On September 1, 2010, at about 1 p.m., a man entered the lobby of the Discovery Communications headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was wielding a gun and wore a yellow backpack filled with explosive devices. He took three hostages—two Discovery employees and a security guard.
Within minutes, police and FBI SWAT teams surrounded the building. The rest of the 1,900 people in the building—including everyone in the daycare facility located near the lobby—were told over a loudspeaker to lock their doors or evacuate the building.
Police learned the gunman was James J. Lee, who two years earlier had been arrested for disorderly conduct for protesting at the Discovery building. In online rants, Lee revealed he was angry with the network, saying some of its shows promote population growth and endanger the planet.
As the hostage situation stretched on, millions of viewers around the world watched and prayed. After nearly four hours, the three hostages made a run for it, and the SWAT team moved in to shoot and kill Lee.
One of the hostages, Jim McNulty, is a senior writer and producer for TLC. He says he had been away from the Discovery offices that morning but came in to attend an afternoon meeting. He says he saw a man with a gun as soon as he walked in the door. "I started thinking, 'Are we doing a production here?'" he says. "Until the man pointed at me and [said]: 'On the ground! On the ground!' And my hands go up, and I let go of my wheelie bag and took a few steps into the lobby and I got face down on the marble."
Jim says he initially thought he had walked in on a robbery. "At first I'm thinking: 'Why is somebody wanting to rob the lobby of Discovery? We don't keep any money here.' And then he starts going off about, you know, all they had to do was save the world, and you start realizing, 'Okay, I'm a hostage.'"
Jim says he started saying Hail Marys. "I lost track of how many I said," he says.
After a couple of scheduled meetings were canceled, TLC marketing specialist Chris Wood decided to eat lunch outside. When he walked back into the Discovery Communications headquarters, he noticed the lobby seemed especially calm.
Once inside the building, Chris says he saw Jim's bag on the floor. "Because we work so closely together, I knew it was Jim's bag," he says. He saw Jim lying on the floor and was confused as to why no one was helping him. "Then I looked up to the left as I was coming in the second door and the gunman was wielding the gun at me and saying: 'Get on the floor! Get on the floor!'"
Chris says he went directly to the ground, holding his phone and iPod in his right hand. He says he could see both Lee and Jim from his place on the floor. "I'm just starting to think: 'What is going on? Why here?'" he says.
Jim says when he heard Lee railing against Discovery's programming, he knew he couldn't reveal his job as a producer for TLC. He says he lied to Lee, telling him he worked in scheduling.
But when Lee asked if he had children, Jim says he decided he wouldn't deny having a 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. Jim says Lee immediately questioned him about why he had children. "'Nobody loved you? You had to make somebody to love you? Why two children? One wasn't good enough? What's so good about your filthy children?'"
"And I looked him in the eye and I said, 'They're very kind, sir.' And he said, 'Well, you're going to have them sterilized, right?'"
Jim says Lee also ranted against religion, particularly the Catholic Church. "I've been raised Catholic and did 16 years of Catholic school, and I'm just thinking, 'Please don't ask me about my faith.' Because I wasn't going to deny that either," he says.
After they had been on the lobby floor for four hours, Chris says he saw the security guard making some hand signals. "I took that as 'It's time to run.' I didn't realize that he was talking to the police outside via hand signals," he says. "I mouthed to the guard and I said, 'Run,' and he shook his head yes."
Before he started running, Chris says he felt a moment of hesitation. "As I was lying on the floor, I just said: 'I am not ready to die. This is not the way I'm going to die. I have a lot more to do.' We counted down, and Jim looked at me and I looked back at the gunman and he looked down," he says. "I just turned and ran the fastest I think I've ever run."
While Chris made a dash to door, Jim thought his fellow hostages were executing a different plan. "When [Chris] takes off, I actually took off for cover behind one of those pillars for a second. A voice in my head said, 'Run.' By then, the gunman had come around the desk and I booked it."
After all three hostages made it to safety, a sniper shot and killed Lee.
Once outside the building, Chris realized that he'd left his cell phone on the lobby floor. He wanted to let friends and family know he was okay, but he couldn't remember anyone's phone number. "I finally remembered my mother's, and I called her," he says.
Jim says his reunion with his family later that evening was emotional. "The kids were taking a bath with an aunt, and I just picked them up and I just held them tight. My daughter's like, 'Daddy, let go.' I'm, like, 'Uh-uh,'" he says. "You hate that it's something like this that really makes you appreciate what you really have. And I have not wasted a moment with them since."
In the weeks since the incident, Chris and Jim have been back in the Discovery headquarters just one time. Jim says being back in the lobby was an overwhelming experience. "It was like somebody came up to me and shoved me, the emotions hit me so hard," he says. "I basically collapsed into my wife's arms. My legs gave out and I just started sobbing, and they got me a chair. It was the most powerful emotion I've ever felt."