Capital City Caught Up In a Mad Dash for Safety
Thursday, May 12, 2005
It was five minutes before noon. U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer was walking into the Senate dining room, with the assistant director of the Secret Service and the Senate sergeant at arms, when he got a message on his BlackBerry.
His officers at a command center two blocks away were nervously watching a radar screen as an unidentified plane penetrated deeper and deeper into Washington's restricted airspace. A watch commander typed out the message, written in code: We have an air security problem.
Gainer got on his cell phone immediately and asked several questions to those in the command center. What was the speed of the plane? Its altitude? Did anyone have a visual?
"We were getting information, but it was all bad news," he said. "We didn't know whether it was friend or foe. What is going through your mind is, 'What is the drop-dead point? When do we have to make the decision to evacuate?' "
His decision came at 12:04 p.m., with the plane four miles away.
The order to evacuate the Capitol -- and orders to clear people out of nearby House and Senate office buildings, the White House and the U.S. Supreme Court -- sparked an intense but momentary panic throughout downtown Washington, cutting short news conferences, interrupting tours and reviving memories -- however briefly -- of Sept. 11, 2001.
Thousands of people, from federal workers to visiting schoolchildren, fled from different places, at different paces, with different degrees of worry.
"Move, move! This is not a drill!" police officers shouted repeatedly as senators in suits and sightseers in shorts scrambled down marble staircases to the sunlit sidewalks surrounding the Capitol.
Some walked slowly to Union Station, taking out their cell phones and conducting business as usual. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) shuffled in the afternoon heat, leaning against a pole and pausing to catch his breath.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was literally lifted out of her pinkish high heels by Capitol Police in a hallway outside the House chamber. One shoe was later found; the other remains missing.
Evacuation plans are serious business in Washington after the attacks of 2001. All of that planning yesterday boiled down to a short burst of activity, set in motion by e-mail alerts and indoor flashing lights, as well as low-tech barking from police officers who burst into Capitol rooms.
People were unsure of their destination as they headed out the doors of the Capitol and nearby buildings. There was no time for detailed instructions. Some were told by police to head for Union Station; others just received a command to "go north!"