By Eric Tucker, Brett Zongker
and Lolita C. Baldor
WASHINGTON: An employee at a defense contractor used his pass to get into the Washington Navy Yard and went on a deadly shooting rampage Monday, spraying bullets in the hallways and firing from a balcony on workers in an atrium below. Thirteen people were killed, including the gunman.
The motive for the assault — the deadliest shooting on a military installation in the U.S. since the tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 — was a mystery, investigators said.
Mayor Vincent Gray said there was no indication it was a terrorist attack, but he added that the possibility had not been ruled out.
“This is a horrific tragedy,” he said.
The onslaught at a single building at the highly secure Navy Yard unfolded about 8:20 a.m. in the heart of the nation’s capital, less than four miles from the White House and two miles from the Capitol.
It put all of Washington on edge and raised the specter of another well-coordinated terrorist strike or another attack from within, like Fort Hood.
The gunman, Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old information technology employee and former Navy reservist whose last known address was in Fort Worth, Texas, died after a running gunbattle inside the building with police, investigators said.
He carried three weapons: an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun that he took from a police officer at the scene, according to two federal law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.
For much of the day, authorities said they were looking for a possible second attacker who may have been disguised in an olive-drab military-style uniform.
But by late Monday night, they said they were convinced the shooting was the work of a lone gunman, and the lockdown around the area was eased.
“We do now feel comfortable that we have the single and sole person responsible for the loss of life inside the base today,” Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier said.
President Barack Obama lamented yet another mass shooting in the U.S. that he said took the lives of American “patriots.” He promised to make sure “whoever carried out this cowardly act is held responsible.”
The FBI took charge of the investigation.
The attack came four years after Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 people at Fort Hood in what he said was an effort to save the lives of Muslims overseas. He was convicted last month and sentenced to death.
In addition to those killed at the Navy Yard, eight people were hurt, including three who were shot and wounded, according to the mayor. Those three were a police officer and two female civilians, authorities said. They were all expected to survive.
The dead ranged in age from 46 to 73, according to the mayor. A number of the victims were civilian employees and contractors, rather than active-duty military personnel, the police chief said.
Valerie Parlave, head of the FBI’s field office in Washington, said Alexis had access to the Navy Yard as a defense contractor and used a valid pass.
Alexis had been a full-time Navy reservist from 2007 to early 2011, leaving as a petty officer third class, the Navy said. It did not say why he left. He had been an aviation electrician’s mate with a unit in Fort Worth.
The Washington Navy Yard is a sprawling, 41-acre labyrinth of buildings and streets protected by armed guards and metal detectors, and employees have to show their IDs at doors and gates. More than 18,000 people work there.
The rampage took place at Building 197, the headquarters for Naval Sea Systems Command, which buys, builds and maintains ships and submarines. About 3,000 people work at headquarters, many of them civilians.
Witnesses on Monday described a gunman opening fire from a fourth-floor overlook, aiming down on people on the main floor, which includes a glass-walled cafeteria. Others said a gunman fired at them in a third-floor hallway.
Patricia Ward, a logistics-management specialist, said she was in the cafeteria getting breakfast.
“It was three gunshots straight in a row — pop, pop, pop. Three seconds later, it was pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, so it was like about a total of seven gunshots, and we just started running,” Ward said.
Todd Brundidge, an executive assistant with Navy Sea Systems Command, said he and co-workers encountered a gunman in a long hallway on the third floor. The gunman was wearing all blue, he said.
“He just turned and started firing,” Brundidge said.
Terrie Durham, an executive assistant with the same agency, said the gunman fired toward her and Brundidge.
“He aimed high and missed,” she said. “He said nothing. As soon as I realized he was shooting, we just said, ‘Get out of the building.’ ”
Navy contractor Sean Carroll described a chaotic scene once the shooting started.
“People didn’t realize what you were supposed to do,” he said. “Just heard the sounds. It was really loud. You could hear the gunshots. That’s a surreal thing. You’re not really thinking. But it wasn’t like, ‘Hey what’s going on?’ You know with the world we live in. You know, ‘Oh my God. This is Fort Hood.’ ”
Security guards at the Navy Yard scrambled to engage the gunman, and police officers arrived within two to three minutes, said Lanier, the D.C. police chief, and “shooter teams,” assembled from several agencies, were on site within seven minutes. After several exchanges of gunfire, the assailant died in a final flurry with metro police, Lanier said.
Lanier credited D.C. police and the U.S. Park Police for preventing even more bloodshed in the morning rampage.
“I think the actions by the police officers, without question, helped to reduce the number of lives lost,” Lanier said, calling the actions of first responders “nothing short of heroic.”
As emergency vehicles and law enforcement officers flooded the streets, a helicopter hovered, nearby schools were locked down and airplanes at Reagan National Airport were grounded so they would not interfere with law-enforcement choppers.
Security was tightened at other federal buildings. Senate officials shut down their side of the Capitol. The House remained open.
In the confusion, police said around midday that they were searching for two accomplices who may have taken part in the attack — one carrying a handgun and wearing a tan Navy-style uniform and a beret, the other armed with a long gun and wearing an olive-green uniform. Police said it was unclear if the men were members of the military.
But as the day wore, police dropped one person and then the other as suspects. As tensions eased, Navy Yard employees were gradually released from the complex, and children were let out of their locked-down schools.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, was at the base at the time the shooting began but was moved unharmed to a nearby military installation.
Washington on alert
Anxious relatives and friends of those who work at the complex waited to hear from loved ones.
Tech Sgt. David Reyes, who works at Andrews Air Force Base, said he was waiting to pick up his wife, Dina, who was under lockdown in a building next to where the shooting happened. She sent him a text message.
“They are under lockdown because they just don’t know,” Reyes said. “They have to check every building in there, and they have to check every room and just, of course, a lot of rooms and a lot of buildings.”
Obama said the victims were “courageous Americans” who knew about the risks of serving overseas, but wouldn’t have expected such “unimaginable violence” at home.
Obama telephoned Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to express his condolences and FBI Director James Comey to commend the agency’s response. He also ordered flags on federal property to be flown at half-staff through Friday.
McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.