Confused Fliers Trigger Capital Scare

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), center, talks to reporters after the all-clear.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), center, talks to reporters after the all-clear. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 12, 2005

Two lost aviators flying with outdated maps from a rural Pennsylvania airstrip triggered a red alert at the White House yesterday, along with the frantic evacuation of the Capitol and the Supreme Court, before they were intercepted by Air Force jets lobbing warning flares.

The 15-minute aerial encounter, watched by rapt workers in downtown Washington office buildings, turned out to be a blunder by confused fliers in a small plane, but it illustrated how easily potential danger can trip the capital's tightly wired alert systems.

As the aircraft bore down on Washington from the north and officials could not contact the pilot, the White House's internal threat level went from yellow to orange and then to red within four minutes, fighters were scrambled and occupants and visitors to the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House were sent scurrying for safety.

The aircraft flew over the vice president's residence, a senior federal security official said, came within moments of reaching the White House and was close to being shot down.

Alarms sounded and emergency lights went on in congressional office buildings about noon, as police shouted warnings and people hurried for exits and walked, or ran, down marble staircases and north toward Union Station, witnesses said.

Outside, sirens wailed and the sound of the jets could be heard overhead. "It was relatively orderly," said one Senate worker who fled the Capitol. "But there's still panic, there's always panic. You start to run faster than you think you can run."

Officials said 35,000 people were evacuated from the Capitol and adjacent office complexes. An additional 200 were eva cuated from the White House.

First lady Laura Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan, who was visiting, were ushered to a bunker beneath the White House for safety, and Vice President Cheney was taken to a secure location, officials said. The president, who was riding his bicycle at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in suburban Maryland, was alerted by his security detail after the drama was over.

The two aviators were identified as Hayden L. "Jim" Sheaffer, 69, a truck driver from Lititz, Pa., north of Lancaster, and Troy Martin, 36, a vacuum cleaner system salesman from Akron, seven miles away. They were released without charges after authorities determined that they posed no security threat.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the government has very specific rules on when an intruding civilian aircraft can be shot down. Pentagon officials said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was contacted and available to execute a shoot-down order if necessary.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said: "This guy probably came as close as he could come without getting shot out of the air."

Authorities said the plane's occupants were so clueless that when officials finally made radio contact and ordered the plane to divert, the fliers refused, asserting their right to proceed on their way.

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