"There's a man with a gun,” a voice blared on the loudspeaker at the Heralds’ Garden City office on Jan. 3. “Get out of the building.”
Members of the editorial staff were standing in their cubicles, waiting for an announcement from the receptionist downstairs, preparing to “escape” down a nearby staircase or hide under their desks. It was a drill, and we were prepared.
Minutes earlier, Lt. Joseph Pangaro, a retired Ocean Township, N.J., police officer who had led that afternoon’s active-shooter training, had told us what to expect. When we heard the warning, a dozen of us bolted for a side door before we even caught a glimpse of the role-playing madman with a mock semi-automatic handgun.
The simulation came after a 90-minute session that Pangaro concluded by sizing up our conference room, noting what we might hide behind if a shooter suddenly appeared. The lectern next to him might stop handgun fire, he said. Perhaps tech hardware might offer some protection from bullets, he added, pointing to the projector cart he’d used for the presentation.
There is no set formula to surviving, Pangaro explained, because every active-shooter scenario is different. The decision to run, hide or fight can be the right one or the wrong one, depending on the situation. But the key, he said, is thinking ahead of time what you might do, because there’s very little time to decide when it’s really happening.
Sadly, journalists at Capital Gazette Communications in Annapolis, Md., weren’t prepared for the gunman who burst into their office last June 28 and opened fire. Pangaro showed us a map of where the shooter, who held a grudge against one of the company’s newspapers, entered the newsroom, and the path he took on his killing spree, which left five staffers dead.
A few days later, I saw the obituary for one of them, 56-year-old John McNamara, and immediately recognized him.
When I was a student journalist at the University of Maryland, from which I graduated in 2015, I covered Terrapins basketball games for an all but unknown website. I was one of several members of the media who attended every news briefing in the bowels of the Comcast Center, the Terps’ 17,950-seat arena. McNamara was always there, and though I never spoke to him — never even knew his name, or where he worked — I knew he was a pro. You could tell he had been covering the team for years — more than 20, I learned in that wrenching story celebrating his life.
He always seemed to know what to ask coach Mark Turgeon to best inform his basketball-fanatic readers, unafraid to speak up as some of the younger writers, like me, hesitated to pose questions. I admired him. As an avid college hoops fan with my own dreams of making a living reporting on sports, McNamara was the kind of journalist I wanted to be.
Seeing his face for the first time in several years, in an obituary after a mass shooting, was heartbreaking.
He’d graduated from the University of Maryland in 1983, I learned, and began his journalism career at the Hagerstown Herald-Mail. He later became the sports editor of the Prince George’s Journal before joining The Capital, one of Capital Gazette’s daily papers.
He’d even written two books — “Cole Classics: Maryland Basketball’s Greatest Men and Moments” and “The University of Maryland Football Vault: The History of the Terrapins.” He was a historian of sorts, and an expert at his craft.
About four years before his death, The Capital had moved McNamara out of the sports department, naming him editor and reporter of the Bowie Blade News and Crofton-West County Gazette, two Capital Gazette weeklies, where he was the primary source of news for those communities.
He reported local news. That’s what I do. That’s what my colleagues at the Heralds do.
As we hurried down the side staircase two weeks ago and out a back door to the curb, we all knew it was just a drill, but I couldn’t help imagining the fear we might have felt, because we all knew, too, that the staged evil we’d run from was possible. It has been real for too many others, from journalists to concertgoers, who haven’t made it out.
I can’t imagine what McNamara or his co-workers were feeling in their final moments. I just wish he knew that a fellow Terp, now working as a local newspaper editor in New York, who never even met him, admires what he dedicated his life to. And I wish he were still here doing it.
Ben Strack is the editor of the Rockville Centre Herald. Comments about this column? Bstrack@liherald.com.