Five years on, a mo­ment to heal

Sur­vivors of 2013 Navy Yard shoot­ing will gather as com­mu­nity ‘no one else un­der­stands’

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ANN E. MARIMOW

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

“You can’t re­ally talk to other peo­ple about it. It’s just up­set­ting.” Lori Lee Stultz, sur­vivor of the 2013 shoot­ing at the Wash­ing­ton Navy Yard

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.”

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Lori Lee Stultz, 59, of Ar­ling­ton es­caped the mass shoot­ing at her Navy Yard of­fice. “I don’t think this goes away,” she said of the tragedy.

SAUL LOEB/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Po­lice re­spond to a shoot­ing at the Wash­ing­ton Navy Yard on Sept. 16, 2013. The attack left 12 dead, and po­lice killed the gun­man.

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