“This is not a drill.” Joann Fitzell, RN, shares her experience at the Navy Yard on Sept 16.
Joann is an AAMC NICU nurse. She has been on active duty with the Navy, managing two hospital ships, and working at the Navy Yard for the past two years. On the morning of September 16, Joann was not expecting to have to respond to an active shooter in her facility. Read her powerful story here.
Thinking I had time to go to the bank before my 0900 meeting, I head out of my office in Building 210 and see people rushing about. I hear a distant “pop pop” and think maybe there’s a ceremony with gunfire, but don’t see the sign reminding people to turn off car alarms when that’s the case. I head back inside instead.
About 15 minutes into my meeting, we hear a familiar alert siren sound on someone’s laptop. “Eeehhh, eeehhhh, eeeehhhhh.” My boss looks at me with questioning eyes. “That’s the alert siren we get when we have to acknowledge something happening on base. It will circulate through all the laptops until everyone has acknowledged.”
Moments later, we hear the general base alarm and the overhead announcement, “This is not a drill! This is not a drill! The Navy Yard Washington is under alert! Please remain in your workstation! Do not leave your buildings! Repeat. Do not step outside or leave your workstations until further notice! The Navy Yard Washington is in a lock down status!” We hear the helicopters above, which sound like they are right above my cubby. Emergency alerts come through our laptops, phones, and cell phones, each requiring acknowledgment of receipt.
My coworker turns on his radio to see what is going on. We find out there is an active shooter in the Yard. My cell phones lights up with messages from friends asking if I am okay. How do they know already? I send out some emails and texts to family and friends – worried they might begin to panic.
I post on Facebook to get the word out en mass: “Hi friends and family! I’m ok and still at the Navy Yard. We’re in lock down with the shootings going on. I’m in a fairly safe area with plenty of SWAT teams patrolling campus. The helicopters are still searching and circling. It’s stressful but I’m with a few co-workers and doing ok.” Instantly, I am inundated with likes and comments on my page. My friends from New Mexico, New Hampshire, Texas, and Germany all are concerned for my safety and happy I’m okay so far. Time drags on.
The alerts continue every thirty minutes or so. “Eeehhh, eeehhhh, eeeehhhhh.” The laptop: acknowledge. The cell phone: press one and send. The phone: press one, pound and hang up.
People filter in. We are, after all, medical. I’m a nurse, my other coworker is a retired corpsman, and my boss is an occupational health doctor. We have no medical equipment other than a single stethoscope and a blood pressure machine, but we care for people having anxiety attacks, panic issues, high blood pressure, missing medications, and many who just need to cry. Mostly I calm people, help them take some deep breaths, hold their hands and give out lots of hugs. After all, that’s a big part of nursing. Overall, everyone did well.
I decide to call my kids’ schools. It’s getting close to dismissal and I’m concerned they will start to hear rumors. The schools are all wonderful — the middle school even gets my daughter, Mary, on the phone. I hear the strain in her voice and tell her I’m fine. “Are you sure, Mommy?” “I’m sure.” She’s very quiet. I tell her I love her. “I love you too,” she says.
It’s 1800. I step out to the lobby of our building and see my friend, our security guard, on full alert. She’s standing in the doorway, tension evident in her entire body, her hand poised over her weapon, her face strained. I think of her small children.
“Are you ok?” I call to her. “Yes,” she nods. “Have you been able to contact your kids?” I ask. “If you need me to call them, I can.” “Chief already did,” she replies. My heart goes out to her. She adores her kids and I see the fear in her face. Fear she will not make it home to them, I think. She’s standing right in the doorway, in plain sight. The rest of us have been hiding at our workstations, far away from window, with the blinds completely drawn. I walk over to her and touch her arm, “I’m here if you need anything. Can I get you water?” A faint smile and she nods briefly. I get her a cupful. “Thank you for being here for us,” I say and go back to my space, back to where I believe I’m safe.
By 2000, our building is evacuating. We grab our laptops, forward our phones and hustle to stand in line in the lobby. We are escorted out and immediately whisked to a separate area with FBI agents in their raid jackets. I’ve seen my husband in his hundreds of times, but I get a chill when I see all of them. They are all wearing Kevlar vests too. Suddenly, I feel very naked.
I answer the few questions, give my contact information and step away. We are escorted to a waiting bus and meet another FBI agent. We answer a few more questions and board. I’m so grateful to breathe some fresh air. I fill my lungs and lean my head back on my seat. I look about. There are police cars everywhere. The red and blue lights flash incessantly.
We zip out of the base and onto the city streets. The scene is now surreal. Cars are abandoned at weird angles. Police are everywhere. The streets are completely empty except for a clump of reporters, their lights blinding in the now-dark streets.
I am a bit giddy again at being “free.” We literally careen through the streets with a police escort, stop at the Nationals stadium, and are told: Metro is free, we can also get a cab for free (within reason), there is food and water to the right and counseling available to the left if we should need it. We file neatly off the bus and I’m so happy to set foot outside the base.
I call my husband, who has been working on the FBI leads on the case all day. I tell him I’ll meet him at home and that my dad will pick me up from the New Carrollton station. I really wanted to see my dad.
I stagger off the metro at New Carrolton and wonder vaguely how I’ll get out of the station since I didn’t get a card. As I approach the gate, a security guard rushes over. “You from the Navy Yard?” I nod. “Right this way.” He opens a separate gate for me. “I hope your day gets better,” he says. I smile and say thanks.
I feel the cool night breeze on my face and inhale. It feels so good. A moment later, Dad drives up and I get into the car and see his face. Tears prick the back of my eyes and a wave of relief washes down my entire spine like a warm shower. I lean over and hug him, rest my face against his chest and breathe deeply. I smell 46 years of safety, security and protection. I’m eight years old again.
I allow a few of the tears to slip down my cheeks. “Thanks for coming, Dad.” And I hear the tremor in my voice. “It’s all over now. You’re safe and that’s all that matters now.” I hear the tremor in his voice, too.
I was happy for the silent drive home. I don’t feel like retelling the day, and he doesn’t need to hear it. I’ll think about it tomorrow.
We arrive home and he gives me another hug. “I love you.” “I love you too, Dad. Thanks again.” I get out and my husband is there, waiting. I smile in relief. It’s good to see him. He looks so handsome, better than I remembered. I’m so lucky to have him.
I think of the spouses who won’t get to see each other tonight. I wonder what their last words were. What was the last thing I said to Brian before the lock down? I can’t even remember.
The kids all rush out, ecstatic. Concern is etched on my 16 year-olds face. “Hi, Mommy. I’m glad you’re okay.” Mary is less subdued, “Oh Mommy! Thank goodness you’re okay. I was so worried! I love you so much!” Joseph and James run in circles and jump into my arms and hug my legs.
I’m overjoyed with the reception. My heart squeezes in my chest. I turn and blow a kiss and a last wave to my dad and I walk inside my home, so eternally grateful I’m able to do just that. -CAPT Joann W. Fitzell, NC, USN
AAMC is prepared to respond to this type of emergency: we’ve conducted mock drills, rehearsed communications, and set in place our Code Silver policy (EOC4.2.06 – Active shooter on campus / code silver). If you have questions, please let your director know.