In the stairwell of Building 197 at the Washington Navy Yard, Jennifer Bennett came face to face with the shooter.
She locked eyes with Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people that September morning.
“I could see he was angry,” said Bennett, 57. “Then I could see him making a decision. I watched him pull the trigger. I watched the explosion hit me,” blowing a five-inch hole in her chest and shredding her left arm.
Bennett, an operations manager for Naval Sea Systems Command, fell but got back up. A hero was behind her. Navy Capt. Edward “Chip” Zawislak heard the gunshot and Bennett’s call for help.
“ ‘Jesus help me!’ I heard her yell,” recalled Zawislak, who was recognized by the National Capital Area Council Boy Scouts of America on Thursday for helping two co-workers carry Bennett up a staircase to the only open door, which led to the building’s roof.
They were unsure whether they were being followed by Alexis, 34, a government contractor who was fatally shot by police. On the roof, Zawislak propped Bennett against a metal box and applied pressure to her wounds.
On Thursday, Bennett sat in the front row as Zawislak, a leader of Troop 903 in Southern Maryland, was awarded an Honor Medal with Crossed Palms, the highest recognition granted by the Boy Scouts. The medal is so rare that since 1924, only 293 have been awarded.
“We are extremely proud of Mr. Zawislak,” said the National Capital Area Boy Scouts President Bob Wood. “Boy Scouts put a lot of emphasis on developing emergency preparedness, and while we pray none of our Scouts ever find themselves in situations where they need to use those skills, we hope they will do so with the same clarity, calmness, and confidence Chip displayed.”
“Captain Zawislak performed triage on the victim,” Col. Dave Thompson, an assistant Scout leader with Centreville’s Troop 30, told the crowd of about 100 people who gathered at a U.S. Park Police building in Southeast Washington.
Bennett watched as Thompson pinned the medal on Zawislak’s Scout uniform lapel. “On that day, Chip was as perfect as perfect can be. He demonstrated leadership qualities. He showed confidence. He had humor. He was in control on that roof,” said Bennett, who was stranded with Zawislak and two other co-workers, Michael Jackson and Makonnen Eyob. “He assured all of us we would get rescued. He sat there for an hour and 20 minutes and pressed my wounds. He showed no fear. He was in charge.”
Zawislak, 45, who worked as a deputy comptroller for the Command, recalled taking his jacket off and stuffing the arms into Bennett’s wounds.
“I went to the corner of the roof and yelled down to people below that there were four of us and one was shot,” said Zawislak, who lives in Calvert County with his wife, Stephanie, and their sons, ages 11, 13 and 15, all of whom are members of his Boy Scout troop. “More gunshots went off and everyone on the ground scattered for shelter. I went back to the victim and pressed down to minimize bleeding. I could tell she was hurt pretty bad, but none of us knew how bad.”
Zawislak dictated a note to Eyob.
“It said there were four civilians on the roof and one with serious wounds,” Eyob, 60, said in an interview Thursday. Eyob threw the note off the roof.
“They kept shouting at us to stay away from the edge of the roof,” because the shooter had not been found, Eyob recalled. “Finally, the SWAT guys arrived.”
Matthew Cooney, a Park Police officer, said he arrived on the roof after “a report came that a suspect might be up there. We cleared the roof. As I was coming back to the doorway, I noticed four civilians were up there. I used my emergency kit to help stabilize her. I called for a helicopter to pick them up. Then I provided cover in case the shooter came through the door.”
Zawislak, who grew up in Anne Arundel County and became an Eagle Scout when he was 15, said the first-aid training he received as a Boy Scout helped him the morning of the shooting. “I wasn’t thinking. I was just reacting,” said Zawislak, who served four naval sea duty tours and has worked at the Navy Yard since 2011.
In Boy Scouts, he said, “you are trained to just respond. I didn’t think about anything. I just did it.”