WASHINGTON — Don Andres was rushing to get ready for work Monday morning at the same time a gunman was taking aim at workers at the Washington Navy Yard just down the block from his apartment.
When he left his building at 8:30 a.m. to drive the mile to his job as a staff aide to Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, he became part of a mystery side story to the tragedy that took a good part of the week to solve.
“I went downstairs and there were a lot of people outside the lobby doors wearing civilian Navy worker uniforms. I asked what was going on and they said there was an active shooter in the Navy Yard,” Andres recalled in an interview Friday.
The 24-year-old who grew up in Los Angeles County decided to head to Capitol Hill — figuring it would be safer in the office than remaining in the Navy Yard neighborhood.
Andres jumped into his Toyota parked in a lot that looks over to Building 197, where contractor and former Navy reservist Aaron Alexis walked along the hallways, shooting into offices and killing a dozen people.
Andres headed the opposite direction toward New Jersey Avenue and the U.S. Capitol complex.
“I pulled up New Jersey to M Street, and that is where I saw a man laying on the corner. At first he was unattended but within a few seconds I heard sirens barreling down the street and police officers there with yellow tape telling people to back away,” he said.
Andres didn’t leave his car but rolled down the window and snapped a few photos of the man with his IPhone. He sent one to Tim Hogan, Horsford’s communications director, who had sent him a text message asking if he knew what was happening in his neighborhood.
Andres wasn’t sure if the man he photographed had anything to do with the shooting. After all, this was six blocks from the Navy Yard, just across from a busy Metro station where hundreds of people were emerging on their way to jobs at the nearby U.S. Department of Transportation.
After arriving at work, he and Hogan decided to post the photograph on Twitter — noting that it was taken near the Navy Yard but also saying he was uncertain of a connection to the shooting.
“It blew up. There were 700 retweets very quickly and my phone was out of control,” Hogan said.
The Associated Press distributed the photograph to the news media, with Andres’ permission. But a short time later the news service retracted it, uncertain who the man was or if he was part of the shooting.
After reading published reports that discounted the photograph, several eyewitnesses emerged to fill in the blanks. AP re-released the photograph three days later along with a full accounting of what it showed. Some of the eyewitnesses had also contacted Hogan and Andres to let them know as well.
The man on the ground was Vishnu Pandit, 61, who was one of the dozen workers at the Navy Yard killed by the gunman. Pandit, who had spent 30 years with the Navy, was carried from the fourth floor of Building 197 and driven by a security guard to that corner to wait for an ambulance.
Co-worker Bertillia Lavern had gotten the security guards to help Pandit and stayed with him as he lay on the corner of New Jersey and M. An ambulance arrived within minutes. Pandit was pronounced dead on arrival at George Washington University Hospital.
Hogan said he received a tweet from Lavern’s husband, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Randall Lavern, to let Andres know who was in his photograph.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.