Navy Yard shooting victims: Ordinary lives, behind the numbers of a grim death toll

September 17, 2013

Numbers always matter: 4 dead, now 10, now 12. Will it get worse? From a safe remove, we wait for the media to roll up an implacable tally in any mass tragedy.

But. The victims were people, not just numbers. So goes the cliche — an honorable, durable one because it’s true: The people slain Monday at the Washington Navy Yard deserve a place in public memory, just as people.

Ultimately history tends to focus on the killers. Their names become shorthand for despicable acts and unfathomable tragedy: Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook), Nidal Malik Hasan (Fort Hood), Charles Whitman (the University of Texas tower).

The dead Navy Yard workers were, to use another news cliche, ordinary people. Computer experts and information technology specialists, several in their 50s or over 60, deep into their careers. They lived settled lives. They had long marriages and grandkids.

The victims, who ranged in age from 46 to 73, included military veterans such as Gerald Read; a past Rotary club president named Frank Kohler; an Indian immigrant, Vishnu “Kisan” Pandit, who embodied the American success story; devoted Caps and Redskins fans and animal lovers.

Read eyewitness accounts from the Navy Yard shooting.

To get to work they rose early and fought Interstate traffic just like so many others. Kohler, a computer specialist and outdoorsman who lived on the water in St Mary’s County, commuted 65 miles.

What connected them? Their professions, for the most part, and where they worked — in Building 197, which some nicknamed the Geek Building. That’s where the usually unsung techie types did the business of debugging, securing data and also designing naval craft. “Compuchick” was the Twitter handle used by victim Mary Frances DeLorenzo Knight.

A naval yard is not supposed to be a combat zone, but as the facts unfold in this mass shooting a heroic narrative may develop. Did one co-worker give his life to protect another? Did one shepherd colleagues to safety at great personal risk?

We don’t yet know, but there is room in so-called ordinary lives for heroism in other ways — in small or unsung ways.

President Obama stressed the point that the 12 men and women were working for the military: “As we learn more about the courageous Americans who died today — their lives, their families, their patriotism — we will honor their service to the nation they helped to make great,” he told reporters Monday.

Flags were lowered to half-staff.

How do you measure heroism? Financial analyst Kathy Gaarde of Woodbridge was devoted to her 94-year-old mother. And Gaarde’s husband, who issued a statement after her death, felt moved to include the sentence: “She loved her animals and was a bluebird counter for the local refuge.”

Of Read, an information assurance specialist, a neighbor in Fairfax County said, “He was a fine family man and a good friend.” Little more could be wanted in an epitaph.

Now the families of the victims will set about burying their dead, and another enduring truth will apply: For them, on Sept. 16, everything changed. Whether a father, a mother, a wife, a husband, a son or a daughter was lost, they were lost forever. The pain will always persist. Those traumatized or injured in the shooting will always remember, too, as will their loved ones.

“I am one of those folks. My younger brother was shot on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, in the head, in 1997. He was shot at point-blank range: The bullet went through his frontal lobe.”

This is Dan Gross talking on Tuesday; he is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Describing that day, when a gunman wounded six people, including his brother Matthew, and killed Matthew’s friend, still causes a catch in his voice, the mournful signal of impending tears. Sixteen years later.

Gross went on to become deeply involved in the issue of youth gun violence and took over the Brady campaign in 2012. His brother survived, but, as Dan put it, “he’s not the same person.”

Because after a mass shooting, no matter what the grim tally, nothing is the same.

When the Navy Yard massacre is recounted years from now, the stories will surely include one name, and the fact that 12 people died. Twelve loved ones. Numbers do matter.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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