Employees Return to Navy Yard Building Where 12 Died

Beverly Hilarides, in the time-honored tradition of Navy shipbuilders, christens the Humphreys Building, Building 197, during a ceremony at the Washington Navy Yard. (U.S. Navy photo by Scott Adam Webb/Released)
Beverly Hilarides, in the time-honored tradition of Navy shipbuilders, christens the Humphreys Building, Building 197, during a ceremony at the Washington Navy Yard. (U.S. Navy photo by Scott Adam Webb/Released)

WASHINGTON -- Forty-three million seconds, 725,000 minutes, 12,000 hours, 504 days, 72 weeks or one year, four months and seventeen days. However the time is interpreted, it is a long time to be away from home, but that is how long employees from the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) have spent away from theirs, since the tragic shootings of Sept. 16, 2013 at the Washington Navy Yard (WNY).

NAVSEA Commander Vice Adm. William Hilarides officially opened the doors to the command's newly renovated workplace during a christening ceremony held Feb. 2 on the steps of the Humphreys Building, Building 197. 

"Seventeen months ago we got knocked down. But, we didn't stay down. We returned to work, kept NAVSEA going, supported the fleet, the Navy and each other," said Hilarides during the christening ceremony. 

"We did so thanks to numerous people both at the Navy Yard and in the neighborhood. Though today is about looking forward and getting back to where we belong, we'll never forget those we lost that terrible day. They will always remain a part of us, the Navy, and NAVSEA."

Following Sept. 16, employees were displaced across the Washington D.C. metro area as authorities conducted a multi-month investigation inside Building 197. A decision was quickly made to renovate the building upon conclusion of the investigation, but it would be more than a year before the workforce could return.

With employees working in borrowed workspaces in neighboring commands or teleworking from home, NAVSEA leadership worked feverishly to find a way to bring the workforce back together under one roof until the Humphreys Building could be repaired and renovated.

Coincidentally, just a few blocks away, at Buzzard Point in Southwest Washington, D.C., members of the U.S. Coast Guard were vacating their headquarters building and moving to a new location. 

NAVSEA leadership worked with the General Services Administration to put together an occupancy agreement allowing NAVSEA to temporarily move into the building. The 850,000-square foot building, dubbed by employees as "NAVSEA West," would serve as a temporary workplace for nearly 2,800 employees until renovations were completed. "The building really fell into our laps and it could not have come at a better time," said Hilarides. 

With employees back together under one roof, the temporary move to NAVSEA West was symbolic of the workforce collectively taking their first step forward together. The year that followed would prove difficult for many, both emotionally and logistically.

"We've been here for a little more than a year now and we've obviously had our challenges, coming and going, but it's been a good year, a year to prepare ourselves, both spiritually or emotionally to go back," said Capt. Karin Vernazza, director, NAVSEA Total Force Management, one of the NAVSEA employees who returns to the Navy Yard this week. "I believe we're stronger and better prepared to handle the challenges ahead. Over the past year we have grown closer as a result of the incident and we are committed to our mission to get the job done. That's what we're all about, supporting the fleet, so now it is about going to go back to where we belong - in the Navy Yard." 

NAVSEA's workforce will continue to transition back to the Navy Yard in the coming weeks. The last wave of employees is scheduled to return by the end of March. While it won't be the first time many employees have been in the building, it will have a new look and feel. 

In addition to repairing the damage, building renovations were also made. They include a new main entrance, a remembrance area and redesigned atriums. NAVSEA's renovation team also made a concerted effort to maintain the historical facade of the building.

Hilarides explained that among his priorities of helping to restore normalcy, he wanted to ensure the building had a new sense of space, felt safer and brighter for employees and also had a space for employees to reflect.

"The Remembrance Area inside the building is the physical manifestation of that truth. It's also a place where those of us who were physically and emotionally affected by the 16th can go for quiet reflection and healing," said Hilarides. "Getting to this day hasn't been easy. It's been a long road - physically, mentally and emotionally but we're back. Our work home is complete."

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