They were the indelible images of the Navy Yard massacre — until, suddenly, they weren’t. Now there’s reason to believe the photos of a man on the sidewalk obscured by a group of people trying to help him did, in fact, depict one of the 12 people shot to death Monday by Aaron Alexis.
The husband of a woman in a fuchsia shirt leaning over the man told BuzzFeed today his wife, Bertillia Lavern, was performing CPR on her co-worker, Vishnu Pandit, who later died en route to a hospital. Bertillia Lavern, a logistic management specialist for the Navy, worked for two years at the desk next to Pandit, according to Navy Lt. Commander Randall Lavern.
The pair of photos went viral after they were tweeted on Monday morning by Tim Hogan, communications director for Nevada Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, who received them via text from Horsford staffer Don Andres. With images scarce of the rampage inside the heavily guarded military compound, several news agencies, including the Associated Press, requested permission to use one or both of them.
Yet skeptics on Twitter and Reddit questioned how someone shot at the Navy Yard would end up outside a CVS three blocks away. Hogan, besieged by media inquiries, gave blanket permission on Twitter for use of the photos but also tweeted that morning that he “can’t confirm details re: nature of photo.”
The coup de grace, though, was when the AP that night retracted the photo it had put on the wire. In all-caps, the message to editors appended to the retraction said the outlet “HAS BEEN UNABLE TO CONFIRM” that the action in the picture was in any way related to the shootings.
Much of the news media took that to mean the AP had concluded it was unrelated to the broader events of the day. The Atlantic’s Eric Levenson codified that view by reporting both Hogan and AP spokesman Paul Colford had told him “the man on the ground was, in fact, unrelated to the shooting.”
In fact, Hogan said, he had said only that he couldn’t confirm it, as he had said when the images blew up online on Monday. The official comment from Colford also did not indicate a conclusion but rather an absence of confirmation and a decision to pull the photo out of caution. Much of Levenson’s post was devoted to analyzing how unlikely and impractical it was for the man in the photo to have been shot at the Navy Yard.
Late Wednesday, however, Lt. Commander Lavern happened across Levenson’s report and created his first Twitter account so he could reach out to Hogan. He asked Hogan to call him at his office on Thursday morning. Lavern’s wife wanted him to set the record straight.
According to Randall Lavern, his wife ran into her boss’ office when the shooting began. She and other co-workers remained locked in there until the gunfire ceased, at which point they began to flee the building. She raced to her desk to get her building access card and found Pandit on the floor. He had been shot in the head but was still breathing, so she began performing CPR.
“She did triage to stop the bleeding and called for someone to find a medic,” Randall Lavern said. “Two security guards came back and insisted they had to leave the building, so they put him on a chair and carried him out the back door.”
When they left the building, however, they encountered a police officer who put them in his car, drove him three blocks to the corner with the CVS and left them there “because he said that was as far as he could go.”
Andres snapped the photo as he headed to his car to go to work, which is why one image is from a distance and the other is from a car window, Hogan said.
Pandit died en route to the hospital, Lavern said. His wife attended his funeral on Thursday and, according to her husband, “her organization does not want her to release a statement yet.”
Hogan said an AP reporter had spoken to several other eyewitnesses in preparation for a follow-up report and that the wire service might reissue the photo. Colford told BuzzFeed he would return a call for comment but had not done so as of the posting.
For Hogan, the entire episode has been dizzying and confusing. As a spokesman unaccustomed to being a newsmaker himself, he said it’s been “a hard experience” because many, including Levenson, questioned his judgment in tweeting the photos in the first place.
“I tried to be as careful as I could in checking in with my co-worker and exercising discretion before putting our tweet out,” he said. “Before it really spun out of control, we tried to put out a clarifying tweet as well. I thought they were relevant to the news, so we put them out there. I expected potentially that other photos would surface of the shootings. These ended up being the sole ones I’ve seen so far.”
Update — 8:30 p.m. ET: The Associated Press responds
AP Director of Photography Santiago Lyon: “The AP withdrew two photos, obtained from a passer-by, late Monday afternoon because we could not confirm with certainty at that time that there was a connection between the man seen lying on the street and the Navy Yard shooting. But we did not stop reporting, and since the attack we were able to confirm that the man in the photos was indeed one of the shooting victims. We are re-releasing the photos with a full story that details the sequence of events.”