would take a while, and the line did move somewhat slowly - but the issue was simply getting the hundreds of people onto buses.  Really it was quite impressive.  They had a queue of about 10 buses, with more coming continuously.  They had us spread over several "bus stops" and then a bunch of buses would pull up in a line and we would board 4 or 5 simultaneously.  The "outprocessing" consisted of FBI agents working up and down the line like ticket hawkers looking for witnesses.

I got to the stadium, got fed by the Red Cross (awesome food, believe it or not!), borrowed a cell-phone (for about the 5th time) and found that my wife was just 3 minutes away and met her at the corner of N St and South Capitol.  I got home a little after 2000 hours. 

Tuesday I spent the day at home with no car, computer, or cellphone reflecting a bit, mowed the grass, and tried to get the software updated on the old family computer. 

Wednesday, I caught a ride from neighbor up to the Pentagon, rode the Metro over to the Navy Yard station, and walked the five blocks in.  The gate I came in by Bldg 197 was closed.  I walked to the next gate.  I presented my ID to gate guard – too slowly for his taste and he delivered a terse lecture under a beady eye on the need to pay attention.  I took in stride – who knows what he saw that day?  I made it up to the cube farm I had sheltered in.  Everything was dark and silent.  I was disoriented coming in as everything seemed a little different from how I remembered it.  I found all my belongings, got my keys and walked to the surface lot.  I wondered how many of the cars in the lot had owners who would not be picking them up? 

Overall, my impressions and things to ponder: 

REACTION TIME:  I have to believe the reaction time from security forces was terrific.  In a building with that many people, he would have just kept killing.  I wondered if that police car I saw coming in was the first responder?  One group I talked was hunkered into an office that they had locked and he shot through the door but no one was hit.  The fact that they got there prevented a lot more bloodshed.  Could a dedicated response force have done more?  I don’t know any details but I do know that this is something that will be discussed.

NEAR MISSES:  One of my colleagues as a specialty in approaching risk from the basis of near misses.  In that vein:  a) I met one acquaintance who told me he had gone for an extra mile on the treadmill that morning and was walking from the gym (right across the street) to 197 when all the people came running out.  Two of his cube neighbors were among the murdered.  b) I entered the base oddly with no cars in front of me.  Had I been a minute earlier I would have been immediately outside the main entrance and atrium of 197 into which he shot – likely right in the line of fire.

SECURING THE BASE:  I was impressed at how they were able to get us all secured into a safe area and had all their security forces working together.  Marines, Sailors, cops from a multitude of agencies.  I guess I thought they would just “check our area” and I could continue working.  Oh, boy was I wrong.  They made it secure by moving us all to an area they could firmly control.

LOGISTICS:  From the buses, to Nats stadium, to the Red Cross, to the Chaplain's counseling station RIGHT by where the bus dropped us off, to the various taxis they had lined up free of charge to take people to metro, it was an impressive operation.

PEOPLE:  Other than those few brief moments of understandable panic, people were chipper, calm, collaborative, and supportive.  I drank about a gallon of Navy JAG coffee and my lunch was a couple of old instant oatmeals from their lounge.  And the whole time they kept asking us if there was something else they could do.  People lending each other cell phones, tracking down rides, helping find lost co-workers.  And just how many people in 197 had family members working in the same building.  Father and daughter, husband and wife. 

Overwhelming, our collective thoughts are and remain on those who died and their families.

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As Dorothy said... there's no place like home!