‘Run as Fast as You Can!’: Inside Building 197

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Joshua Roberts / Reuters

A police helicopter hovers as police walk on the roof of a building as they respond to a shooting at Navy Yard in Washington on Sept. 16, 2013

It was a quiet morning at the Washington Navy Yard when Patricia Ward showed up to work at 6 a.m. at building 201. Shortly after 8 a.m. the Navy employee crossed the street to use the ATM on the first floor of building 197 before grabbing breakfast with a friend in the cafeteria. She bought two scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon, and her friend bought her own breakfast. Before leaving the cash register counter, they heard the gunshots echo in through building.

“You could hear it just clear as day in the cafeteria,” she told TIME. “Pop! Pop! Pop!”

Building 197 is laid out like a tall atrium, each floor open to the open air at the center. The gunshots, several people who work in the building say, came from the fourth floor, which holds a number of different offices. Because the layout of the building, the sound of the shots filled the space and rang out loudly even downstairs to the cafeteria.

For a moment, the room froze. Some said to run this way or that, while others said to stay put. Eventually people just made for the doors. Another round of gunshots — “Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!” — rang out as Ward, hand in hand with her friend, was exiting the building. The security guard at the door had her gun drawn. “She said, ‘Run as fast as you can! Get far away from here,’” Ward recalls.

(MORE: 13 Dead in Shooting Rampage at Washington Navy Yard)

A fire alarm had been set off and people began streaming out of buildings, running from the area in a mass open-air evacuation. The whining sirens grew louder in tandem with the roar of helicopters that began circling in the gray, drizzling sky. The authorities quickly cordoned off the area, setting up progressive roadblocks several streets out into the surrounding neighborhood. A few residents ventured out of houses to walk a dog or explore the scene.

Over the course of the morning, authorities kept the facility on lockdown. Navy Yard evacuees stood around waiting for rides, or walked the streets away from the area, trading information with co-workers they’d meet in passing. Having fled the yard in such a hurry many were without phones, keys, ID badges or purses. Eventually, some began moving toward the Nationals baseball stadium, which the authorities announced as the location for families and co-workers to reunite.