Thursday, June 11, 2009

A midday, midweek shooting at one of Washington’s popular museums sparks terror, chaos and disruption in the heart of the city. Some eyewitness accounts of the tragedy:

• Fourteen-year-old Lindsey Newman of Sparks, Nev., was in the museum’s theater with her parents and younger sister, getting ready to hear a speech by a Holocaust survivor when shots rang out. Those inside locked the theater, where they stayed for a tense hour.

“I was shaking, I was like losing my mind - I thought we were going to die, honestly,” she said. “Everything’s quiet, and all of a sudden these four shots go off and it echoes, so it made it ten times even scarier than it actually was.”

In a museum dedicated to tragedy and loss, Lindsey said the event was, “in a way, history kind of repeating itself.”

“It was heart-wrenching. I was in tears,” she said.

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• Laurel Dalrymple, 58, visiting from Cloverdale, Calif., said the incident felt “unreal” as she watched from an upper level while the confrontation played out in the museum’s entrance lobby below.

“It was like looking through the window and it was on TV,” she said. “But then I saw the [security guards] with their guns. … Some people just ran, but some people ducked.”

Mrs. Dalrymple added, “All I could think was that my nephew, who is 13, would just die to be able to be here and see this. But you’re not thinking that somebody had been hurt. You would think logically that when you hear a big boom and people are going with guns, somebody is probably hurt, but I didn’t know that at first. I just felt rotten, really rotten because the [security guard] gave his life for us.”

• Susan Towater, 59, and her husband Charles, 73, were a block away from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, with tickets for the 1:15 p.m. tour when they heard several gunshots.

“We heard the gunshots, we walked towards it,” Mrs. Towater said, adding that they didn’t realize where exactly the shots were coming from.

As they approached the museum from across the street, they saw a security guard run out of the building, and then saw a body on the sidewalk in front of the building. They said the man on the ground - later identified as the suspected shooter - was not moving and was dressed in a coat and tie.

“The police didn’t seem too concerned about him,” Mrs. Towater said. “They knew he was not going anywhere.”

Her husband said he later saw medics put two people in ambulances.

“How do you stop something like that? I don’t think you can. If somebody’s determined to hurt somebody, I don’t think you can stop them,” Mr. Towater said.

• Rosemary Flocari, 44, an educator from Akron, Ohio, was in town for a teachers convention and visiting the museum when shots rang out. She said she and her friends were “shellshocked” by the incident, but her first thoughts were of other places where such violence was routine.

“The first thing we said when we came out is that people all over the world experience this all the time. And look at us, and how we’re reacting to it,” Mrs. Flocari said.

“We’re not really safe. We don’t value our safety and security until something like this happens. I said, ‘Imagine being children in countries having this bombing all the time. We’re experiencing this on a small scale. Can you imagine their lives?’ ”

• Historian Deborah Lipstadt, a lecturer and consultant to the museum, has earned an international reputation taking on those who deny the historical reality of the Holocaust, including winning a celebrated libel case brought by British Holocaust skeptic David Irving.

Ms. Lipstadt heard the shots but did not see the shooting, but said for her, the motive of suspected assailant James W. von Brunn was immediately clear.

“If he’s a white supremacist, this wasn’t by chance,” she said. “He was headed here. He was meaning to go here to shoot people going to the Holocaust Museum.”

• Joshua Blinder, a video producer for the museum, helped shepherd museum patrons into the museum’s auditorium in the chaotic minutes after the shots rang out. He still appeared shaken after talking with police investigators outside the museum later.

“I may have taken my job for granted in the past, but I’m sure as hell not taking it for granted now,” he said tearfully. “That’s as much as I can explain.”

• South African tourist Sandra Behr, 69, was one of the museum visitors guided by Mr. Blinder to the auditorium. She endured several anxious hours after being separated from her husband, Toby, 74, who had not accompanied her to attend a lecture about to be delivered on the ground floor.

After hearing the shots from the other end of the building, Mrs. Behr recalled, “We all ran. We didn’t know. We ran into the toilets, and then I thought, ‘This probably isn’t a safe place to run.’ ”

Two hours after she was allowed to leave the museum, Mrs. Behr stood outside at 15th Street and Independence Avenue in Southwest searching for her husband. She had the couple’s only cell phone, and there was no word of him at their hotel. “I’m a tourist who’s lost her husband,” she said.

Finally, an hour later, she spied her husband walking toward her a block away. She yelled and waved, and the two embraced. Mr. Behr had been wandering the nearby streets searching for his wife after police told him everyone had been evacuated from the building.

“Happy meetings,” Mrs. Behr said, hugging her husband as he told a family member on the phone that he was safe.

• Jon Ward and Gary Emerling contributed to this report.

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