by Haroon Mokhtarzada , CEO Webs.com
On September 1, 2010, James Lee walked into the Discovery Communication’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, with a gun and what appeared to be explosive devices strapped to his torso. Lee took three hostages and then spent hours in tense negotiations with the police.
But even before the story became national news, we here at Webs became unwitting, front-seat witnesses to the drama unfolding across the street. Our office is located on Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring–directly across the street from One Discovery Place.
I actually grew up in Silver Spring. I went to Montgomery Blair High School, which is just up the road from our office. Over the years, I’ve seen the area get “Silver Sprung” from a somewhat-depressed suburb of DC to a vibrant community with a bustling outdoor shopping plaza and brand-new stores and restaurants. This revitalization was driven in great part by Discovery Communications moving their headquarters here in 2003.
At around 1pm yesterday I was called out of a meeting to the sight of my staff, on their feet, noses pressed against the long bank of windows in our office. They quickly filled me in: police cars were lining Wayne Avenue and had blocked off all traffic. One coworker said he had heard what sounded like gunshots. I looked out the window and saw for myself how policemen with helmets, riot shields, and guns were approaching the Discovery building.
The Discovery building, which is L-shaped, has a big and beautiful sensory garden as its courtyard. It was surreal watching the policemen–and, soon, SWAT teams, ATF, and FBI agents–swarm through the garden’s trees, bushes, and flowers toward the building. We watched a team of what appeared to be police or military snipers take up position on the sidewalk.
We were notified that our building was on lockdown, which meant that we needed a building employee to escort us out if we needed to leave. We were told that we would not be able to get to our cars in our building’s garage until the police emergency was officially over.
Periodically, staff members would search online for information about what was happening, and would then post what they were seeing and learning to Facebook and Twitter. In the beginning, all we knew was that a gunman was in the Discovery building’s lobby. Then we found out that he had taken hostages, and that he might have explosives. Soon Webs employees were receiving phone calls from concerned family members and friends to make sure they were ok.
We also witnessed positive signs, like the evacuation of the Discovery building’s daycare center. We saw adults leading groups of small children–and babies in cribs–away from the building. We spotted what looked like batches of Discovery employees leaving through a side door. We were surprised by how calm they seemed.
Hours later, I was in my office when I heard two more gunshots. Everyone rushed to the windows and we saw someone lying face-down on the pavement outside Discovery’s lobby. We thought he was a gunshot victim until policemen eventually cuffed him, and we realized he was probably one of the hostages. Soon after, we heard the TV reports that it was over: Lee had been shot.
The drama continued with robots sweeping the Discovery building for explosives. The experts controlling the robots stood directly outside our building. Some of us weren’t able to leave the office and drive home until late in the evening.
One employee summed it up by saying, “though it is sad to know that someone died, I think that the right decision was made at the right moment to kill Mr. Lee and save the lives of the hostages. My hat goes off to the Montgomery County police in how they handled things”.
The experience was unsettling, for sure, but the main feeling in the Webs office at the end of the day was thankfulness that our neighbors across the street at Discovery were safe. I personally saw this event as a stark reminder of how precious and temporal life is, and how we need to make the most of it, especially by cherishing those close to us–friends, family, and coworkers alike.