Capital Gazette shooting: How a quiet day in the newsroom was shattered

By 7 a.m. Thursday, the day had already begun for the small staff of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis.

Rachael Pacella was covering Induction Day at the Naval Academy, at which the newest crop of mids begin their four-year journey in a barber’s chair, getting their hair closely cropped, military-style.

One of her editors, Rob Hiaasen, was at home in Timonium, excited as a kid on Christmas about the gift he got his wife, Maria, for her 58th birthday, and asking if she wanted to open it now or when he got home that night.

Later, she chose. She packed him a lunch, kissed him goodbye and sent him off around 8:30 a.m. with a “love you.”

Hiaasen faced a commute to Annapolis of up to an hour and a half. Later in the day, it would be Maria Hiaasen making the drive. Frantically.

An event as shocking as the attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom makes whatever preceded it stand out in stark contrast. It’s why those who witnessed the planes crashing into the twin towers on Sept. 11 invariably note how perfectly blue the sky was that morning.

And so it was at 888 Bestgate Road before 2:30 p.m., when staffers were performing the most quotidian of tasks.

Hiaasen sent Pacella to a news conference at Sandy Point State Park to get information for an article fellow reporter Phil Davis was writing about a spate of water-related deaths.

Photographer Paul W. Gillespie was editing pictures and videos of a culvert being torn out in Glen Burnie.

Reporter Selene San Felice was updating an annual guide to government agencies — a task as tedious for staff members as it is useful to the readers who save it for future reference.

But shortly after 2:30 p.m., the routine of a newsroom afternoon — the tapping on keyboards and the fielding of phone calls — was shattered by violence.

A man bearing a shotgun with a light attached to its barrel appeared at the double-glass doors to the newsroom. Twice, he tugged unsuccessfully at the locked doors, then shot the right one, blasting it to shards.

He stepped into the office, turned to his right and shot. He pumped the shotgun and shot again. He proceeded to walk and shoot his way deeper into the newsroom.

There were 11 people in the office at the time. Five were killed.

Police have charged Jarrod W. Ramos, a 38-year Laurel man consumed by a fierce anger at the newspaper, with five counts of first-degree murder.

Much about how the rampage unfolded remains unclear. The survivors, who hid under desks and between file cabinets, could hear the shotgun blasts and the pleas of their co-workers. But perhaps mercifully, they saw only glimpses of the carnage.

Rebecca Smith, a recently hired advertising sales assistant, sat closest to the front door.

“I heard screaming,” Gillespie said. “Rebecca got shot.”

By chance, most of the advertising staff was at a meeting at The Baltimore Sun, which owns the Capital.

Gillespie dived under a desk in the photo area in the middle section of the newsroom and curled himself into a ball. He could hear the gunman making his way down the aisle. He heard Wendi Winters, a features writer and editor, who sits nearby, shout, “No!”

“It was real loud, like a fighting ‘no,’ ” he said.

Winters had recently participated in an active-shooter training course at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, where she had been a member for more than 20 years.

A member of the Anne Arundel County Police Department told participants that “hiding is not an option anymore,” the Rev. John T. Crestwell Jr. said. “You have to get to a point where you can do something, throw something, create a distraction.”

Her surviving co-workers believe she might have confronted the shooter because she was found in an aisle, not at her desk.

Across an aisle from where Gillespie was hiding sat Hiaasen and his cubicle mate Gerald Fischman, the editorial page editor. Their desks are in sight of the front door, placing them in clear view of the shooter.

Gillespie heard more shots and believes they struck the two editors. Knowing the shooter must be steps away from him, he thought: “If I see legs, I’ll push this chair as hard as I can … maybe knock him off balance at least.”

He didn’t see the gunman but heard another shot. He bolted from under the desk and down the aisle toward the front door. Almost immediately, he encountered Winters’ body in the aisle. He hesitated but heard another gunshot and ran, not knowing if the shooter had seen him and was aiming at him.

In the section of the newsroom farthest from the front door, four reporters had also taken cover under desks

As the blasts continued, Pacella ran toward a nearby back door, tripped and slammed her face in its frame.

The door had been barricaded from the outside. Pacella scrambled and squeezed between two file cabinets and a stack of papers, clamping her hand over her mouth to stifle her whimpering.

“I just have never seen anyone fight for her life like that,” San Felice said.

San Felice and cubicle mate Anthony Messenger, a summer intern, had hidden under a single desk. They curled around each other, holding hands, and San Felice pressed her mouth into Messenger’s back and thinks she might have bitten him as she tried to stop herself from crying out.

In a nearby corner, Davis, a crime reporter, was under his own desk.

Pacella, between the file cabinets, heard sports reporter John McNamara, whose desk is on her end of the newsroom, say something to the gunman.

San Felice said she saw him shot. She wanted to run out and help him, and already started feeling guilty that she couldn’t.

“I know if I come out from under the desk, I’m going to get shot, Anthony is going to get shot,” San Felice said. “My mind is quietly praying, kind of on autopilot.”

She heard McNamara struggling to breathe.

From under his desk, Davis texted a government official, who called 911. He doesn’t know whether that was the first call to police.

“If it was, then the police showed up in two to three minutes,” he said. “It was incredible how quickly they showed up after he stopped shooting.”

San Felice didn’t have her phone but told Messenger to call 911. She says they were put on hold. Hearing sirens approach, they hung up.

She took Messenger’s phone and texted her parents. Then she tweeted on his account the message that announced the massacre to the world: ”Active shooter 888 Bestgate please help us.” Then, seconds later, “@baltimoresun.” It was 2:43 p.m.

The tweets set off a flurry of activity in the newsroom of The Sun, which bought the Capital Gazette in 2014, and then beyond. Friends and family members of Capital Gazette staff members began calling, texting, emailing and posting on social media the same plea: Are you OK?

Inside the besieged newsroom, no one was responding. The shooting had stopped. The reporters waited for help.

The office building is home to some 30 tenants. The shooting was confined to the Capital Gazette office.

San Felice heard first responders screaming, and she and Messenger got out from under their desk.

“We are trying to say we work here,” San Felice said. “We have to explain to them the key codes and the back door. I’m pleading with them to help John.”

Davis heard officers yelling “Blue, blue, blue” and “Hands up.”

He shouted back, “We’re not him. We’re not him.” He stuck his hands out from under the desk and slowly emerged from hiding, on his knees. An officer pointed a gun at him.

“That was the weirdest comforting moment, having a law enforcement officer pointing a gun at me,” he said. “They kept us on the ground while they cleared the rest of the room.”

Pacella said a police officer approached her and told her to put her hands on his back and follow him out. San Felice and Messenger followed behind her.

Pacella kept her head down. They made their way through their ravaged newsroom, and their fallen co-workers.

“That’s the part that will stick with me the most,” Davis said.

They walked around Winters’ body, which Pacella only recognized because of her Sperry topsiders. They saw the bodies of Hiaasen and Fischman.

Pacella had lost her shoes. An officer carried her over the broken glass and blood.

Officers surrounded and apprehended Ramos, and recovered a 12-gauge shotgun.

Gillespie had managed to escape, running first into a closet near the front doors, but after realizing there was no lock on it, racing outside the building. He ran across Cornell Avenue to a TD Bank. “I yell, ‘There’s a guy shooting up the Capital building,’ ” he said. “Call the cops and lock the door.”

Police say they started receiving 911 calls from inside the newsroom and elsewhere around 2:35 p.m. and quickly dispatched officers.

Bestgate Road is in Anne Arundel County’s busiest area for police calls. The beat, known as 4A1, is always staffed with patrol officers, according to Police Chief Tim Altomare. Two county officers had just cleared the scene of a traffic accident nearby. Some Annapolis police officers and some deputies from the Anne Arundel County sheriff’s office also happened to be in the area.

“We had the first officers pulling into the area within 60 seconds and they were inside pressing on the bad guy … within two minutes,” Altomare said. Other officers tended to the victims, he said.

Once police took the gunman out of the building, paramedics entered to treat the wounded. Police were concerned they might find additional suspects, booby traps or explosive devices.

Gillespie had no idea if the shooter was on the loose, or even if there was more than one. Eventually, an officer put him in the back of a police car and lent him a phone to call his wife. “I said, ‘Jen, I’m OK. A guy came into the Capital with a gun and started shooting people. It’s bad, Jen.’ ”

Rick Hutzell, the Capital’s top editor, was in Ocean City. A freelance photographer who listens to police scanners texted him there had been a shooting.

“I started calling Rob, Gerald, Wendi, anybody,” Hutzell said. “They of course did not answer.”

He called city, police and fire sources, and soon learned of the deaths and injuries to his small, close-knit staff. Like many media outlets, the Capital Gazette in recent years has shrunk — there are now seven reporters when once there were 12, for example, and people have doubled up on editing and reporting duties.

“It’s a really small newsroom,” Hutzell said. “We are all colleagues. We are all friends. You build a really strong relationship.”

He reached state political reporter Chase Cook and photographer Josh McKerrow.

Cook had worked 16 hours covering the primary elections on Tuesday. McKerrow had risen early on Thursday to cover Induction Day at the Naval Academy with Pacella, and then headed home to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. Neither was in the newsroom at the time of the shooting.

Now they both sped to the office.

Hutzell’s family packed up and headed to Annapolis.

At 888 Bestgate, police evacuated 170 other people, a process that took hours. They interviewed workers for information that might be helpful to their investigation.

The reporters were led outside, where they sat on curbs.

Pacella said medics assessed her and tied a green ribbon around her wrist, indicating they did not believe her injures were severe. A paramedic lent her a cellphone to call her parents in Ocean Pines, where she was raised.

She was taken in an ambulance to the Anne Arundel Medical Center, where the gash on her forehead was closed with three stitches.

Doctors told her she had a concussion, and to avoid looking at screens. A counselor told her to avoid the news the next few days.

Cook and McKerrow met outside the Westfield Annapolis mall and embraced. They soon saw reporter Pat Furgurson.

Furgurson had spent the morning at the doctor’s office. He was eating lunch at the mall when his cellphone rang.

The trio set up in the mall parking garage, huddling around Furgurson’s pickup truck, using their cellphones to report and write the news.

Hutzell arrived at 5:30 p.m. He called relatives of the victims, whose names had not yet been released to the public.

He said there was never any question that there would be a Capital Gazette published Friday.

“This is what these people would have wanted,” he said.

Pacella was taken from the hospital to the police station to be interviewed by detectives. She saw a co-worker, sales representative Janel Cooley, “and we just held each other.”

Cooley told Pacella the names of the five who had been killed. She could not be reached for comment.

Pacella’s parents picked her up and took her to an aunt’s home nearby rather than her apartment in Baltimore. They stopped at a CVS to get medications and a pair of leggings to replace her bloodied clothes.

She called her good friend Davis at around 12:30. She didn’t fall asleep until three hours later.

Hutzell said he’s trying to “limp through” the coming days, putting out the paper with his stricken staff. Winters, for one, worked far ahead, so her byline will continue to appear for a while.

Police allowed tenants back in the 888 Bestgate building on Friday. But the Capital Gazette will move to a new location.

“We’ll never go in there again,” Hutzell said.

The families of the victims were taken to a former Lord & Taylor across the street, where they anxiously awaited word of their loved ones.

Maria Hiaasen learned only that Rob hadn’t checked in with authorities as staff were instructed to do. She thought maybe he was somewhere being interviewed by police as a witness, or injured in a hospital. She started calling around.

His death was confirmed later in the night.

She made it back home around 10 p.m., Rob’s birthday present to her in a gift bag still on the dining room table. She opened and read the card but left the bag unopened.

“Can’t bring myself to open it,” she said in a text message, “just yet.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Doug Donovan and Pamela Wood and Capital Gazette reporter Chase Cook contributed to this article.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

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