When the first shots were fired inside Building 197 at the Washington Navy Yard, Lori Lee Stultz huddled beneath a desk with two colleagues, gripping their hands and trying to stay quiet, certain they’d be killed.
All around her, glass shattered, fire alarms blared, desk phones rang incessantly, and a colleague screamed, “Help me!”
The shooter, Aaron Alexis, gunned down 12 Navy civilian personnel and contractors that morning in September 2013, including too many of Stultz’s friends and colleagues from 15 years at the Navy Yard.
Stultz, of Arlington, and about 20 other survivors from Building 197 plan to gather Sunday to mark five years since the mass shooting.
“You become part of a strange community that no one else understands. We’re not crying; we’re just remembering,” Stultz said. “You can’t really talk to other people about it. It’s just upsetting, and they don’t know what to say.”
The anniversary comes as a group of victims’ relatives and survivors, including Stultz, have reached settlements in their negligence lawsuits against two private companies that employed Alexis, who was fatally shot by police who flooded the scene. The agreements close a chapter for the 15 plaintiffs who went to federal court in Washington seeking a combined $189 million in claimed damages.
Among them are relatives of Mary DeLorenzo Knight, a cybersecurity expert from Reston who taught computer science management at Northern Virginia Community College; Frank Kohler, a government contractor from Maryland and ardent Pittsburgh Steelers fan; Richard “Mike” Ridgell, a former Maryland state trooper who worked as a security guard at the Navy building; and John “J.J.” Johnson, of Maryland, a contractor and avid Washington Redskins fan.
The ones who lived have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and flashbacks. Some never returned to work at the Navy Yard.
Stultz, 59, escaped Building 197 in 2013 by crawling out of a maze of cubicles behind one of the first responders, a naval officer. She passed dead bodies. The stairwell reeked of human flesh. But Stultz kept her eyes fixed on the back of the officer’s jacket that displayed his name — Brandon Denison — a name that later would later provide inspiration for a new path.
“The physical injuries, while notable, were not necessarily permanent, but the emotional scars remain to this day,” said David M. Schloss, the lead attorney representing eight of the 15 plaintiffs.
The details of the settlement agreements, finalized in the past month, are confidential.
A federal judge in 2016 allowed the lawsuits against the two employers — The Experts Inc. and HP Enterprise Services — to proceed. In an 81-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer cited allegations that the companies had an obligation to keep Alexis out of the workplace after his earlier erratic, dangerous behavior suggested he might harm others.
Despite Alexis’s history in the Navy of troubling behavior and arrests, the Defense Department allowed him to keep his secret-level clearance, which helped him get hired as a computer technician with The Experts.
In the month before the shooting, Alexis exhibited paranoid and delusional behavior during a work trip to Rhode Island. Independent reviews commissioned by the Pentagon faulted the department in 2014, but also The Experts for failing to seek assistance from mental health professionals or guidance from the Pentagon when colleagues became alarmed about Alexis.
Mark E. Chopko, an attorney for The Experts, said in an email that the company had denied any wrongdoing or liability during litigation. The case was resolved through mediation, he said, “without any resolution or judgment of wrongdoing or liability on anyone’s part.”
Lorraine Corcoran, a spokeswoman for Perspecta, a new company that absorbed the remnants of HP Enterprise Services, said in a statement that the “settlement does not involve any admission of wrongdoing or liability.”
For the survivors, moving on has been difficult, with their trauma resurfacing during subsequent mass shootings.
In the months that followed the horror at Navy Yard, Stultz felt like the “walking dead,” she said. She began therapy for PTSD, which helped her cope with a shame she felt.
“I felt, I still feel, so horrible for not doing anything — that I lived, that they all died and I just walked home,” said Stultz, who lives with her husband and daughter. “I am the lucky one. I got to go home.”
For a time, she returned to work at the Navy Yard as a systems engineer. The bullet holes were patched, the walls were painted and the layout of the office was redesigned. But she hated it.
Instead, Stultz pursued her long-held passion for linens and fine china. She had the naval officer who rescued her in mind when she created a business she calls Dennison Lane . Stultz learned to sew, created a website and cuts her own stamps to design napkins, tea towels and table runners. The hands-on repetition in those tasks was therapeutic.
Denison, a master-at-arms senior chief now stationed in South Korea, was recognized with a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his response to the shooting, as were two dozen others. He has moved several times with the military since 2013 and thinks often of that day, hoping everyone affected has been able to heal in their own way, Denison said in an email. He was unaware he had helped inspire the name for Stultz’s company.
“I am so very happy that she has been able to reconcile some of her feelings and been able to come out of it better,” Denison wrote after learning from a reporter about the linens company. “It takes a strong will and courage to do what she has done in this short time.”
To raise awareness about gun violence prevention, Stultz recently donated money to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety in the name of the attorney who handled her lawsuit.
She said she wants to work on a survivors guide to help others like her.
“I don’t think this goes away. It’s like gray hair. I can color it, but it doesn’t go away,” she said. “It breaks something.”