In light of the recent tragedy in Orlando, now recognized as the worst mass shooting in US history, I wanted to share my own experience, having survived a mass shooting. In honor of those who lost their lives, those who were injured, those who witnessed, all the friends, families and anyone else who has ever been impacted by a mass shooting – this is my story …
It was my husband’s first day of work at the Pentagon, so I took the early shuttle so we could ride in together. A quick peck & “I love you,” as he got off the metro and I continued on to my stop.
It was a nice day out, so I decided to walk the half-mile from the metro to the Washington Navy Yard gate. When I arrived, there was a man in a grey suit asking the guard for directions. As he directed the man where to go on the map, he would do a quick twist to check the ID of each person walking in, then twist back to resume giving directions. I continued to walk past the ongoing construction on Isaac Hull and took a quick glance in the back door entrance to see if there were any empty cell phone lockers … it was full. I got a few paces further, just before the steps leading to the main entrance of building 197, when I noticed everyone stopping dead in their tracks. It was revile. There I stood, slightly at attention, while trying to pause my walking app so the clock would stop ticking as I stood in place. Revile ended and I proceeded up the steps and through the glass doors.
I quickly put my phone on airplane mode, stuck it in locker A-54, dropped the key in my purse and scanned my CAC as I walked through security. I vaguely remember glancing over at Mike – he worked the security desk at the main entrance – but for the life of me, I honestly don’t know if I said good morning to him that day. I went up the “Gone With the Wind” staircase (as my boss called it), went through the double doors and headed toward the 00D office suite. I braced myself in an effort not to flinch as I walked past those damn uniformed mannequins tucked in the little nooks in the hallway – I hate those guys! I think to myself, the first thing I’m going to do when I get in is grab Bryan to go with me to get some coffee – caramel macchiato, yum! I make my entrance and peek over at his desk, only to find that he hasn’t arrived yet … I wasn’t used to getting to work so early! I rounded the corner, noticing that nobody was really around yet. I got to my cubicle, dropped my bags on my desk and started logging into my computer.
Suddenly, I heard three loud noises coming from the atrium, but just assumed it was from the construction, or maybe they were moving furniture for a ceremony or something. I remember saying aloud, “man, they’re really making a racket out there.” As I’m talking to myself, I hear Brittany swearing worse than a Sailor. “Damn Brittany, such profanity!” I jokingly hollered at her through my cubby wall. She comes running around the corner, eyes wide open, when she says, “Someone yelled shots fired! Did you hear that?!” … “I heard the noise, then I heard someone’s voice, but I couldn’t make out what he said,” I replied to her as calm as ever. We both walk into our Director’s office to report what we just heard. “Are you serious?” Pat replies in her calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice. I wish we weren’t serious. The fire alarm starts to sound … “An emergency has been reported. Please exit the building.” EXIT the building?!
Pat tells us, “Stay here, let me see what’s going on,” as she comes out of her office and makes her way to the glass double door entrance to our spaces. Thinking, at the time, that the worst was over and we’d likely be forced to stay in the office until they cleared the area, I started to follow her to the doors. Before we could reach the main doorway, I heard the wood-framed glass doors slam shut, while the others in the office were rushing back in. I could see the urgency in their eyes, and heard the fear in their breathing. It was at that moment, the seriousness of the situation finally hit me.
I stood there, trying to hold it together … my heart is racing, I can’t stop shaking, I’m tearing up and finding it hard to breathe. What do we do? … Where do we go? Dave sees me from the other side of the doorway, apparently looking like I’m about to have a complete breakdown. He does a quick glance to make sure it’s safe to cross, and comes over to me. “Jenn, you need to calm down,” he orders to me – we were both Navy, so at that moment, I could tell he was talking to me as my Senior Chief. “I’m trying to keep it together,” I whisper to him through my tears and shaking voice.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. I could barely blink. My anxiety is getting increasingly worse, so I’m trying to take deep breaths to stay calm. I rush back to my desk, grab my bags and my blackberry, pull my badge from the computer and go straight to Pat’s office – one of only two areas that has a “real” wall and a solid door. I find a spot on the floor and start trying to reach my husband, Justin. The fire alarm is still blaring, directing people to exit the building.
8:19am – I send a text to his cell phone: “shots fired – we r on lock down”
I keep checking my phone for his reply … no response. I knew he wouldn’t get it because he has no signal in the Pentagon. Or did he say he’d been in training all day? I hated that I didn’t know how to reach him.
At some point, another announcement is made over the wailing fire alarm: “Shelter in place. Stay where you are.” Chris pokes his head into Pat’s office to give us an update – I think he had just gotten off the phone with Alan. He peeks out the window through the mini-blinds, and I do the same … there are three or four law enforcement officers, slightly crouched behind a vehicle with giant guns pointed right toward the building. I see a woman lean against the entrance to the parking garage as two people catch her before she collapses. (she had been shot in the shoulder)
8:31am – I try calling Justin’s cell phone … maybe he didn’t feel the text if it’s on vibrate? I leave a vmail: “….. “
Although I work with these people every day, I’ve really only been working in the office for about a month. It wasn’t like at my last job, where I had made some very close friends over the last five years. I felt completely alone … isolated from everyone I know and love. I just wanted someone to come sit with me … hold me … cry with me. In a panic because I can’t reach Justin, I just needed to let someone … anyone know what was happening.
8:34am – I send a text to Megan (my neighbor who worked at National Ballpark next door): “shots fired – we r on lock down”
8:35am – She immediately replies: “Wow!! Everything ok??”
8:37am – I text back: “No!!!!!! I can’t reach Justin – we r all cowering on floor in office”
8:38am – Megan: “OMG! Is Justin at the pentagon today?”
8:38am – I respond: “keep hearing more shots”
I’m on my knees … hands clenched, rocking forward and back … shaking … crying … begging … pleading … “God, please let me get out of here!”
At this point, I start trying to find a phone number for the program he’s working with.
8:51am – I call the number listed on the website … it goes straight to vmail
8:53am – Megan: “They’re reporting live from there are you guys still ok?”
I find a general number for the Pentagon …
8:55am – I speak with an operator at the Pentagon and ask to be transferred to someone in his program office … waiting for her to locate a number … she transfers me, and once again … I get vmail
8:57am – I call the Pentagon operator again … I explain that this is an emergency situation and I cannot be sent to another voicemail, but I need to speak with someone who can relay a message to my husband … she asks if everything is ok … I tell her “there’s an active shooter in my building and I can’t reach my husband” … she transfers me to a different number … I get vmail again
9:03am – Megan: “We’re on lockdown”
9:04am – I receive a call from a 571 number, but I’m shaking and crying so bad that I accidentally hang up when I try to answer it … please let it be Justin …
9:04am – I call the number back … someone from his office answers “Yeah, your husband was trying to call you … he just walked out with his cell phone though so I think he’s gonna try you back”
9:05am – Justin calls … I could finally breathe
9:10am – Megan: “They all are now. Was CBS now ABC”
Sometime after that last text, all I could hear were sirens, helicopters and the fire alarm. Pat and I were the only ones in her office now. Suddenly, we here a commotion right outside the double doors. Someone was trying to bust the doors open!
I was terrified. We were completely blind to what was happening just on the other side of the wall. Did the shooter finally make it to our office and was now trying to force his way in? I hear a loud bang, then a man’s voice yelling, “Put your hands up! Put your hands up!” Oh my God, the shooter is here! Pat and I stayed in her office, her solid wood door was left wide open. I couldn’t make myself small enough to hide or to move any further away from what was happening. We stayed quiet, and just listened …
It was suddenly silent. Pat gestures to me to stay back, as she slowly moves closer to the door to catch a glance at what was out there. Everyone was gone. She looks at me and says, “That must have been SWAT coming to get us … we need to go … now.” With every ounce of courage I had left in me, I grabbed my things, grabbed Pat’s glasses, and we started creeping into the main office area. We were both being as quick and quiet as possible … but now that we’re out, what next? I was crouched behind the cubicle beside my own desk, when I peeked up for a quick second and saw the top of a navy blue baseball cap run across. Was it him?! Should I stay quiet to not bring attention to myself? What if it is SWAT? What do I do?
Before I could answer any of my internal thoughts, Pat starts waiving her arms and yelling, “We’re here! We’re in here!” I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the barrel of a very large gun. I was frozen. Terrified. At that moment, I felt the actual horror of fearing for my life. “Let me see your hands!” he yelled. I was on my knees. I threw my hands out on the floor in front of me and ducked my head down. “Did you see where he went?” he shouted. “No, I didn’t’ see anything!” I replied. “Let’s go … keep your hands where I can see them,” he says to me in a softer, more comforting tone.
I struggled to get up, without moving my hands from his sight. “Ok, follow me,” he ordered, as we began toward the double doors. As I reached the double doors, I realize they still had not identified the shooter (or shooters) and nobody knew where he was. He was still loose in the building. In order to get out, we had to use the walkway which overlooks the atrium. It was now or never. “Just go with this officer,” he tells me as he nudges me out the door and into the open walkway.
I went to the officer as directed, who then pointed to another officer about 10 feet away. They lined our path to exit, stopping me at the end of each cubicle so they could do a visual check before giving me the all-clear to run across. It was so surreal … it was unfolding like a movie, except I wasn’t just watching, I was in it. I finally made it to the far back corner and saw the exit sign ahead. An officer manning the door to the stairwell gestures for me to come to him. I’m running down the stairs as fast as possible, to where I think I may have passed our uniformed escort – which I quickly realized when I made it to the last flight and had more guns pointed right at me. “Two civilians coming down!” the officer yelled. They immediately dropped their guns and waived us to the door.
The only sound I could hear now, was the sound of my own breathing. I was running away from the building, when I finally see someone from my office, Guy. I ran to catch up with him. “Hey, it’s ok. We’re out. You’re fine,” he tells me. “Where is everyone?” I ask in a panic. “They’re all right over here,” he said calmly, as he put his arm around my shoulder and walked with me the rest of the way to find them.
9:19am – I send a text to my parents: “Checking in to let you know I’m ok – still on going – swat just escorted us out of bldg at gunpoint – I’m w my office staff & cops – still on base”
12 people were killed that day, while many more were injured. I was one of the lucky ones, but nearly three years later, I am still haunted by the events from that day. The mental and emotional trauma from that morning may never heal.