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The Woodward Building at 15th and H Streets NW, where I work, is a very seedy place. The ground-floor stores are odd and esoteric (a bikini shop, a store that sells nothing but African tribal carvings), the office space is inhabited by a coterie of small nonprofits and shoestring businesses, and the whole place exudes a ’30s vibe, in that those who work there feel a great depression that their employers can’t afford offices in a nicer building. The elevators break down frequently, the bathrooms are cold and dingy, and the entire fifth floor smells like a day-old sandwich. “Half [our] office is dark, because they haven’t fixed the light,” says Peggy Bishow, office administrator for the National Association for Multicultural Education, which operates on the Woodward Building’s fourth floor.

To be sure, a rickety building such as the Woodward has its charms. Foremost among them: “It’s the last oasis for cheap rent for nonprofits in downtown D.C.,” says Maggie Thompson, program manager for the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, which is also headquartered in the building.

But the building almost certainly doesn’t have a contingency plan to ensure the safety of its tenants in case of terrorist attack or other emergency. This became clear on Jan. 18, when Michigan native Lowell Timmers parked his mud-caked red van outside the Treasury building one block away. Claiming that the vehicle was full of gasoline canisters, he threatened to detonate it unless his daughter’s Guatemalan fiancé was released from jail. As I watched the mess unfold from my fifth-story window—as streets were cleared, as various government agencies converged, as representatives from every network’s 5 o’clock news team arrived on the scene—all I knew was that something potentially dangerous was happening outside, and nobody in my building seemed to have any idea what to do about it.

Despite the relative ease with which Timmers approached the bollards on Pennsylvania Avenue, security measures during the inauguration week had been heightened to an extreme. It’s estimated that the District spent between $10 million and $20 million on security, most notably manifested in the miles of barriers lining the parade route and the ominous grating enclosing Lafayette Park. Treasury and White House officials could rest easy knowing that the Secret Service was working overtime to ensure their safety. “There was a tremendous amount of advance planning and coordination,” says Secret Service spokesperson Jonathan Cherry.

Yet in my office, the Washington Monthly, we didn’t realize that anything was happening until we looked outside at around 4:30 p.m. and saw 15th Street being cordoned off. An hour later, we were still largely in the dark. I could tell the basics from looking out my window—how many hazmat trucks were parked outside, whether the street was on fire—but more pressing questions such as “Should I evacuate?” and “Am I safe?” were less easily answered. It would have been nice if I could have stuck my head out the window and yelled, “What’s going on?” but I didn’t want to startle any nervous sharpshooters who might have been on the case.

Later, I learned that elsewhere on 15th Street information had been flowing like lead-tainted water through a D.C. faucet. “Around 5:15, the whole building was evacuated, so we left the premises,” says Carrie Lee, head teller for the Bank of America at 15th and Pennsylvania. And though Robert Snoddy’s building, across the street from the Woodward, wasn’t evacuated, he knew exactly what to do. “They had a good thing in place to direct us out the back so that we wouldn’t get blown up by the man in the van,” says Snoddy. Dave Strejeck, who runs the building at 729 15th St. NW, learned about the Timmers affair early on. “The police told us, and of course, I communicated that to the tenants,” he says. “I physically went up to each floor and informed them.”

This sort of competent, measured response makes sense. After all, 15th Street is filled with a lot of very important people working in a lot of very expensive real estate. It’s natural that they would have plans in place to deal with this sort of crisis. But what about those of us in the last fleabag office building, wearing winter hats indoors and brushing away dead bugs in the bathrooms? What recourse does the Woodward Building have in the event of terrorist activity?

Built in 1911 in Beaux Arts style, the Woodward Building is the Norma Desmond of downtown office space—a faded beauty that’s outlived its age. Slated for demolition at the turn of the ’90s, the building was saved by the efforts of conservationists. Today it just sits there, quietly falling apart, a reminder of a worn-down Washington that is quickly vanishing amid a real-estate boom.

One by one, the Woodward’s decrepit brethren are getting their face-lifts—the Bowen Building, the Investment Building, the Evening Star Building. “They’re all disappearing,” says Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development for the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District. “There are fewer and fewer eyesores, thankfully.” And like a wallflower at a sock hop, the Woodward Building stands forgotten, watching the others have all the fun. “It’s probably the largest, oldest building that hasn’t been renovated,” says Widdicombe.

But low rent leads to low protection in high-profile van-explosion scenarios, as well as more mundane threats. Building management didn’t even tell us when the basement caught fire in November—the smoke coming through the stairwells was the only notice we got that something was amiss. “We heard a lot of sirens, but we’re near the White House, so that’s normal,” remembers Thompson. “Finally, my boss turned to me and said, ‘Do you smell something?’” After confirming that what they smelled was smoke, the staff members went to warn their 10th-floor neighbors: “We pounded on doors, saying, ‘We should probably leave the building; I think it’s on fire.’” Bishow recalls the building management’s reaction in a meeting on crisis procedures held after the fire: “[They said] the guard at the front desk is supposed to take a bullhorn and go from floor to floor.” A source from SJG Properties, which manages the building, says that the fire “wasn’t a life-or-death situation.” (It turned out to be a small electrical fire.)

Admittedly, the ground-floor businesses seemed sanguine about the way the Timmers incident was handled. “The police were really good. We were evacuated at 6 p.m.; they were very nice to us,” said Colleen Corrigan, owner of the Bikini Shop. “I thought it was very well-organized.” But those with upstairs office space report a different scenario. “We didn’t hear anything, [so] we looked on WTOP,” says Thompson. Yusuke Tanno, of the National Association of Japan-America Societies, agrees: “I don’t think [the management] did anything.”

According to the source from SJG Properties, the management group had had to figure out what was going on for itself. But Cmdr. Cathy Lanier, of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Special Operations Division, says that the police ordered the surrounding buildings evacuated, including the Woodward. “When I got on the scene, the Secret Service had already posted officers at buildings,” Lanier says. “I made the decision that the buildings would be evacuated.” Although she doesn’t know exactly what happened at the Woodward Building and promises to look into the communications breakdown, she questions the idea that the building management was in the dark. “I don’t know how you can evacuate a building without telling people why,” she says.

The Woodward’s approach to emergency notification assumes that tenants are sitting at their computers at all times. “We generally send an e-mail [in case of emergency],” says the SJG Properties source. “It’s kind of hard when you have a small staff to go up and physically contact 60 or 70 offices.”

Asked if he had any security tips for Woodward office-dwellers, the Secret Service’s Cherry demurs before offering some general advice: “People just need to be vigilant and be an extra set of eyes and ears for their law-enforcement authorities.”

The Department of Homeland Security refers me to its ready.gov Web site,where disaster control plans tailored for businesses are laid out in sections with headings such as “Protect Your Investment.” In the “Talk to Your People” section, the site mentions the importance of having a plan and practicing it with co-workers: “Go beyond planning and frequently practice what you intend to do during a disaster. Just as your business changes day-to-day, so should your plan. Drills and exercises will help you prepare.”

Woefully underprepared as I was, that night my plan was just to go home—which I did, at around 6:45 p.m. When I got to work the next day, I found out that the cops had come to evacuate the building at around 7:30 p.m.—a little more than three-and-a-half hours after the standoff had begun and approximately 30 minutes before Timmers surrendered.

It turned out that Timmers’ threat was more bluff than reality—the bollards, and a desire not to die, fixed his wagon. Still, that gives me little comfort, for there will probably be others like him in the future, and I’m none too confident in my building management’s ability to notify or protect my sorry, low-paid ass. But what can I do? I can’t hang out at the Bank of America all day, and we’re certainly not moving out of the Woodward Building anytime soon. We can’t afford it—and therein lies the rub. According to SJG Properties, the building is slated to undergo a total renovation next year. But in the meantime, as Thompson says, “You can put up with a lot for cheap rent.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Dean Haspiel.