A masked gunman robbed a drugstore in downtown Washington yesterday morning, setting off a police siege that shut several streets and kept workers out of nearby office buildings for hours, authorities said.
The situation ended peacefully when heavily armed police entered the Rite Aid at 15th and L streets NW and determined that the assailant had slipped away with about $150 in cash, police said.
Police help Rite Aid workers into an armored vehicle after an armed robbery at the drugstore at 15th and L streets in Northwest Washington.
(Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)
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The incident began about 7:50 a.m. when the gunman, wearing a ski mask and an orange jumpsuit, entered the drugstore and demanded money, police said. He called out the names of several employees, who recognized the voice as that of a former employee, police said.
Witnesses inside the store described frantic clerks rushing up aisles and telling customers to run outside. Several fled before patrol officers responded and helped about 10 more people to safety, police said.
Two employees who did not escape hid in a room inside the store, police said.
Worried that the gunman might be holding the two employees hostage, police summoned the department's emergency response team. Traffic was diverted from the area bounded by 15th and 16th streets and L and K streets.
Officers carrying shields and assault rifles eventually entered the building. About 10:55 a.m., they helped the two employees to safety and loaded them into an armored vehicle.
The gunman, however, had vanished, leaving his orange jumpsuit in an alley behind the store, police said.
Police said they had no choice but to proceed carefully because they were told they were encountering a hostage situation.
"We had information that there was possibly a suspect and innocent people inside the building," said Lt. Larry Scott of the emergency response team. "You go by the numbers to ensure the safety of the persons inside the building."
The scene drew reporters and downtown workers, who watched the drama unfold from behind police tape on the street and from office windows.
Customers described a frenzied scene in the moments after the robbery started.
Jacqueline D. Talley, who works in the purchasing office of The Washington Post, which is across L Street, said she was looking at Christmas cards when she heard a cashier hustling down another aisle urging people to flee.
"Everybody dropped everything and took off running," Talley said.
Staff writers Robert O'Harrow and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.