‘SHELTER IN PLACE:’ Inside the Capitol during the lockdown

October 3, 2013

Editor’s Note: Congressional reporter Ed O’Keefe was inside the Capitol when it was locked down Thursday. This is his first-person account.

The incident appeared to begin around 2:19 p.m. just as the House was wrapping up a series of votes on short-term spending bills. That’s when Capitol Police radios began squawking and officers were seen rushing up and out of the Capitol.

At the basement-level House Carry-Out, three officers were seen heading out of the restaurant and towards stairs taking them to the first floor. Up on the first floor, some of those officers ran outside while others helped guard a door that had been locked, sealing people inside and keeping others out. Within moments another rush of officers arrived in the first-floor corridor as police radios continued broadcasting information. The officers began banging on doors, instructing staffers for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to shelter in place and lock their doors.

When reporters standing in the hallway asked what they should do, an officer froze for just a moment.

“Shelter in place. Just get to your office,” the officer said.

Around the corner near the crypt of the Capitol below the Rotunda, more officers dressed in business suits were seen sprinting towards the exits carrying suitcase-sized bags. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) stood confused at the base of a winding staircase leading up to the Rotunda, unaware of what was transpiring.

Up in the Rotunda, officers were seen closing large wooden doors facing to the east.

The situation seemed more under control on the Senate side, where Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) were seen walking around with staffers. Schumer, head of the Senate Rules Committee, confirmed that shots had been fired near the Capitol, but said he didn’t know anything else.

Klobuchar said she had been told that shots were fired near the Hart Senate Office Building and had already heard from her concerned daughter.

“It’s a rarity to get a call from a college daughter in the middle of the day,” she said with a smile.

The Senate remained in session for at least 15 minutes after the first reports of trouble, with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) presiding.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was speaking about the situation in Syria as the first reports came in, according to Senate transcripts. He yielded to Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), who when informed of the incident and asked that the Senate adjourn.

From windows in the storied Ohio Clock Corridor outside the Senate chamber, two sharpshooters could be seen on the West Front of the Capitol, near the spot where presidential inaugurations occur every four years. One of the sharpshooters was on bended knee with his weapon aimed facing the Mall.

All throughout, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer stood in the Ohio Clock Corridor with a cellphone in one hand and a police radio in the other. He confirmed to assembled reporters that there had been a shooting, but declined to share any other information. Later, he walked over to the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and stayed there for several minutes.

Congressional staffers were notified shortly after the shooting began via an e-mail that began with an all-caps message: SHELTER IN PLACE. “Gunshots have been reported on Capitol Hill requiring staff in all Senate Office Buildings to immediately shelter in place. Close, lock and stay away from external doors and windows.” Similar messages flashed on televisions in the Senate Press Gallery.

Officials began permitting visitors to reenter the building once an all-clear was given shortly after 3 p.m. Though the Capitol is closed to the general public due to the government shutdown, lawmakers and their staffs are allowed to escort constituents into the building.

That’s why Jake and Tracy Goodliffe, from Tremonton, Utah, were on the Hill with their three young children when the shooting began. They were in the Capitol Visitors Center and heard a public address announcement instructing people to shelter in place.

When asked how the shutdown and shooting were affecting his vacation, Jake said, “We just keep hoping that Congress will pass a bill to reopen the Smithsonian so we can go see what we came across the country to see.”

“Us too,” said an elderly woman passing by.

“Yeah, we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Tracy Goodliffe said in reply.

The family said they had received several texts from concerned friends and family during the lockdown, but sent word that they’re okay.

“It’s memorable -- what we saw anyway,” she said.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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