The gunman was running and shooting. Navy Capt. Christopher Mercer could hear the screaming, and the shots getting closer, outside his third-floor office. Someone had pulled the fire alarm.
Arnold was one of the Navy’s preeminent ship designers, but he was enamored with planes, finally living out his dream by building one with a kit in the basement of his Virginia home. An aviation-themed calendar was spread out on the desk in front of him when Alexis entered the office. Another staffer, who had been in the office a moment earlier, turned as he ran, and saw a silent Alexis pull the trigger, sending a shotgun blast into Arnold’s chest.
That split second gave Mercer and three colleagues time to slam the door to his office and begin pulling furniture in front of it. As soon as they backed away from the door, the gunman must have turned their way. A shot ripped through the wood, Mercer recalled, splintering it at shoulder height.
Mercer and the other three trapped employees — a young female contractor and two former Navy officers — dove under his desk.
“He set up camp right in front of my office. He kept reloading and firing at cubicles. Later, when he came back, I could see his shadow through the glass pane in my door.” Mercer said Tuesday night, in his first interview since the attack. “I’ve been through my share of mishaps. But this was unreal. It was just so utterly violent.”
Huddled under his desk, Mercer became the closest thing that hundreds of police officers descending on the Navy Yard on Monday had to eyes and ears on Alexis as the guman moved through the third floor of Building 197, stalking the offices of some of the Navy’s most senior amphibious ship builders and buyers.
It was after 8:30 a.m. Mercer thought he could hear Alexis pacing through the nearly empty labyrinth of cubicles along the western side of the third floor.
Back near Arnold’s office, he would later learn, the gunman stumbled upon a young woman from Mercer’s staff who was crouching down between a filing cabinet and a metal support beam. Alexis pointed the shotgun at her face and pulled the trigger, she told others, but nothing happened. He ran.
Mercer, on the floor under his desk and armed only with his BlackBerry, began firing off e-mails to his commanders as he heard the door to the emergency staircase behind his office wall fly open.
The gunman, it seemed, was running down the stairs, toward the alleyway adjacent to the power plant where many of Mercer’s staffers had just fled. There were two shots. One of the two bullets, Mercer can only now imagine, was the shot that killed the maintenance worker standing beside Navy Cmdr. Tim Jirus in the alley.
Minutes went by, and then several more. Mercer, who leads a group designing a new $4 billion aircraft carrier to ferry the joint strike fighter, felt safe enough to climb out and sit at his desk.