September 30, 2013 12:00 PM

Dozens of naval workers who beat Washington, D.C.’s brutal Monday-morning rush hour were grabbing breakfast in the atrium cafeteria of Building 197 of the U.S. Navy Yard. At 8:20 a.m., from a balcony above came the jarring “pop-pop-pop” of gunfire. “About three seconds later there were four more gunshots, and we all panicked, trying to decide which way to run,” says Patricia Ward, a management specialist who had just paid the cashier. On the third floor of the building, which is headquarters to Naval Sea Systems Command, or NAVSEA, Barbara Bostic ran into her boss’s office and locked the door. She tells PEOPLE, “I heard that pop-pop-pop, and I think—terrorism.”

The unspooling tragedy proved an all-too-familiar form of terror in this American age: Soon on that Sept. 16 morning, Washington was on lockdown after the first reports of a shooting less than two miles from the Capitol and three miles from the White House. By day’s end, 12 civilian workers, ranging in age from 46 to 73, were dead and eight more injured, marking what President Obama lamented as “yet another mass shooting.”

At first, officials believed there were three gunmen. “There was an awful lot of firepower,” Navy civilian worker Neal Puckett described from inside the secure compound where hundreds sheltered in place until evening. But some time after police had shot and killed Aaron Alexis, a 34- year-old military contractor and former Navy petty officer from Fort Worth, authorities said he was the lone suspect. “He rolled right in there like he was on a mission,” says Steve Sikora, a technology worker at the Navy Yard, who saw a man fitting Alexis’s description rush into the building. “Suddenly people were running out, saying, ‘Someone got shot!’ ”

Officials did not speculate on a motive behind Alexis’s rampage, allegedly carried out with one shotgun and two handguns. But the paper trail on his service in the Navy Reserve from 2007 to his 2011 discharge for a “pattern of misconduct,” plus arrest records from gun charges in Fort Worth in 2010 and Seattle in 2004 – when he shot another man’s car in what Alexis told police was “an anger-fueled blackout” – suggest a volatile man quick with the trigger. Friend Michael Ritrovato in Fort Worth, where Alexis recently waited tables at the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant, described the New York City native as a boisterous Giants fan and student of Buddhism who loved violent gaming: “He played shooting games, and his computer screen was so big that they looked lifelike.”

While three victims who survived their bullet wounds – including D.C. canine officer Scott Williams, shot in both legs, who Police Chief Cathy Lanier said was “in very good spirits for such a serious injury” – were recovering at MedStar Washington Hospital, the families of those killed were notified. They include computer specialist Mary Francis Knight, 51, who “had a spotless record of service to her country and to her two daughters,” says family spokesman Theodore Hisey, and Kenneth Bernard Proctor, 46, a utilities operations foreman whose ex-wife Evelyn Proctor says she last spoke to him at 6 a.m. when he called to check on their sons Kenneth Jr., 17, and Kendull, 15, who “were everything to him.” Proctor took them to movies and miniature golf, she said through tears. “They are two boys he treasured.” Now the men and women of what Navy Secretary Ray Mabus called “the Navy family” are left to rebuild their shattered world and, as NAVSEA commander Vice Adm. Willy Hilarides e-mailed his comrades late in the difficult day, “Help your shipmates.” But for the sister of slain network-security administrator Sylvia Frasier, 53, moving on seemed impossible. Frasier, one of seven children, was “a very caring, sweet person. We were supposed to grow old together,” Lindlee Frasier told People, sounding sad and broken. “It’s unbelievable, to be murdered like that.”

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