After the Navy Yard shooting, a reporter witnesses a family’s painful vigil

On Monday, after a gunman killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, everyone at The Post was scrambling to learn the names of the victims, which hadn’t been released yet by investigators.

We eventually got the name of one woman who might have been shot: Sylvia Frasier.

I was asked to call her family, but how could I do that with sensitivity? I’d approached grieving families of victims before, including during the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. It’s a tricky balancing act for reporters. We don’t want to invade people’s privacy, but sometimes we have to.

When I called Wendy Edmonds, one of Sylvia Frasier’s siblings, she was angry she couldn’t find out information about her sister, a 53-year-old network security administrator with the Naval Sea Systems Command. Edmonds, a college professor, told me that friends and relatives were gathering later that night at their Prince George’s County home for a prayer session. I reluctantly asked: Could I come over to your parents’ home in Lanham as you wait for news about Sylvia? Sure, Edmonds said, come on over.

Readers might be surprised to learn that many people caught in this mayhem actually want to talk to reporters. They often want someone to bear witness to their pain, or someone they can vent to.

When I arrived at the home of Sylvia’s parents, James and Eloise, I tried not to intrude or even talk much. I just watched. Sylvia’s parents and siblings were devouring the evening news, calling and texting friends and family, holding hands in prayer as images of the alleged gunman flashed by on TV.

By 8:45 p.m, a little more than three hours after I learned of Sylvia’s name, I wrote my story on my laptop at their house. But even then, the Frasiers still had no clue what had happened to Sylvia. Because there was no Internet access at their home, I drove to a nearby McDonald’s and e-mailed the story, which ended with the family’s awful uncertainty.

At 10 p.m., I returned to the Frasier home. Edmonds opened the door and looked distraught. “He killed my sister!” she cried.

I felt terrible for her. Earlier in the night, the family members said they had heard from the FBI that Sylvia was only wounded. After expressing my condolences to the family, I asked whether I should leave. “No,” they said. “Stay, it’s okay. You’re doing your job.”

But after about five minutes, the family asked for privacy, and I quickly left.

I got in my car, called my editor and updated the story with a sad new ending: Sylvia was dead.

Read more:

Navy Yard shooting: Remembering the victims

After Navy Yard shooting, a family braces for awful news about a missing loved one

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.

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Doug Feaver · September 17, 2013