A man threatening to blow up his van waged a standoff with authorities a short distance from the White House yesterday, triggering the evacuation of several blocks of downtown on the first day of inaugural activities.
The episode, which ended peacefully about four hours later, did not appear to be related to terrorism or the inauguration but instead to a family matter, authorities said. The muscular response -- hundreds of officers, armored vehicles, snipers on rooftops, instant road closings -- underscored the tight security that is so pervasive in Washington, especially this week.
The four-hour standoff snarled rush-hour traffic downtown on the first of four days of inaugural events.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
Police said that they found homemade "devices" consisting of wires and a switch in the van. Shortly after 9 p.m., they declared the van safe and impounded it.
The White House remained open throughout the ordeal, but police swept through office buildings on 15th Street NW, evacuating many of them. An armored vehicle rode up and down 15th, and hazardous materials vehicles, ambulances and other emergency equipment took over the streets. At least three command vehicles were on the scene, which was being monitored by the Department of Homeland Security.
Commuters, already facing a rough week because of the inauguration, were stuck as several critical downtown streets were closed at the beginning of the evening rush hour. Backups extended for miles and dragged on for hours. Those who chose to leave their cars downtown in favor of Metro also got a shock: The platforms were overflowing.
President Bush and first lady Laura Bush were at an inaugural concert at MCI Center when the standoff began, and later returned to the White House without incident.
The trouble began about 3:30 p.m. at 15th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue NW -- on the route that will be used for the inaugural parade. Police said the man drove a van to the Secret Service security shack near the White House and made some demands. He claimed to have 15 gallons of gasoline, along with a triggering device that he said he was holding, they said. Officials were analyzing the liquid last night.
Guns drawn, Secret Service personnel approached the van. But the man refused to leave the vehicle, and authorities decided to retreat, electing to talk to him in hopes of ending the standoff peacefully. Later, they explained that they saw containers inside the van but were not able to immediately identify their contents.
D.C. police Cmdr. Cathy Lanier, head of the special operations division, said police moved patiently and methodically because the man was making serious threats and appeared to have something dangerous in his van.
"From what little we could see," Lanier said, "it looked like he was telling the truth."
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey echoed that assessment and said officers handled events well. "It sounded like he had some kind of accelerant, flammable material," Ramsey said. "It sounds like something that could have touched off a pretty good fire."
Police said they set up a perimeter to control a potential bomb blast. They used robotic equipment to deliver a telephone to the man, which was used during negotiations. Finally, at 7:55 p.m., he walked out of the van and into police custody.
The man, whom police identified last night as Lowell Timmers, 54, of Cedar Springs, Mich., about 20 miles north of Grand Rapids, was charged with violating a federal law that prohibits "any threat" to do harm or damage with fire or explosives.
Authorities said that he was upset because a relative is in the custody of immigration authorities and apparently facing deportation.