Mark Vandroff was attending an early morning meeting Monday when he “heard a very loud noise that seemed unusual.” But he and the other eight people continued on with their meeting on the third floor of Building 197 at the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters at the Navy Yard.
Sometime before 8:30 a.m., Vandroff “heard gunfire, definitely gunfire. Then I heard a voice, I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he said ‘Shooter! Lock the doors! Lock the doors!’ ”
Then, “we heard gunfire that was very close.” He looked up to see two brand new bullet holes in the wall of the conference room. “They were quite high, almost at the ceiling,” he said.
Vandroff soon realized he was in the building, on the very floor, where police say Aaron Alexis, of Fort Worth, Texas, shot and killed 12 people and wounded several more. Somehow Alexis, a former Navy reservist, managed to enter the building with a shotgun.
By the time he had killed those 12 people and was shot to death, Alexis had terrified an entire city and caused air travel in the area to be shut down, several area schools to be put into lockdown and rekindled this country’s gun control debate.
One person with Vandroff had the presence of mind to leave the conference room and lock the nearby doors where everyone’s offices were “to try and get as much wall behind us,” said Vandroff, an active-duty Navy captain stationed at the Navy Yard. Then they locked the doors to the conference room and barricaded it tight with chairs and tables.
As everyone crouched down, Vandroff began using his Blackberry to contact the 60 people under him, making sure they were in a safe place. That is when he learned that some of his employees had locked themselves in a closet in a remote part of the building.
Vandroff’s group stayed in the room for about an hour and a half until uniformed police officers spoke with them and then escorted them out after telling the workers to keep their hands over their heads, he recalled.
“They marched us to a secure location” where the employees were “questioned by the police as to what we heard and what we saw.” Vandroff, a member at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, made sure the police knew about those workers in the remote part of the building.
By 2 p.m., he was allowed to leave the naval base, and Vandroff walked to the Metro to go to his home in Bethesda. As the area was all in lockdown, those who had cars parked there were not able to use them, said the 1989 U.S. Naval Academy graduate.
“I was very proud of my team. We were scared,” but well trained to know how to handle this kind of situation, he said.
Jay Kirschenbaum of D.C. also was attending a meeting in Building 197 Monday morning when “we heard a couple of pops. It sounded like an old-fashioned clipboard” with the clip at the top being opened and closed, he said.
“Then we heard a couple of loud ones, and we bolted” out of the fourth floor meeting room to an emergency exit that let them outdoors, said Kirschenbaum, an assistant program manager with the Navy’s submarines.
“We left the building even before the first alarm was pulled.”
They stayed outside for five or 10 minutes before being told to go to the nearest shelter, which was the National Museum of the United States Navy. About 200 people were sent into that building, he estimated.
“At first it was a little bit scary. It was almost more confusing than scary,” he recalled.
“Most of the people inside the museum were just trying to figure out what was going on,” he remembered. After a while, the talk turned to “when are they going to let us go?”
Eventually an official came in and briefed everyone on the situation and brought them some food before taking them to the base’s convention center where they were interviewed by the FBI and NSA (National Security Agency).
Kirschenbaum, a member of Adas Israel Congregation in D.C., was very grateful for the food. “I had my yogurt on my desk,” he said. “Somehow I held on to my little green notebook and left my coffee,” he recalled, adding that the notebook served absolutely no purpose to him as he waited to be allowed to go home.
Kirschenbaum spent the following day at home as his building and the nearby parking lot were still considered a crime scene that wasn’t to be crossed, he said.
Hal Freed of Darnestown also was working in the Navy Yard but was fortunate enough to be in the next building over from the scene of the mass shooting. He works for a company located about a 10-minute walk away but often ends up at the Navy Yard “a couple of times a day.”
He is an engineer with Computer Science Corporation and was attending an early morning meeting that had just ended. “I was trying to leave the yard when I heard the alarms. I thought it was just a fire alarm,” he said. However, he quickly found himself locked into the area, where he remained for the next eight hours.
“I lost a day, but I got away with my life,” he said gratefully.
He spent the day with about 20 others in a waiting room normally used for ID processing. He waited with “one fellow, a construction worker” who had only left his truck for a moment to come to that area for a glass of water, he noted.
Those he spent the day with were “just very quiet,” he said. “Everybody was patient. There was a TV. We watched what was going on.”
Freed was just happy “we were all very safe. We were cordoned off. There was plenty of military there.”
At the end of the day, they were put on a bus and taken to the Nationals’ baseball stadium.
Freed, president of the Seaboard region of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and a member of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, said he believes the Navy Yard could be more secure. Not everyone is searched going into the building, he said. “They randomly search, but they don’t regularly search.” Still, he said, “You can’t get in easily. You have to have the proper credentials.”
Looking back on the experience, Freed said, “I really feel bad about what happened.”
“Next week, I’m going to go away where it is safe, to Israel.”