In 29 years with the Navy, James Lofgren had never experienced the kind of fear he felt Monday when a gunman started firing in the Washington Navy Yard building where he works.
"There was no mistaking what was going on," said Lofgren, a Maine West High School graduate who grew up in Des Plaines and now lives in Alexandria, Va. "I heard eight rapid-fire gunshots at rather close proximity. It was very unnerving to know that you thought you were in a safe place, and now you were very vulnerable to a situation that you had no control over. Combat's the last thing you think about being in the Washington Navy Yard."
Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old former Navy reservist, killed 12 people in a shooting rampage at the heavily-guarded facility where more than 18,000 people work before being killed in a shootout with police.
According to eyewitness reports, the shooter opened fire from the fourth-floor overlook of Building 197, the headquarters for Naval Sea Systems Command, which buys, builds and maintains ships and submarines. Witnesses reported that he was aiming down on people on the main floor, including in a glass-walled cafeteria, and firing at people in a third-floor hallway.
Lofgren, 55, a senior executive for Navy acquisition and procurement, is among the roughly 3,000 people who work at the headquarters, many of them civilians. He was in a senior staff meeting on the first floor around 8:15 a.m. when he heard the shots.
"It was almost like it was right next to you," Lofgren said. "That's how loud and clear the shots were, so we automatically barricaded the two doors that led into the conference room. Everybody kind of hunkered down. There was a lot of anxiety."
Lofgren had his Blackberry with him and he used it to text message his wife, who was in Wisconsin at the time, to inform her that he was safe so she wouldn't be alarmed when she saw the news on TV. She notified his two sons, mother and sisters.
After about 10 minutes, security guards arrived and told the group to move out of the conference room, he said.
They ran down a long hallway to the south end of the building and out, then ran across the grounds to a lawn on the far end by the riverwalk, Lofgren said.
Lofgren said he heard more gunshots. The group was then herded to a secure building on campus.
"We ended up in the Navy chapel, a block away from Building 197," he said. "Obviously, people were very nervous. There was a lot of crying."
The group hunkered down in the chapel for four hours before being moved to another building. The uncertainty continued for several more hours before they were allowed to leave the base around 4:30 p.m.
Everyone was questioned by police and FBI about where they were when the shooting began and what they witnessed, Lofgren said.
Lofgren said he didn't know or recognize the shooter, nor did he know any of the 12 victims.
"However, certainly that doesn't make it any less of an impact," he said. "It was a very long, sad day for me, as well as the Naval Sea Systems Command community. It's one thing when you are watching it on TV when you have the Fort Hood incident, Columbine ... When you are actually involved in the story and part of the tragedy, clearly it's just a randomness who gets killed and who doesn't when somebody fires an automatic weapon."
Monday's rampage was the deadliest mass shooting on a military installation in the U.S. since the attack at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.
"I'm thankful I'm not a casualty or a fatality," said Lofgren, working from home Tuesday since the Washington Navy Yard is shut down for crime scene investigation.
Lofgren said the Navy Sea Systems Command has set up counseling for anyone who needs to talk to a professional about the tragedy about how to deal with the grief, sorrow and anger, and get back to work.
"This is going to be very difficult to deal with and it's going to impact us for a long time to come," he said.