WASHINGTON, DC - U.S. Navy Commander Tim Jirus, who survived Monday's Navy Yard mass shooting even as the man he was talking to was shot dead in front of him, said the close call "makes me like life a lot today."
The 25-year Navy veteran works on the fourth floor of Building 197 where officials say at least one gunman opened fire at about 8:20 a.m. Twelve died, along with the gunman.
"We heard what sounded like multiple gun shots, like a cap gun, in my opinion -- that volume level -- four or five times," said Jirus, standing on M Street about four blocks from the crime scene. A couple of minutes later, he said, the fire alarm was activated inside the building, and he joined others evacuating as they had been trained to do. "There was no urgency," he said.
Standing in an alley behind Building 197, Jirus was joined by a civilian who walked over from the boiler shop.
"He was talking to me about what was going on in my building. He mentioned there was a shooter in the building and I said I couldn't confirm that. We had about a one-minute conversation. I heard two gunshots go off near us. He fell down and I ran … I saw him drop in front of me. He was shot in the head."
"I don't want to go through that again," the Iowa native said. "I've seen dead people before. That's not a shocker to me. But to hear gunshots and realize you were that close, I mean, it makes me a little unnerved. It makes me like life a lot today. I'll hug my kids next time I see them."
The shooting at the naval facility about a half-mile from the U.S. Capitol left 13 people dead, including a shooter, and three, including a Washington Metropolitan Police Department officer, wounded, according to Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier.
The shooter was identified by The Associated Press as Aaron Alexis, 34, of Texas. According to The Navy Times, Alexis served from 2007 to 2011 and left the service as an aviation electrician's mate first class. He had been working at the Navy Yard as a contractor.
For hours after the mass attack, authorities searched for as many as two possible accomplices. One was later identified as not being involved.
The remaining suspect was described as an African-American man wearing an olive-drab uniform. The FBI took charge of the investigation which involves D.C. police, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Marshals, U.S. Park Police and Metro Transit officers. Mayor Vincent Gray said there were no known grounds for considering it a terrorist attack.
A Common Area Access Card, or CAAC, is required to enter the 65-acre, walled compound, and the cards are coded to permit access to specific buildings, Jirus said. It once served as a shipyard and weapons plant and is now headquarters to the Naval Sea Systems Command, which builds and maintains the Navy's ships and submarines as well as their combat systems. About 3,000 military and civilian employees work there.
Patricia Ward, a logistics expert, works in another building on the compound but had just used an ATM and had bought breakfast in the ground-floor cafeteria of Building 197 when she heard three shots, three seconds of silence, then four more -- "Pop. Pop, pop, pop." A female security guard, handgun drawn, ordered everyone to flee the building, she said, still visibly shaken two hours later as she stood beneath reporters' umbrellas in a light rain.
Strangely, it wasn't Ward's first experience with an office shooting. In March 1995, she was working in a Navy office in Crystal City, Va., just south of the Pentagon, when co-worker Ernest J. Cooper, an Air Force retiree, wounded two supervisors then shot himself fatally in the head.
The Navy Yard, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol, is surrounded by blocks and blocks of recently built three-story brick row houses painted in various pastel colors. Brick sidewalks and new trees abound in the trendy neighborhood not far from the Nationals' baseball stadium. The Nats' home game Monday night against Atlanta was postponed.
"How secure it is? If you asked me that question at 8 o'clock this morning, I'd have said ‘very secure,'" Jirus said. "At 8:30, when I'm running for my life, it's a different answer."