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September 17, 2013

Neshannock native ‘a short walk away’ from Navy Yard massacre

NEW CASTLE — Lawrence County native Jim Smiley spent much of yesterday trying to piece together what was going on around him.

Smiley, 35, a 1996 Neshannock High graduate, works as an engineering manager for Naval Sea Systems Command and was a “short walk away” from where 13 people were killed yesterday, including alleged gunman Aaron Alexis.

“I really didn’t hear anything,” said Smiley, who lives 17 miles from the shootings, in Alexandria, Va., with his wife Kimberly and two young children, James and Audrey. “The first indication that anything happened was an announcement on our PA system. We were told to take shelter in our offices.

“It wasn’t clear what was happening. Everyone remained calm and waited for further instructions.”

According to Associated Press reports, more than 18,000 people work at the Washington Navy Yard, which is a 41-acre maze of buildings and streets that are protected by guards and metal detectors.

The shootings took place at Building 197, the headquarters for Naval Sea Systems Command, which buys, builds and maintains ships and submarines. About 3,000 people work at headquarters, many of them civilians — like Smiley, who served as a lieutenant in the Navy from 2000-05 before becoming a civilian contractor for the Department of Defense.

“I was in my building which isn’t far from (Building 197),” Smiley said. “It’s a short walk away, but for me, it wasn’t much of an event. With where I was at, I got to see a little bit of it and hear a little bit of it. I didn’t have to experience what other folks had to experience.”

But for his family and friends all over the country — especially back home in western Pennsylvania — that doesn’t mean the situation was any less gut-wrenching.

“Its kind of hard to put into words,” said Smiley’s father, Jim. “It was a somber day not knowing and maybe not wanting to know. It was something that was on our minds from when we heard about it until we got word that he was on his way home. I don’t know how to explain it. It sets you on your heels ... I thought about my grandkids and his wife.

“My wife (Judy) sat glued to the TV all day. Our phone rang off the hook. We have relatives all over the country and they kept calling. We were on pins and needles all day. I decided to not watch TV, I had to get out of the house — but it was first and foremost on my mind.”

With reports citing a possible second gunman on the loose, Jim and Judy Smiley refused to breathe a sigh of relief until their son was safely ensconced in his Alexandria home. Smiley and his fellow employees were ordered to leave their cars at the Navy yard and find other means of transporation, such as the metro system, to return home.

“We got the call from my daughter-in-law that he was OK at some point in the afternoon, but he unable to leave (the Navy yard) until evening,” said the elder Smiley, who is a former boys basketball coach at Neshannock High and current Sharpsville High mentor. “We kept hearing there was more than one shooter and they couldn’t locate him. We weren’t satisfied until we got the phone call that he was home.

“Kimberly called around 5 and said they were releasing the workers in her husband’s building, but they’d have to be interviewed before going home. It wasn’t until around 8 or 8:30 that we got the call that Jimmy was on his way home.”

Before being released from work, the younger Smiley spent most of his day using the Internet to find out what was going on around him, while keeping his wife updated.

“We had an Internet connection, so we were able to understand what was happening as it was happening,” Smiley said. “There was no real concern for our building even though it’s as close as it is (to Building 197).

“We had phone contact throughout. I was able to contact family and friends and tell them everything was OK. My wife called me first, because she had gotten calls from our family. As soon as she called, I told her I was OK. She certainly wasn’t sure what was going on, so it was a relief when she called.”

Knowing his son was safe and sound at home with his family allowed the elder Smiley a chance to reflect on what could have been.

“I still think that we haven’t come to a full realization of what the possibilities were,” he said. “Obviously, you look at what happens out in the world out of the corner of your eye and you just don’t believe it. This made it up close and personal for us.”

(Email: C_Corbin@ncnewsonline.com).

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