WASHINGTON - A manhunt was under way for two more possible shooters after at least 12 people were killed and several others wounded Monday at the US Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters, a heavily guarded military facility in the heart of the capital city.
The shooting sparked a massive show of force as police and federal agents surrounded the base, cordoning off streets only blocks from the US Capitol, home of Congress.
US officials gave no indication of any link to terrorism, while police said the motive for the attack on the installation was unknown.
“At this hour, it appears that we have at least 12 fatalities,” Washington DC police chief Cathy Lanier told a press conference.
She initially said there were two other potential shooters on the loose, but her deputies later said one of these suspects had been cleared.
Police were searching for a black male aged 40 to 50 clad in an olive-drab, military-style uniform, she said.
“One shooter is deceased,” Lenier said, without disclosing his identity. “We have multiple victims inside who are deceased.”
She said there was no evidence the suspects were military members.
A federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the fluid nature of the investigation, said authorities were investigating the possibility of other shooters, but there was no immediate evidence of more than one assailant.
Washington Mayor Vincent Gray called the shootings a ‘horrific tragedy’ and lauded police for their quick response.
Media outlets including CBS and the Associated Press, citing the Navy, said the number of dead had risen to 12.
President Barack Obama, speaking at the White House, praised the victims as ‘patriots’ who ‘know the dangers of serving abroad’ but faced ‘unimaginable violence they wouldn’t have expected at home’. He promised that federal and local law enforcement officials would work together to investigate the shooting.
The number of casualties remained uncertain. Lanier confirmed “multiple victims inside who are deceased.”
Several witnesses told reporters that the shooting broke out on the fourth floor of the building and that the gunman shot down into the building’s open atrium.
“I think it was all on the fourth floor,” Patricia Ward, one of the witnesses, said.
Ward, a logistics management specialist, was in building 197 when the shooting started. She said she was in the lobby using the ATM machine when she heard three shots. She said she started ‘panicking’. She said she didn’t know what was going on. Then she heard four more shots. A security guard with a gun drawn told them to run, she said. “I just ran. I thought of my family and I just ran.” Someone had pulled the fire alarm.
Ward said that to get into the building, a person has to scan an ID card. She said that may be how the shooters got weapons in.
Roughly two hours later, witnesses at the base reported hearing more shots fired. A senior law enforcement official said a gunman, who had been barricaded in a room in the headquarters building, had been shot and killed. The shooter had engaged police in a running firefight, a senior law enforcement official said.
A federal law enforcement official monitoring the situation said the conflicting reports of more than one gunman are coming from a situation where a ‘second building’ is being checked for reports of shots fired. The official said most of the shooting occurred at the Sea Systems Command building, and that tactical SWAT squads were now canvassing the second building.
“We won’t know what we have until we clear that other building,” said the source, who asked not to be identified because of the fluid situation.
Officials have ramped up security in all federal buildings in the Washington area. As a precaution, US Capitol Police have added personnel and increased security measures in the Capitol Building.
As helicopters hovered above the base, first lowering stretchers to airlift victims to local hospitals and later circling the base in an apparent search effort, air traffic was briefly grounded at the nearby Reagan National Airport. Several area schools were put on lockdown.
A police officer and a base security officer were among the reported victims.
About 3,000 people, both civilian and military, work at the Naval Sea Systems Command Headquarters.