Emergency calls made to an internal Navy security system during last year's Washington Navy Yard shooting never reached the Washington, D.C., police department — one of several issues that weakened law enforcement's ability to respond to the incident, according to a new report. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
The man in the cubicle on the fourth floor of Building 197 at the Washington Navy Yard thought that someone had dropped a large safe on the floor.
It was 8:16 a.m. on Sept. 16, 2013, and what he’d heard was the first shot from a sawed-off shotgun wielded by a troubled former sailor. When the man stood up to see what had happened, he witnessed Aaron Alexis firing point-blank into another cubicle.
The man dropped behind a metal filing cabinet, took out his cell phone and dialed 911, becoming the first of scores of terrified callers that morning. But the District of Columbia emergency call center didn’t receive his call for almost two minutes into the rampage that claimed 12 lives before law enforcement officers shot and killed Alexis.
A new report by D.C.’s Metropolitan Police offers the first detailed reconstruction of Navy Yard shootings and the frantic, room-to-room manhunt through a labyrinthine building.
The report takes issue with a number of Navy policies that may have delayed first responders, robbing precious minutes and seconds from federal and D.C. law enforcement.
The report questions the Navy’s use of an internal emergency call service that directed calls to base security and emergency services instead of the Metropolitan Police.
“The Navy Yard’s independent emergency call centers resulted in several emergency calls, which may have contained vital or helpful information, not being relayed to city dispatchers at [the Office of Unified Communications] and responding MPD officers,” according to the report.
The problem was compounded by a cellphone policy that sailors and contractors who work in classified spaces know well. Workers at Building 197, the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters where employees assess classified information like weapons capabilities and ship designs, were required to turn in their cellphones at the entrance, denying emergency responders access to vital human intelligence. The report says 911 callers had either flouted the policy or were in positions that required them to have their phones.
“Does the rationale for prohibiting cell phones truly outweigh an employee’s ability to receive emergency alerts and notifications or to contact emergency services?” the report asks.
The report, first obtained by The Washington Post and released online July 11, faulted the Navy for delays in gaining access to Building 197’s closed-circuit TV feeds that could have provided police with vital information as officers combed the sprawling 600,000-square-foot headquarters.
“Security camera footage would allow responders to review and confirm various details and events as they unfolded and the investigation progressed,” the report said. “The footage may have also allowed police to quickly identify the shooter, ascertain his movements, and help in determining whether others may have been involved.”
69 minutes of terror
Alexis entered the building at 8:08 that morning and emerged from the bathroom eight minutes later, according to the report. Within six minutes, he had killed 10 people on both the fourth and third floors.
The report details many close calls after the initial spasm of violence. After killing two people on the third floor, Alexis exited into the hallway and shot at a group of people standing there, missing them.
He turned around and found a woman hiding beside a filing cabinet. He pointed the shotgun at her and attempted to fire his weapon twice: It was empty.
He then exited to the hall again, reloading, and fired at a group of fleeing office workers, striking one woman in the shoulder who would later be rescued by U.S. Park Police by helicopter on the roof.
There are at least three other occasions when Alexis fired on people from close range but missed.
By that point, someone had pulled the fire alarm — a cacophonous noise that would torment the police and first responders hunting for the armed Alexis.
“Officers are trained to go towards the sounds of gunshots and neutralize the threat,” according to the report. “However, the structure and environment of Building 197, along with the blaring fire alarm, made it nearly impossible to accurately determine from which area the shots were being fired.”
Police began entering the building five minutes after being dispatched, but others were delayed because base security had locked down the gate and headed to the scene, leaving responding officers to scramble to find another entrance.
Around 8:30 a.m., Alexis killed a security guard and took the man’s handgun. He then exited the building and shot his 12th and final victim just after 8:35. By 8:40, the MPD’s on-scene commander arrived outside Building 197 and began organizing active shooter teams from the various agencies, including Navy security forces.
At this point, Alexis seemed to recognize his time was running short.
“Alexis walks around the first floor of Building 197,” according to the report. “His demeanor has visibly changed. He has gone from hunter, to hunted.”
At 9:12 a.m., Alexis was hiding in a cubicle bay on the third floor. With the sound of the fire alarm filling their ears, two MPD officers and two NCIS agents entered the space and sidled down the passage between the desks.
Alexis fired at least one shot, striking one of the MPD officers in both legs. His colleagues dragged the wounded officer clear, but Alexis had been located. When the officers got to the hall, they were met by two U.S. Park Police officers and an MPD tactical officer.
The tactical officer asked the two park police if they were active-shooter trained. When they said they were, one of the park police positioned himself to cover the hallway while the MPD officer and the USPP officer entered the room, searching each cubicle bank as they pushed forward.
As the MPD officer rounded the partition of the final bank of cubicles, Alexis jumped up, firing the handgun he had stolen from the slain guard and hitting the officer in the chest from five feet away. His life was saved by a bulletproof vest.
Both officers returned fire, killing Alexis instantly.
At 9:25 a.m., the park police officer reported over the radio that the suspect was down.
The report recommended steps to better coordinate between local and federal agents and the base, which depends on outside law enforcement, including SWAT teams, during active-shooter situations.
The report recommends both police and military should be familiar with each other’s capabilities.
“District commanders should obtain at least basic information regarding military installations, to include the commanding officer of the installation, security structure, emergency contact information, emergency protocols, capabilities, and installation maps/building locations, security camera locations, video control room location, and building floor plans,” the report recommends. “Conversely, the commanders of military installations should be familiar with the local police response protocols and capabilities.”
The lack of access to the building’s CCTV system was a major misstep that could have saved lives and ended the crises earlier, said Fred Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism expert.
Burton, who recently authored a book on the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, said the CCTV system had a big impact amid the Benghazi attack.
“One of the things that saved lives was our ability to watch cameras from the tactical operations center,” Burton said in a July 17 interview.
But the closed-off nature of military bases complicates the job of emergency first responders, who may have trouble getting on base and are unfamiliar with the location.
“The bulk of the first responders, if not 95 percent, had never been in that building,” Burton said. “So in some ways the shooter had a tactical advantage. … The real question is, when you think about all the government and military buildings in D.C., how many first responders have been in those buildings?”
Navy Installations Command is working with D.C. police and other agencies on its response to on-base incidents, a Navy spokesman said.
“The United States Navy and the Commander, Navy Installations Command have a robust security training curriculum that includes coordination with local, state and national level first responders,” Cmdr. Ryan Perry said in a statement. “There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our workforce, as such, we will continue working with MPD and other external agencies to improve coordinated response efforts.”
On the issue of the closed circuit televisions, Perry said that was also an area that the Navy was looking to improve but said they needed to strike a balance between safety and protection of the Navy’s secrets.
“There is ongoing coordination with MPD including process improvements to enable the capability to view cameras at centralized locations, such as operations centers when required,” Perry said. “These processes must balance the need to ensure appropriate information security standards with the desire to have access during incident response.”