By 10 a.m., police officers had given up trying to divert rubberneckers away from the Washington Navy Yard, a sprawling naval base where a gunman had opened fire in Building 197 at about 8:20 a.m. They milled along L Street, as close to the action as officers would allow them, where they could squint across a parking lot at the Navy Yard’s grim brick buildings, a row of flashing lights, and a sky full of circling helicopters.
On the 500 block of L, Randy Kier, a University of the District of Columbia student, had his eyes fixed on what other bystanders had told him was Building 197, where some 3,000 people work, including his aunt. No one had heard from her since 8:20 a.m.; she was a data-entry employee and had to surrender her cell phone every morning. Her daughter had called Kier from New York when he was between classes, and he arrived at Navy Yard in time to watch a shielded SWAT team rush the building. Now he was fielding phone calls from stricken family members in different cities. “197 is a very big building,” he told a relative calmly. He was pacing and rain poured off the brim of his baseball cap. “No, I don’t know. Everywhere I go the police won’t answer questions.”
Next to him, a man who evacuated from an office building across the street from the Navy Yard complex was texting a friend who was on lockdown in 197. He was concerned for him, but also a little giddy about getting updates from the thick of it. “He says he’s hungry,” he said, and laughed. “That’s good. He’s in good humor, that’s a good attitude.” Kier paced closer to him and he quieted down.
Bruce Cureton narrated the scene to a couple of twentysomethings who were new entrants to the neighborhood. Cureton grew up in the area, before the apartment towers down the street replaced the Arthur Capper public housing project. “This brings back a lot of memories,” he said. “A lot of people lost their lives right over there.” He pointed to where the Cappers used to stand as a line of police cars whooshed past. His face hardened. “There weren’t as many police cars for them,” he said. Then he reconsidered. “This is an act of terrorism.”
Overhead, a U.S. Park Police helicopter flew steady circles around the north side of the complex, an armed officer hanging out the side. The small crowd seized up when another chopper, apparently towing a bright orange stretcher, zoomed north out of the complex. A line of reporters who had tented their laptops under their raincoats sat in the grass along the sidewalk, and a man from a competing TV crew teased a female reporter about her rain-soaked hair. “At least I have hair,” she said. They schemed about how to get onto the roof of the school across the street. “If you get up there, and you don’t call me…” she said, grinning.
Jenna Ruddock, a 22-year-old in Keds and a flannel shirt, had wandered down from Eastern Market. She heard about the shooting when concerned friends from out of town texted her to make sure she was nowhere near the Navy Yard. “And yet here I am,” she said sheepishly. Ruddock had gone to school in Massachusetts and grown up in Connecticut, both states the site of enormous acts of violence in the past year. “After a while, you just want it to stop, you know?”
Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.