The names of the places are sadly familiar: Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and Nickel Mines, Penn. After mass shootings made each of those names synonymous with tragedy, officials demolished, closed or altered the buildings where the killings took place to soften painful associations, especially among survivors.
In the aftermath of last month’s massacre of 12 people at Washington Navy Yard Building 197, officials now must determine the fate of that five-story, red brick building.
Navy officials have given no indication they plan to tear down Building 197, which is now closed. In fact, they’re moving toward renovating the 650,000-square-foot structure in southwest Washington. A $6.4 million repair-and-restoration contract awarded Monday to Englewood, Colo.-based CH2M Hill Constructors Inc., refers prominently to both the tragedy and the building’s history.
“The repairs shall be done in a manner that changes the feel, finish, appearance and layout of the space, creating a different sense of place and mitigating the psychological and emotional impacts that the facility itself could have on returning occupants,” the contract reads.
The contractor also is expected to develop multiple design concepts, possibly including extensive changes to the building’s entrances and exterior finishes.
An expert who helped with the disposition of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., says there’s no easy answer — but community input is critical.
“Fundamentally, the decision about Building 197 is not about the building, but about whether people are ready to move from trauma and despair to healing and hope,” said Rich Harwood, a Bethesda, Md., consultant in community problem-solving. He was asked to design and lead the decision-making process after a gunman killed 26 people, 20 of them children, at Sandy Hook last December.
In a referendum Saturday, Newtown, Conn., citizens will decide whether to approve plans to demolish the school and build a new one on the same property. Newtown students are being bused this school year to a renovated former middle school in neighboring Monroe.
Harwood said the new school’s design would avoid having people drive past a firehouse where anxious parents rushed 10 months ago to learn if their children were safe. He said the plan offers a “fresh start” at a location with a history of education.
Other mass shooting scenes have been torn down, remodeled or fenced off.
Navy Yard Building 197, built in the 1800s, was once a naval gun factory. It was converted to office space for up to 3,000 workers in the last two decades, becoming the headquarters a few years ago for the Naval Sea Systems Command, where most of the victims were either civilian Navy employees or contract workers.
Officials haven’t decided whether to keep the command headquartered there.
Navy spokesman Lt. David Bennett declined to comment on whether Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert will consult shooting survivors and victims’ families about the future of Building 197.
Naval Sea Systems Command intends to create some sort of memorial in or near the building, command spokesman Christopher Johnson said.
Family members of two slain workers said they’re confident the Navy will be sensitive to the emotional impact on people returning to the building.
Douglass Gaarde, whose sister Kathleen, a civilian financial analyst from Woodbridge, Va., was killed, said he has no feelings about the future use of Building 197.
“However, from talking to those NAVSEA co-workers who came to Kathy’s funeral, I think it would be devastating to them to have to return to that building,” he wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “One of Kathy’s co-workers was with her to the end and I know it would be unbearably traumatic for him to have to return to the building.”
Tracey Ridgell’s husband Richard “Mike” Ridgell was killed while guarding the building’s main entrance. She said she has asked to go inside.
“We need to deal with the reality,” she said. “It helps you heal.”
But she said those who survived gunman Aaron Alexis’ Sept. 16 rampage before he was killed by police shouldn’t have to be reminded of those events by returning through the same turnstiles where her husband was a cheerful, daily presence.
“I was told that the entrance where Mike worked will be sealed and no one will walk through those doors again,” Tracey Ridgell said. “I think this is fitting.”