WASHINGTON (NNS) -- Staring her shooter dead in the eyes, Jen Bennett was overcome with a profound sense of calm. He blinked; she blinked, and her world exploded.
Within minutes, Bennett was on her feet, calmly walking back the way she came, fully aware that her left shoulder, arm and chest had been shredded by a point-blank shotgun blast. But barely aware of how close she had come to death. It was 8:40 a.m. on Sept. 16, 2013, and Bennett had just become one of many improbable survivors of Aaron Alexis' rampage through the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) headquarters building on the Washington Navy Yard.
Within a matter of months, and ignoring the advice of her medical team, Bennett was back at work. She had been through two major surgeries, with at least one more to go, and almost lost the use of her arm.
Bennett's story, and the stories of those who stayed behind to keep her alive, stand as a testament to NAVSEA's resilience in the face of an incomprehensible tragedy. Because Bennett and the three men who helped keep her alive that day - Navy Capt. Chip Zawislak, Michael Jackson and Makonnen Eyob - represent NAVSEA's courage and perseverance in the face of extreme tragedy, the Washington Nationals have asked them to throw out the first pitch during their home opener April 4.
The pitch will be one in a series of events that day dedicated to NAVSEA's resilience, and the game will be attended by members of the command as well as the families of those who lost their lives on 9/16. First pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m.
"We feel incredibly honored that the Nationals chose to make this day about the perseverance of our workforce" said Vice Adm. Willy Hilarides, NAVSEA's commander. "From the beginning, the entire Nats organization has been the ultimate good neighbor - offering space for families to reconnect after the shooting, providing food, honoring the victims on the field. We are truly grateful for all they've done and continue to do."
Though the home opener event is an opportunity to remember the day and the lives that were lost, the Nationals chose Bennett and her rescuers - who call themselves the rooftop gang - precisely because they represent the strength and courage NAVSEA showed following the shooting, and the fact that those affected were able to overcome the tragedy and its aftermath. In fact, most NAVSEA employees returned to work within days of the shooting, where they continued their critical work building and maintaining Navy ships and weapon systems. And though inspirational stories of the day abound, the story of these four is truly remarkable.
Bennett's morning started like any other, until she heard the "pops." Like so many others, Bennett had no concept those "pops" were gun shots, and Alexis had already found his first victims.
"To me it smelled like, and it sounded like, the mainframe computer...exploded," she recalled.
Because the fire alarm sounded, Bennett gathered her possessions and began making her way down the hall, toward the stairs that would lead her out of the building. Running into fellow employees Jackson and Zawislak, they continued their journey to the stairs, unaware what waited for them.
"We were on the 5th [floor]," said Bennett. "And I have to tell you, I had a hymn in my head, and I was humming it and leisurely walking down the steps. I was in my own world."
It was here she ran into Alexis.
"I came around the corner of the stairs leading to the 3rd floor, and there was Alexis. I looked at him, and he looked at me. I wasn't afraid; I had no fear. He blinked and he had to make a decision. I watched him pull the trigger, saw the smoke, heard the blast, and I fell down."
Thinking her arm had been completely shot off, Jen stood, called to God for strength, and began making her way back up the stairs, looking for a place to hide and stop the bleeding. Attributing her strength to her faith, Bennett made it up three-and-a-half flights of stairs before running into Jackson, who helped her reach the 7th floor roof access.
I didn't know there was a shooter until I saw Jen get shot," recalled Zawislak.
Like other senior Navy officers in the building, Zawislak did what he usually does when he heard a fire alarm: He walked the halls, keeping people calm and pointing them to the exits before making his own way down the stairs and out of the building. He had no way of knowing what was really happening until it was too late.
"Flash. Bang. And Jen's been shot," he said, trying to capture the moment he first realized there was a shooter, or shooters, in the building.
Turning around to make his way back up the stairs, away from the shooter, Zawislak ran into several locked doors until he found an opening to the roof. That's when he heard Jen's screams of pain.
"'Jesus, help me; Jesus, help me' I heard her yell. I started back down the stairs to help, and I ran into her and [Jackson] coming up the steps."
Zawislak and Jackson helped Bennett to the roof and sat her against a wall, and then Zawislak made his way to the edge to find someone, anyone, who could send for help.
"People were still coming out of the building, and I made eye contact with [a coworker] on the ground. I told him there were four of us on the roof, and one of us had been shot. Then more shots rang out and people just scattered.
Realizing it wasn't safe to keep shouting down from the roof, Zawislak an Eagle Scout, returned to the injured Bennett, removed his jacket, and used it to stop the bleeding.
"I could tell she was hurt pretty bad, but none of us knew how bad it was. So I stuffed my jacket sleeves into the wounds, and used the rest to help keep her covered," said Zawislak.
Realizing no one knew where they were, Zawislak dictated a note to Makonnen Eyob, another employee who had made his way to the roof. Explaining that there was an injured person on the roof, Eyob threw the note to the gathering police below, hoping they would send help.
"The police learned we were up there because of that note, I later learned," said Zawislak.
And then they waited. And they prayed.
"I asked the others if they were men of faith, and I asked them to pray with me for the shooter and his family," said Bennett. "I knew that no matter what he'd done, he still had a mother, and that mother was going to be heartbroken."
"There was a helicopter that kept circling, but we could never get its attention," said Bennett. "Until a SWAT team busted through a door onto the roof."
After securing the scene, A SWAT team officer with medical training began working to stabilize Jen, allowing the rest of the team to get back into the building.
"The officer and [Zawislak] pulled the jacket out of the wound, which was incredibly painful, and then they replaced that with gauze and prepared me to be evacuated on a helicopter," she said.
Within minutes a Park Police helicopter arrived, and Bennett was loaded into a 3-foot by 3-foot metal basket. Realizing the extent of Bennett's injuries, the helicopter crew made the decision to keep her in the basket, hanging outside the helicopter, instead of transferring her into the helicopter. She dangled this way all the way to MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
"I always wanted to ride in a helicopter, but this isn't how I wanted to do it," laughed Bennett.
Meanwhile, back on the roof, the SWAT officer who tended to Bennett's wounds took a position guarding the door, bringing a desperately needed sense of relief to three employees remaining on the roof. Additional SWAT officers were delivered in a Maryland State Police Department helicopter shortly thereafter to help with guard duty.
After dropping Jen off at the hospital, the Park Police helicopter returned to evacuate Zawislak, Jackson and Eyob, one by one, eventually taking them to Park Police headquarters. Finally, their ordeal had ended.
Bennett's, however, had practically just begun.
"When I landed at the hospital, the surgeon and the trauma nurse struggled with how best to remove me from the basket. They didn't know what to do with me, because they didn't know what was wrong. So, watching the confusion, I just stood up and said 'I'll do it myself.' So I asked the Park Policeman to take my hand, and I climbed out of the basket and put myself on the gurney."
In preparation for a mass casualty, MedStar had brought in close to 200 medical professionals to assist the wounded.
"About 20 people triaged me, counting my wounds, getting my clothes off. Of course, I told them 'there's nothing like being naked in front of my 20 closest friends,'" she quipped.
By 5 p.m., after talking to her husband for the first time that day, Bennett went in for her first surgery.
Returning to Work
NAVSEA employees have prided themselves on how quickly they returned to work. Many were back in desks, scattered around the region, days later. Chip Zawislak took it a step further. The man who just hours before had worked to save Jen Bennett's life was performing funeral duties at Arlington National Cemetery the next morning.
"I had to do the funeral," he said. "The last thing in my mind was a family expecting an officer to be there to present a flag, and that officer not show up. That's just not acceptable."
Zawislak went back to work at NAVSEA, where he works as the Deputy Comptroller, the following day.
Eyob, too, was back to work that week, serving in his position as cost analysis engineer. Jackson returned earlier this month.
Bennett's return was far less likely. Her medical team ordered her to stay out of work until late April, saying she needed time to heal. To their consternation, Bennett was back in her office by early February, where she serves as the chief of operations in NAVSEA's cost estimating organization.
"I told them I had to. For me, someone in my NAVSEA family was having to do my job. I felt it was time for me to come back and at least try to take on those things that were mine."
Hers is a remarkable recovery, aided by faith, courage and a commitment to her coworkers. Though her arm is still too weak to actually throw the first pitch at the game - that responsibility will be Zawislak's - Bennett's perseverance exemplifies the highest standards of NAVSEA and the Navy.
For more news from Naval Sea Systems Command, visit www.navy.mil/local/navsea/.