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God’s presence in a mass shooting

An on-the-ground account of the 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting

Military personnel by Washington Navy Yard entrance in Washington on Sept. 19, 2013 Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak (file)

God’s presence in a mass shooting

Twelve people died in the Washington Navy Yard shooting on Sept. 16, 2013: It was the second-deadliest mass murder on a U.S. military base, behind the shooting at Fort Hood in 2009. Here’s a vivid excerpt from Standing Still in a Culture of Mass Shootings, by Regent University grad Jennifer Bennett, courtesy of Guiding Light Books, LLC. Doctors who treated her after a close-in shotgun blast called Bennett’s survival “a miracle.” —Marvin Olasky

On the morning of 16 September 2013, I awoke humming a favorite hymn. Until that Monday, I had never awakened to a hymn before—in my entire life. Yet that day, I welcomed the hymn that filled my thoughts with memories of my grandmother, Vivian Dick. Sitting next to her as she played the piano in her living room, singing this specific hymn, was a beautiful memory of someone beloved and who loved me. On that cool, overcast, and misty grey morning I lay in my warm bed humming …

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul …

My workday began as usual when I arrived at the Navy Yard, a huge complex. Approximately 16,000 employees occupy the nearly 2.2 million square feet of office space. I was in the Joshua Humphrey building, which we call “Building 197.” It is a block long with seven floors (decks). The first five decks are filled with cubicles and offices, the 6th deck is filled with the mechanical components that ‘run’ the building, and the 7th deck opens to the roof. Building 197 houses three thousand people.

On 16 September 2013, I was in my cubicle on the fifth deck of the building. The fire alarm rang out. The siren and emergency voice started to blare and announce the fire evacuation notice. I went down the stairwell off the main hall that opens onto the base next to the river and the sub tower.

I opened the door to a future God had for me just two decks down. As I walked through the door and started down the stairs from the fifth deck to the fourth, I placed my right hand on the railing, sliding it along as I leisurely walked down the stairs. And in that walk, the hymn with which God had awoken me returned. As I was humming and talking with God walking down the stairs, I was certainly in a place of peace and contentment. I passed the fourth deck door and continued sliding my right hand down the railing, listening to the sound of my sandal’s clip clop reverberating in the open atrium stairwell, humming and talking with God.

At the mid-landing between the fourth and third decks, I slid my hand along the continuous curving railing. As my body turned, following along the curve of the railing toward the next set of stairs down to the third deck, I came into the line of sight and face-to-face with a man holding a sawed-off shotgun pointed in my direction. He was ten steps from me, standing at the bottom step, blocking the third deck door. I saw his eyes go dark, and I witnessed him making the conscious decision to shoot me.

All the while, I knew God was there—I knew God was with me. And I knew something else: I knew I was meant to stand still. I was not standing still out of fear, nor out of panic. For reasons I did not know at the time—but never questioned—I knew I was meant to stand still.

I knew I was meant to stand still.

And the man pulled the trigger. The double 00 shot connected with my left hand, striking my little finger, the next finger and my thumb ripping them open. It then severed the three leather straps of the three bags causing the bags to fall to the floor. The shot shredded my clothing as it went through my upper left arm and left chest. When it exited my body, the doctors would tell me that I had a 5 by 5-inch hole.

I closed my eyes, stepping back a step or two. When I opened my eyes, he was gone. Presuming he had accomplished another killing, the shooter turned to his left and followed the stairs down to the first floor.

When I was shot, much of what used to be part of my arm spattered all over the floor warden, who was a couple of feet behind me. I tried to wiggle my fingers, but they would not move. In fact, when I was shot, I thought that my arm had been completely blown off by the buckshot, and the only thing holding my arm in place was the jacket I was wearing. I remember thinking if the shooter came back, I only had one arm with which to defend myself.

I realized I was screaming. I thought to myself, “Jen, you’re screaming—it’s not helping. Stop it!” I stopped. I continued to talk to myself inside my mind. “Well, he just shot off your left arm, and it is held in place by your jacket. You need to assess the wound.” I looked at the gaping hole and the tattered clothing. Where wholeness had existed just moments before, there was now a large gaping open wound.

We were locked in a stairway that was covered with my blood on the stairwell walls and deck. The air was filled with the smell of the shotgun blast and the smoke floated up the stairwell creating a hazy fog making the scene even more surreal. At that moment, my voice was not the only one in the stairwell. The other voice said, “You need to call out to Me.” I knew it was Jesus Christ I was to call. I called out to Jesus to walk with me and be with me. I turned and began walking up the stairs. As I focused on each step, I continued to call out to Jesus.

The warden helps Bennett onto the roof, where he and two co-workers help her.

I had a gaping wound in my arm and chest, and was at serious risk of bleeding to death. While we didn’t exactly know the extent of my injuries, we did know that few people live when they are shot at point-blank range by a twelve-gauge shotgun.

As they settled me onto the roof, the three men crowded around me, each staring at me and then back to each other. We were living surreal moments, all of us in disbelief and shock. I asked the three men if they were men of faith. They said “Yes.” I directed them that the first thing I needed them to do was to pray with me.

I directed them that the first thing I needed them to do was to pray with me.

After the prayer, the four of us started working together. My injuries needed to be addressed. I couldn’t lean backwards because of the wound. Therefore, to give me support, the floor warden sat on my right and Captain Zawislak sat on my left. The floor warden took hold of my left thumb and squeezed it together, because my thumb had literally been cut in half like one slices a hot dog. My thumb hurt the worst due to all the nerves in the fingers and thumb.

Zawislak gingerly, and with as soft a touch as possible, pulled my jacket and the remainder of my sweater away to discover the extent of my wounds to determine the best course of treatment. He carefully pulled away the pieces of what remained of my favorite and beloved red jacket, along with my black and white floral sweater. Both were tattered and shredded by the double 00 shot.

What he discovered was not good: I had a five-inch open wound in my left arm and additional injuries across my left chest. Because of the wound in my left arm, Zawislak could literally see all the way through me.

He and the two men viewed my multiple wounds and made note of the damage. Each took separate actions to ensure the bleeding was stopped. Zawislak took off his black uniform Navy jacket and stuffed the sleeves and collar into the front and back of my gaping wounds. The jacket plugged the five-inch hole that opened in the front and ran through to the back of my upper arm. Zawislak said, trying to lighten the gravity of the moment, “Look at that! You can see through Jen.” It was the kind of wound the cartoon characters receive when one shoots the other with the large ammo going through and leaving a hole—think Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny.

This was the first of the humor that would become part of our experiences, memories, and a connection between the four of us. Equally funny to us was Zawislak’s apology that his ‘eagles’ (the rank pins for a Navy CAPT) were pressed inside my wounds. He wondered if they were hurting me. This statement was funny and was humorous only at a moment when we were living on the rooftop of Building 197. Here I sat on the roof, seven decks up with three of my office mates, a five-inch hole that one could literally see through in my upper arm and across my left chest along with a ragged left thumb and fingers. Yet he was concerned that the eagles on his jacket might hurt. This was funny to me and to them.

By this point, all three men had dark red stains on their clothing—my blood.

At about the hour and twenty-minute mark from the moment we first opened the door to the roof, the door we used to get to the roof banged open and a stream of SWAT team members rushed through the door …

The SWAT team had a combination of law enforcement personnel including U.S. Park Police and Washington Metro Police. One of them—a U.S. Park Police EMT—saw I was badly wounded. He came over to me, fell to one knee, and with Zawislak’s help, began to pull the Navy blue jacket out of my wound to assess the damage. Before he pulled the jacket off, he said, “This is going to hurt.”

He wasn’t kidding. Feeling that jacket come out of my arm, I screamed in pain like a little girl and then apologized.

A second SWAT team member—another EMT—came over as well. Both men had green medical bags they dropped in front of me as the EMT on one knee looked at my wound and began his work to stop the bleeding.

The other SWAT member helping me asked if I would be willing to get on a helicopter for transport to the hospital. I assured him, “Yes, you can call me 007. I love helicopters and have always wanted to fly in one, but I didn’t think this is how I would get to do it.”

The next moment, a blue and white helicopter came over and hovered over the roof. The roof had angles which made landing impossible. As they lowered a 3 x 1 1/2 foot rectangle metal basket, along with a SWAT member who had been on the helicopter, it dawned on me exactly what the SWAT member had meant when he asked if I was up to a helicopter ride. I thought I would be placed in the helicopter. What he should have asked is if I would ride in a metal basket that was suspended below a helicopter!

As it hovered, it began to drop the rectangle basket. The downdraft of the rotors blew my Nine West sandals across the roof and I yelled, “Save my sandals!” I watched as three different SWAT members in full tactical gear with their long guns chased after my sandals. As they were floating up and about to go over the precipice of the roof, one of the SWAT members captured them. He held one in each hand and yelled, “I got the sandals!” Another moment of humor. I was in awe how those men would do anything to help me—even chase after and save my sandals.

I was in awe how those men would do anything to help me.

On any other morning, the thought of riding in a basket that was dangling from an aircraft and flying over the streets of Washington D.C. might have struck me as a bit odd. On the morning of 16 September, however, it seemed like one of the most normal things to be asked of me.

With the sandals snagged, Zawislak and the EMT helped me up. The only way to help me was to place their hands under my right and left arms at the shoulder. I again screamed and apologized. They walked me to the basket—and of course picked me up—under the arms at the shoulder and I screamed for a third time and apologized for the scream.

Never did I want to be out of control with my emotions or reactions at whatever life threw at me. But these kind men said that it was ok. I said that it wasn’t. I sat down in the basket. As soon as I was seated yet not tied in, the helicopter took off. I hung about ten feet below the helicopter as they started to fly, and as we flew, I was pulled closer to the helicopter. I learned later this was the first time the U.S. Park Police had ever used this basket to fly someone free hanging.

I later discovered the reason for not putting me into the helicopter was based upon the EMT’s report of the seriousness of my wound. Pilot SGT Ken Burchell wasted no time in getting me out of harm’s way to a place of safety. As soon as I was seated in the basket (there was no ‘safety belt’), the pilot quickly flew his helicopter straight up, out of range for any possible shooter below. I hung about ten feet below the main body of the helicopter. Then we were off toward the hospital!

Burchell was an experienced pilot whose skill allowed him to retrieve and take me to the hospital. He had to maneuver the helicopter in the wind and rain between two large smokestacks, a moving construction crane, between electrical wires and to stay hovering over an inclined roof that required him to place the basket in a small area that was not part of the incline. This was a feat that took great skill and experience. God sent me a faith-filled and experienced pilot.

It was only a two-minute flight at 70 mph but did make for an interesting way to travel. As I flew a little below the helicopter the basket began to fishtail, so one of the U.S. Park Police on the helicopter had to bring the basket a little closer to the body of the helicopter.

As I flew over the city, the sandals placed in the basket with me flew out. As I was swaying in the wind, hair blowing and my right hand and arm holding my left arm close to me, an audible voice from just above my right shoulder said, “You are to thank me for all things.” I said, “Yes, you’re right,” and bowed my head and prayed, thanking God for the opportunity to walk through the door He had opened for me to serve Him through this event. I knew that I would walk through any door He asked me to walk through.

From Standing Still In a Culture of Mass Shootings by Jennifer Bennett. Copyright © 2019. Published by Guiding Light Books, LLC. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer Bennett is a survivor of the 2013 Navy Yard shooting. Since then, she has shared her story of how God was with her during the experience. Bennett has a background in organizational leadership and human systems integration.


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