An Anniversary, of Sorts

This isn’t going to be about physics. In fact, the only connection is that I was teaching physics when this happened. This is about what happened one night, 28 years ago: Ex-sailor Releases Hostage After Siege At Navy Base. LT Steve Gabriel (who taught Chemistry, Materials and Radiological Fundamentals, aka CMR) was taken hostage by a former student.

About the same time, Gabriel also called security while he was being held

“Security” would be me, since I was standing the Command Duty Officer watch at the time. CDO is a 24-hour watch that one stands, and you are responsible for, well, everything when the commanding officer (CO, aka captain) is gone. Imagine borrowing a car from someone — you’re responsible for it until you return the keys. Except that the CO doesn’t actually own the car — s/he was assigned to it by someone else, and is ultimately responsible for it. If the car starts making sounds, you’re going to call the captain up and make sure it’s not a problem, and the CO is not prone to yell at you for checking, because the last thing they want is to get the car back with a surprise problem. “My CDO was an idiot” is not an excuse, because that only prompts one to ask why you lent the keys to an idiot. The navy is not fond of excuses, especially ones that sound like they are passing the buck.

On a quiet watch, the kind you hope for every time, there are no incidents to worry about. You do your rounds, do the paperwork that’s required and get a few hours of sleep. If it was during the week you’d teach and not have to worry about the CDO part during the day, while the captain was there. After you took charge the other watchstanders all did their jobs (there was a duty chief petty officer for each building, and someone from the first lieutenant’s staff, in charge of the evening cleaning crews and other duties, plus a dozen or so people as unarmed security watchstanders, working the phones and checking traffic into and out of the buildings, making sure you had your security badge, or weren’t leaving with any classified documents)

On a good night, aside from a stroll or two around the buildings, you got to sit around and hear the enlisted guys tell sea stories. I was 23, just a year out of college and still an Ensign and had no stories to tell (yet), other than some drunken stupidity, but even then, exotic-port navy drunken stupidity made for much better stories. It was fun to listen to that, and some of the things that happen at sea. But on this evening, there wasn’t going to be much time for sea stories.

A freshly-minted Ensign had just reported on board and was slated to teach physics, so I was chatting with him for a few minutes when the phone rang. It was, as I already mentioned, LT Gabriel from the CMR department, whom I didn’t know. He was telling me there was a former student in his office, with a pistol, and it was pointed at him. He was being held hostage in his office, which was in a different building than the one I was in.

It turns out that it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know the LT, because he had a good sense of humor (as do I) and I might have thought it was a prank. But he was serious, and I tried to think of what I should be doing. I confirmed he was OK for the moment, and asked what the hostage-taker’s demands were, and if there anything I could get for them, like a drink or snack. The demands were somewhat vague; the student had graduated from nuke school some months earlier but had been tossed out of the next stage of training and was threatening to kill himself. Nuke school had been an achievement for him, so he was returning to a place of glory, where someone could watch him blow his brains out. It was unclear whether his plan was that this was going to be before he killed the hostage or not.

Normally the first thing anyone does in a situation like this is panic. This is the reason the navy likes drills and training and many, many rules, so that you have a clear idea of what to do. Running drills makes your actions more instinctual and makes you rely less on deep thinking and planning, which you may not have time for and will be compromised by the adrenalin rush. That’s why you (are supposed to) do fire drills and the like. Unfortunately for me, a hostage situation was not an anticipated activity. Not only had I not been trained for this, there wasn’t even a checklist I could consult. So I was winging it, which requires thought, and like I said, that means fighting the adrenaline. Fortunately my duty chief was there, saw me starting to freeze up and hyperventilate, and told me to take a few deep breaths and calm down.

That helped. I realized that the CMR offices needed to be cordoned off, and that was a security-related issue. The hourly break for night study was about to happen, so I called the watch-standers for that building and told them to get everyone out but not let anyone back in that wing of the building. We were all lucky that the wing was mostly empty, as a class had recently graduated and the new one hadn’t moved in yet — there was just the large study room for people on mandatory study hours. Once they cleared out, the wing was empty, aside from the hostage-taker (Smith) and the hostage (Gabriel).

The next step was to start calling people up the chain of command. Before I could even start, the CDO for the base called me to inform me that a student had had his security badge stolen at gunpoint, and I was able to tell her that I knew where the perpetrator was, and explained the situation. That meant the police were on their way. After that I called the captain, and he wanted me to call a few other people. LT Gabriel called back. Also the duty chief from that building, who wasn’t there when I had called earlier, and was wondering what the hell was going on. At some point I had to put the captain on hold and go to another other phone (I don’t think the CO was happy about being put on hold, but given the circumstances, what could I do?).

One of my watchstanders was getting ready to walk over and drop off the soda and potato chips, or whatever we were giving them, but hadn’t left yet, and apparently Smith was getting agitated, and that made Gabriel understandably more nervous than he already was. So I took care of that, making sure the watchstander wasn’t going to try to be a hero. He assured me he wasn’t and traded uniform shirts with a third-class petty officer (one chevron instead of his three) so he didn’t look like someone too official or intimidating, just in case.

Somewhere in all that I had started calling the people my CO had told me needed to come in. The executive officer (XO) wasn’t home, but the assistant director of the enlisted department (in charge of the students) was home, and he said he’s be right in to find Smith’s file for the police. I also called the administrative director, because there was going to be paperwork (and if thing didn’t go well, lots of it). I think the ADED was the first to arrive, and he had literally run in from the parking lot and was a little out of breath. He couldn’t get into the locker that had the file he wanted, so he got someone from the first lieutenant watchbill to get him bolt cutters and snipped the lock.

Once the captain arrived, I was booted out of the duty office and was on call to man the phones out in the main reception area (the quarterdeck) in case any news inquiries came in. That way they could get an official no comment. Admiral Fox, who was in charge of the base (the navy training center), showed up and said he wanted a cup of coffee, so I found a mug and commandeered some from one of the classrooms. Coffee was never in short supply during official study hours (up until midnight, IIRC), where someone was on watch — each room had one person on watch to log people in and out, so they could get credit for their study time, and not cheat about saying how much they had studied. Just in case they didn’t do well, there would be no question of whether they had put in the effort and were not in dereliction of duty.

The SWAT team that showed up ripped one of the offices apart to get at the phone junction box so they could have multiple lines of communication and not be hampered as I had been. There guys were huge — they looked like refrigerators with arms, legs and a head. I didn’t go out to look (I was busy and also didn’t want to interfere) but they had set up a perimeter around the other building. Lots of people and lots of firepower. The base chaplain showed up to help with the police negotiations. My duty chief told me later that at one point, in the dark outside the building, he had mistaken the admiral for the chaplain, since neither was in uniform. “Evening, father” is not normally how you address an admiral. Oops.

We waited. A little after 11PM I could see the captain take a call and write something on a sheet of paper, which he then held up to the window — the XO had called to say we made the news. It was after midnight before Smith surrendered. No shots, no storming the castle. By the time things settled down and I got back into the duty office, it was probably 2:30, so I did my early-morning tour of the facilities. I might have gotten an hour or so of a nap before getting up for breakfast at the mess hall and then getting ready to turn the watch over to the next day’s CDO, which happened around 7AM.

Before the turnover, though, the person whose office had been torn apart for phone access got in, took one look at her office and then came immediately to the duty office and asked me what the hell had happened to it. (she probably said “heck”, but anyway) I told her the SWAT team had torn it apart for phone access for the hostage negotiations and she said, “Very funny, Tom, what really happened?” I told her I was serious, and I think she finally saw how little sleep I had gotten and believed me.

Later that day, in a gap between teaching in a bit of a fog (after my students said I looked a little pale when the saw me the evening before) I was summoned to the enlisted department director’s office and scolded for not calling him. The only response in that sort of situation is to say that you screwed up. I didn’t take the initiative to call him, and probably should have, but I was kicked out of the command center before I could have. OTOH, I called the captain, he told me to call a few people, and the DED wasn’t on that list. Oh, well. Easier to chew me out a little than to complain to the CO. (Shit rolls downhill, as they say)

A day or two LT Gabriel encouraged me to write up recommendations for commendations for people on duty that night, as he was going to do, but then someone put the kibosh on all of that and said no paperwork would be submitted for any awards. I think there was concern about exposing the security holes and lapses and backlash from that. I think back on it, and I’m not sure how I would have felt about a ribbon. On the one hand, I don’t think I did anything above and beyond the call to deal with the situation. I did enough things right and didn’t screw up so badly that anyone died. That’s not what the endorsement of an award should look like. From the other perspective, I’ve heard some stories where simply doing your job but being in the right place at the right time seem to be what is necessary, and the fact that you were still able to do your job despite being under considerable stress is what is being recognized. Lives were in danger, and nobody died. That wasn’t a given. People could have done the right things and not had that outcome. Besides, having a medal would have been nice. I don’t know how much of a fraud I would have felt.

Between this and another watch I had where things beyond my control didn’t go well, I got the reputation amongst some of the staff as being cursed — not that I was a screwup, but that I had a black cloud following me around. One went so far as to tell me he was to going to stand watch with me anymore, and he was senior enough to arrange that. I think there was a “no offense, sir” and “nothing personal” in there somewhere. I didn’t take it personally, either. It was more that I was disappointed, as he was one of the better storytellers and made the duty more tolerable. One other thing I remember about that night is that I wasn’t originally scheduled to be CDO that day. I has swapped with a shipmate at his request, because his duty day had fallen when he could be on leave. No good deed goes unpunished, and all that.

Addendum: I forgot to mention that in the aftermath, nobody in my chain of command did a followup with me. There was a new section in the CDO training that was circulated a few weeks later, but there was no analysis of what went right and what could have been done better that involved me. I always thought that was a little strange.

One thought on “An Anniversary, of Sorts

  1. he was returning to a place of glory, where someone could watch him blow his brains out

    Let’s ask the experts!

    Chemical & Engineering News 70(4) 5 (1999) was editorially concerned that graduate students fluster their schools’ recruiting efforts by committing suicide – and by opening tenured faculty positions (e.g., Theodore Streleski vs. Stanford professor Karel de Leeuw). J. John Mann, professor of psychiatry and radiology at Columbia University and chief of New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York City, opined:

    “More than 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from a psychiatric illness.”

    Depression is anger without enthusiasm.

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