City Desk

At Navy Yard, Plenty of Media, Little Information


Throngs of reporters wait for a press conference to begin near the site of the Navy Yard shooting.

Jimmy Smith is an independent truck driver traveling the country for Disney's touring show, Doc McStuffins Doc Mobile. The show was supposed to perform in front of a live audience of children Tuesday at the Yards Park next to the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command by the Navy Yard. But as the crew was setting up for the show, shots erupted at the federal building next door.

"Military police told us to leave the park," Smith says. "And I ran."

In the hours following the shooting rampage that left 13 dead, the thoroughfare closest to the Navy building was blocked off, instantly transformed into a crime scene for blocks, free from the everyday traffic that typically jams M Street SE.

The area was filled instead with hundreds of journalists from around the world, the occasional hovering helicopter, and seemingly endless lines of police cars and ambulances, whose flashing red and blue lights and sporadic sirens kept a tense scene even tenser.

And then there were people like Smith, who were stranded in the middle of the crime scene.

Smith's truck was parked in a blockaded street and at around 3 p.m., police told him it could still be another few hours before he could retrieve it. He was waiting outside a nearby Starbucks with some other people, and like everyone else in the area, they were rattling off the rumors they had heard about the number of involved shooters and how many were still at large.

One of the men he was speaking with, Antonio Thomas, was a worker delivering fences for the live Disney show. His truck was parked by Yards Park when the shooting occurred. He captured footage on his phone of police firing at a shooter. (He contemplated giving the video to Washington City Paper, but when someone suggested he could get money for it, he decided not to.)

By afternoon, police had transported at least four buses of witnesses to be questioned, and the few witnesses that remained in the area were immediately bombarded by the media—who were looking for any information they could piece together between the information-scarce press conferences that occurred about every two hours throughout the afternoon.

A few blocks away from the dense crowd of reporters, officials set up an area, in the parking lot next to the main entrance of Nationals Park, where people could reunite with family members who had been in the Navy Yard building.

Reporters tried to catch a glimpse of these reunions, but there were few to be seen. Jacqueline Alston, who had not heard from her husband who worked as a custodian in the Navy Yard building, said officials told her it could still be hours before information was released about loved ones, because officials had to identify the injured victims in the hospital and those who were taken away to be questioned as witnesses. (Alston reportedly later found her husbandErnest Johnston, alive and well.)

So absent much information, many people tried to continue on as normal.

Alston was preparing to report to work as an usher at the then yet-to-be cancelled Nats game. Perry Moore was similarly trying to navigate his way through the police barricades to make it on time to his shift at the ballpark, where he works as a line cook.

"They haven't told us anything," he says.

Photo by Perry Stein

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  • Jasper

    Both Chief Lanier and the Mayor deserve thanks for how they handled public outreach during yesterday's crisis. Lanier lived up to her reputation for being strong and solid. Even though reports of a possible second gunman ultimately were found not to be true, Lanier made the correct, gutsy call earlier by erring on the side of caution and warning the public. I am not normally a big fan of Gray, but he was careful and showed gravitas in his statements. This was a very difficult situation, and both rose to the moment.

    E.H. Norton, on the other hand, was embarrassing yesterday. Someone should have given her the hook, and gotten her away from the cameras. Whatever her past record, it is past time for her to retire.

  • Arlingtron

    The police did their primary job quite well: respond quickly, eliminate danger. They have another job too and that is assuring the public. That they didn't do so well. They don't seem to know that the best way to inform the public is THROUGH THE MEDIA. It doesn't cost any money and the word gets out far and wide, quickly and efficiently. Increasingly, the police treat the media like the enemy. They tightly control the meager trickle of vague information. They also create overly large perimeters for cameras, some larger than boundaries for ordinary civilians so it's not about safety. All the people in and near the Navy Yard needed critical information and they weren't getting it from the only source, the cops.