Edward Weeden and his colleagues at the municipal complex in Virginia Beach heard what sounded like someone falling down the stairs.
When they went to investigate, they found a woman who was "unconscious, blood on her face, blood on the stairs — we didn't know what happened," he said.
The grim discovery shattered the peace of a late Friday afternoon in the public works building as gunfire and terrified screams rang out. Instead of guiding residents through routine, bureaucratic paperwork, civil servants dove for cover, locked doors and erected barricades in fear of a gunman prowling the halls.
After a co-worker went up the stairs to see what was happening, "she came back down saying, 'Get out of the building, some guy has a gun, she's been shot!' " Weeden told NBC affiliate WAVY.
"I mean, it's shocking. You don't know how to react," he said. "You want to stay, but you don't want to stay."
Megan Banton said she heard gunfire before her supervisor told her to call 911. She struggled to keep her cool with a dispatcher as bullets flew outside her door.
"We just heard people yelling and screaming to get down," Banton told WAVY. "I was on the phone with 911, so I was trying to concentrate on getting (information to authorities and) talking to them."
Her colleagues quickly jammed a desk against the door, not knowing if the gunman would target them next.
"We didn't know if they were coming in," she said. "We heard a couple of shots. Like I said, I was trying to listen to what happened and be on the phone with 911, and we were just hoping it'd be over soon."
As police cornered and brought down the suspect, employees fled the complex of buildings in a scene all too familiar to Americans: Innocent people walking briskly with their hands in the air, police officers pointing them to safety and paramedics pushing gurneys to the offices that terrorized workers had just fled.
"I'm just going through a lot of emotion, because it's way too much killing going on," courthouse employee Sheila Cook said. "And I'm just glad that they alerted us in enough time so we wouldn't be outside when everything was occurring."
Cook said she and her colleagues were cleared to leave by police officers who could only tell them the shooter had been apprehended.
"I'm sure they couldn't give us any more (information) than that, but that was enough to make me feel safe enough to come outside and to know that God was with us and is with us," Cook said.