WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Washington Navy Yard, where 13 people were killed in a shooting rampage yesterday, is a sprawling walled complex that covers about 16 city blocks in the rapidly developing southeast corner of the US capital, not far from its new baseball stadium.
Officials have identified the suspected shooter as 34-year-old Aaron Alexis and said he previously served fulltime in the US Navy Reserve. But they have not publicly released details about how the suspect, who was killed in the shooting, entered the complex, which has multiple security checks.
Despite the lack of a full account, officials and experts are already questioning whether security will be tightened in the shooting’s aftermath.
“It will be interesting to see as this develops who the shooter is, how he got in,” said Navy Commander Tim Jirus, who was in charge of evacuating the Sea Command building, on CNN. “Right now a lot of people are wondering just how safe the building is or just how safe the office environment is.”
The facility is the oldest shore installation of the US Navy, established in 1799 along the Anacostia River as a shipbuilding yard and a base for defense of the city, which can be reached from the sea along the Potomac River. The yard also has served as an ordnance manufacturing hub and a ceremonial gateway.
It houses the Naval Sea Systems Command – in Building 197, where the shooting took place – as well as the headquarters for naval facilities in the Washington area.
Building 197 is a bustling multistory workplace for some 3,000 Navy military and civilian personnel. It has a large, airy atrium overlooked by walkways around the floors above. A cafeteria is located on the ground floor near the atrium, a Navy spokeswoman said.
The Navy Yard is generally enclosed in walls that connect with street-front buildings. Access to the base is available through three security gates. Base personnel are required to show Defense Department identification for admission, but they are not routinely searched.
Workers entering Naval Sea Systems Command, which is responsible for developing, outfitting and maintaining the Navy’s ships and submarines, face additional security, including a second security check and presentation of a second identification card.
Terrorism expert John Michaud, a retired member of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who is director of the School of Legal Studies at Husson University in Bangor, Maine, said though security will likely be reviewed, it might have been difficult to have predicted or prevented this type of attack.
“Certainly security will be reviewed but no security precautions will protect all the people all the time,” said Michaud. “If someone is willing to forfeit their life it is much more difficult to deter them. That might be the case here.”
Just a few blocks from the Nationals Park baseball stadium, the Navy Yard also houses a Navy museum, a Navy art gallery, and the human resources operations for Navy civilian workers. A retired destroyer, the USS Barry, is moored at the yard as a floating museum.
Several senior Navy officials live on the base, including the Navy’s top military officer, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert. Greenert was at home at the Navy Yard when the shooting incident began and was safely evacuated, military officials said.
As the Navy’s oldest shore facility, the yard serves as a ceremonial gateway to the city. The first Japanese diplomatic mission to the United States was welcomed there in 1860. Last week, Greenert formally welcomed his Chinese counterpart, Admiral Wu Shengli, to the United States with a 19-gun salute at the Navy Yard.
During its early days as a shipbuilding facility, the Navy Yard produced 22 sailing vessels. It was torched during the War of 1812 to keep it out of the hands of British forces who invaded Washington.
The yard was rebuilt, and after the US Civil War became increasingly important as a manufacturer of naval ordnance. By the end of the World War Two it was the largest naval ordnance plant in the world, according to a Navy history.