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'I felt him breathe': Escape from the Navy Yard

  • In this photo, which The AP obtained from Don Andres, shooting victim Vishnu Pandit is assisted on the sidewalk while awaiting the arrival of emergency medical personnel after coworkers took him by car from the Washington Navy Yard to receive medical attention Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Washington. Pandit died of his injuries. (AP Photo/Don Andres)

WASHINGTON — The first bang sounded distant and muffled. On the fourth floor, Bertillia Lavern assumed somebody downstairs was setting up for an event and had dropped a folding table.

But when the bangs kept coming, Lavern recognized the sounds.

Years earlier, before taking a civilian office job at Naval Sea Systems headquarters, Lavern was a Navy medical specialist. Known as a corpsman, she'd been on training operations with the Marines. She knew the snap of gunfire.

Washington Navy Yard Shootings

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The 39-year-old hit the ground and scurried under a desk with her supervisor in a nearby cubicle, she said. They stayed there silently as the shots continued.

From that vantage point, the building's open floor plan allowed her to view the fifth floor, where she saw someone moving.

"Get down!" she screamed, emerging from her hiding place.

She remembers her supervisor, Andy Kelly, making the same demand of her. And she remembers a bright flash of light.

"Glass shattered right by my head," she told The Associated Press in a phone interview on Thursday. "It was on the edge of Andy's cubicle."

Lavern's account is the most detailed yet by someone who was inside the Navy Yard when former Navy reservist Aaron Alexis, a contractor who had worked at the Navy Yard for less than a month, shot and killed 12 civilians on Monday before being killed by police.

Lavern said she and Kelly ducked down again and waited for a break in the shooting.

"We realized then we had to get out of the building," she said. "Andy looked around the corner to check that the coast was clear."

Lavern crawled to her desk to grab her identification badge and her purse. From there she saw her colleague, Vishnu Pandit.

"He was down."

Pandit, 61, had spent 30 years with the Navy. Known to his coworkers as Kisan, he had two sons and was a grandfather and lived in North Potomac, Md. He was the first person she greeted at the office each morning. And he had been shot in his left temple.

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