Shooting Survivor from Woodbridge Recounts Hours Spent on Lockdown at Navy Yard
– September 17, 2013 11:36 am
WOODBRIDGE, Va. – Ron Charest, of Woodbridge, was working at the Navy Yard when 12 innocent people were shot and killed on Monday.
After slugging into work, the day started like any other workday — a scheduled 8 a.m. morning meeting in the building next door to building 197 where the shootings took place, and them more phone conferences scheduled starting at 9 a.m. back in his office building nearby at the Navy Yard.
But a short time into the 8 a.m. meeting a fire alarm went off, then gunshots, and more sinister news would follow.
Here’s more from Charest’s first-hand account of his experience while on lockdown, in his own unedited words:
The 8:00 meeting started as normal in a fourth floor conference room; various people discussed various issues. At 8:20 we heard a fire alarm go off somewhere in the building, but not on our floor. We all listened for a minute, decided that since our floor wasn’t on fire we didn’t have to evacuate, and continued the meeting. A few minutes later we heard another announcement that there had been a “shooting incident” and we were to remain where we were. The building was in lockdown. We paused for a minute, and then continued our meeting.
Over the next 30 minutes we continued to hear announcements advising everyone not to leave the building. Although we continued the meeting, it was obvious that with every announcement people were more distracted from the discussions at hand. Finally, the meeting was adjourned. The Government personnel and Contractors with desks in the building immediately went to their computers and brought up news sites to find out what was going on.
A total of 13 people, including identified 34-year-old gunman Aaron Alexis, of Fort Worth, Texas, were killed during the rampage. A woman from Woodbridge — 62-year-old Katheleen Gaarde who lived near the Prince William County Government Center — was one of the victims.
The Washington Navy Yard, once a massive shipyard until it was nearly abdandoded in the 1960s is now home to rows of offices, restaurants, retail shops, and the Washington Nationals baseball stadium. The largest federal tennant at the Navy Yard is the Naval Air Systems Command.
The Navy Yard on Tuesday was closed, except for key personnel that were allowed to access to the complex.
Daily security restrictions on electronic devices are tight at the Navy Yard, Charest explained. No cell phones with cameras, and no recording devices. Federal workers are issued special Blackberry phone devices. Contractors like Charest are issued laptop computers with no webcams.
Because it’s “such a hassle” to get his laptop inside Building 197 from his office building, he didn’t bring it to his morning meeting.
Over the next several hours most of us, Government and Contractor alike, huddled around various computers in stunned disbelief looking at Internet reports of the events just outside our building. Our building has a large atrium with inside balconies on all floors. From our balcony, we could see people apparently evacuated from building 197 being brought inside. Tables had been set up and law enforcement personnel were all over the atrium. Rumors began to circulate about people in the atrium being treated for shock and hyperventilation after witnessing the shootings. News reports on the Internet gradually increased the casualty count from “four injured” to “mass bodies in the building” and then increasingly larger numbers of four, eight, and ten casualties. The numbers of shooters ranged from one to three then back to two.
We were able to look out the windows and see the street between our buildings filled with cars and SUVs from the DC police and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). People wearing various uniforms milled around on the street and went in and out of 197; DC Metro police, DHS, FBI, and military personnel. On the Internet, we saw that “M” Street right outside the Yard was blocked off by police cars. From people who were able to contact their corporate offices we learned that “M” Street was blocked off all the way down to the Nationals Stadium.
Government personnel with phones starting letting us Contractors make calls to our families and corporate offices. I was able to contact my wife, who hadn’t yet heard what was going on. Then I called my mom and left a message that I was OK, expecting she would be hearing the news pretty quick the way Mom’s normally do. I couldn’t call anyone else as all my phone numbers were in my cell phone and not memorized.
Lunchtime rolled around, and being unable to leave the building to find food and little available in a vending machine, federal workers holding a potluck provided Charest and his co-workers with a bite to eat.
Without the tools need to do the job, Charest and others spent the rest of the afternoon managing to “alternate between looking busy and staying out of sight of our Government clients.”
Then word came they would be allowed to go home.
At about 4:00 our building started being evacuated. We rode down the elevator to the first floor and walked out into the atrium where a police officer was collecting our personal information, then let us out. I walked out with a few colleagues and was directed around the building by Metro police.
The police, FBI officers, and military personnel were positioned at each strategic intersection towards the Yard’s main gate directing us. At the main gate, our group was stopped by DC Metro police who announced in a loud voice “you are not allowed to walk off this base. Turn around and go to building 211 where you will be bused to the stadium.” So we turned around and walked across the Navy Yard complex, now without any police providing directions following other people who seemed to know where building 211 was located. Some people started grumbling as they walked but most of us were subdued and quiet.
We arrived at building 211, a large conference center, and milled around waiting for what would happen next. There were a few young sailors outside the conference center issuing out MRE-style meals and water to anyone who wanted it. Apparently, there were a lot of people in the Yard trapped in various buildings who had no food or water all day. I thought providing food and water was a thoughtful touch by the Navy.
After several minutes of waiting, large DC Metro buses began to arrive driven by grim-faced drivers. I managed to get into one of the first buses as it happened to stop right in front of where I was standing. Once the first group of four buses was filled, we drove off and I could see more buses arriving behind us.
We drove out a side gate and up to “L” street, paralleling “M” street, and ended the trip at the north side of National’s Stadium at about 5:00. I got off the bus and was greeted by a older gentleman who shook my hand and said “I’m very happy you made it.”
Right behind him was a four-star admiral who also shook my hand and said “I hope you’ll be OK after this ordeal.” As I continued walking, one of the people walking with me informed me the first gentleman was the Secretary of the Navy, so I presume the four-star admiral was either the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) or Navy Joint Chief of Staff.
Charest arrived late Monday to a commuter wife where he found his wife waiting waiting for him. They exchanged “a really big, really long, hug.”
*This story has been corrected.