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Among the Pensacola shooting victims: An aspiring Navy pilot and a former track star

  • Author: Katie Mettler, Marisa Iati, Derek Hawkins, The Washington Post
  • Updated: December 8, 2019
  • Published December 8, 2019

When a gunman opened fire at dawn Friday morning in a Florida naval base classroom, Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, was shot at least five times.

A recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Watson made his way out of the training building at Naval Air Station Pensacola and described the shooter to first responders, his father, Benjamin Watson, told the Pensacola News Journal.

Watson was taken to Baptist Hospital, where he died of his wounds, family members told the newspaper.

"Joshua Kaleb Watson saved countless lives today with his own," Watson's brother, Adam Watson, wrote in a post on Facebook. "He died a hero and we are beyond proud but there is a (hole) in our hearts that can never be filled."

Adam Watson said his younger brother shared "invaluable" details with law enforcement officers, who initially responded to reports of a shooting inside an air station classroom at 6:51 a.m. Navy officials placed the base on lockdown, and an hour later authorities reported that the shooter, Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani, a second lieutenant in the Saudi air force, was dead.

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, from Coffee, Ala. Family members on Saturday identified one of the victims of a shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., as Watson, a 23-year-old recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who alerted first responders to where the shooter was even after he had been shot several times. (U.S. Navy via AP)

Joshua Watson, an ensign, was one of the three people killed in Friday’s shooting, the Navy confirmed late Saturday. The gunman also killed Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, according to the Navy. All three men were naval aviation school students.

"The sorrow from the tragic event on NAS Pensacola will have a lasting impact on our installation and community," Capt. Tim Kinsella, the base's commanding officer, said in a statement. "We feel the loss profoundly and grieve with the family and friends of the deceased."

"The sailors that lost their lives in the line of duty showed exceptional heroism and bravery in the face of evil," Kinsella added. "When confronted, they didn't run from danger; they ran towards it and saved lives. If not for their actions, and the actions of the Naval Security Force that were the first responders on the scene, this incident could have been far worse."

In addition to the three sailors killed, eight people were wounded, authorities said. The facility hosts 16,000 military personnel and more than 7,000 civilians.

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, from St. Petersburg, Fla. One of the victims of the shooting Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., has been identified as Haitham, 19, who joined the Navy after graduating from high school last year, according to the Tampa Bay Times. (U.S. Navy via AP)

Even as the Navy identified the dead sailors, other details of the attack remained unclear. Officials have cautioned that the nature of the shooting - an attack on a military base by a foreign national - would prevent investigators from revealing everything they learn about the case.

"Do not expect quick answers," said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan. "There's going to be some parts of this investigation ... that you may never have access to, just because of ... who we're dealing with."

Baptist Health Care in Pensacola said it had admitted eight patients from the shooting.

Among the wounded was Charles Hogue, a base police officer who was shot in the thigh while responding to the shooting, a family member told The Washington Post. The relative said Saturday afternoon that Hogue had been released from the hospital and is doing well.

"Charles has always been a hero in our eyes, but today he truly showed why he is one of our country's finest," said a Facebook post from Perdido Bay's youth soccer club, where Hogue is a referee. "Please keep Mr. Charles in your thoughts and prayers."

In his interview with the Pensacola News Journal, Benjamin Watson said his son "died serving his country." The 23-year-old reported to Pensacola the week of Veterans Day to begin flight training to become a Navy pilot, the newspaper reported.

Joshua Watson grew up in Enterprise, Alabama, and had wanted to be in the military since he was a boy, his father told the News Journal. He was inspired by his uncle, Richard Lindsay, who served in Operation Desert Storm and was killed in a vehicle accident.

At the Naval Academy, the News Journal reported, Joshua Watson was captain of the rifle team, a small-arms instructor and a wrestling coach.

"Just wish I could talk to him one more time or wrestle with him one more time," Adam Watson wrote of his brother on Facebook, "even though he could probably take me now."

On Saturday, the Watson family prepared to drive the 125 miles south to Pensacola to see their son, the Associated Press reported.

"His mission was to confront evil," Benjamin Watson told the News Journal. "To bring the fight to them, wherever it took him. He was willing to risk his life for his country. We never thought he would die in Florida."

Family and friends described Haitham as a former track-and-field star who joined the Navy this year after studying at a community college and working at a Publix grocery store. Haitham graduated from a Florida high school in 2018, as first reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

Haitham's mother is a Navy veteran who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to Kimberly Walker, who said Haitham was her son's best friend. Haitham's decision to join the Navy warmed his mother's heart.

"I think he knew that was a ticket to get a good education," Walker said. "And I know he made his mom proud."

Walker said Haitham, who went by "Mo," and her son loved to run together, play video games and go out for Slurpees. Haitham was a "goofball" whose run-of-the-mill fears, like darkness, sometimes made for funny stories, she said. When Haitham was 16, he once started telling ghost stories to Walker's then 8-year-old daughter while they were outside at night, but he had to stop because he was getting too scared.

Haitham had only been stationed in Pensacola for a few months and had recently completed basic training, Walker said. She said authorities told Haitham's family that he had tried to stop the shooter.

"He was just so good that I knew the second (authorities) talked about a hero that he wouldn't allow anybody else to take a bullet if he could get in the way of it," Walker said.

Anthony Snead, who coached Haitham in track and cross-country at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, remembered how he came through for the team during a qualifying meet for a state championship. Haitham "really showed up that day" and ran a personal record.

Haitham had recently rekindled his Christian faith and was attending church with a classmate, Snead said. He said he was proud of Haitham for that commitment, as well as for the strong work ethic that he developed as he grew up. Haitham once told Snead that he was unsure what he wanted to do with his life, but he wanted it to be positive.

"He didn't want to be somebody who was going to coast," Snead said. "He wanted to be someone who was going to be a positive influence. And he worked like it."

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The Washington Post’s Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.