D.C. in Dark While Plane Was Intercepted

By Del Quentin Wilber and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 13, 2005

D.C. police officials had no idea that fighter jets and helicopters were being deployed over Washington to intercept an errant plane on Wednesday, even though they had a sergeant in the nation's homeland security command center and the ability to monitor what was taking place at their own headquarters.

At the Homeland Security Operations Center, a command post built after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the D.C. government was relying on a sergeant to keep track of any potential crisis. But it was not until the air scare was nearly over that he got word to police commanders.

At police headquarters, someone had disconnected a phone line that would have provided emergency communications from the Federal Aviation Administration, the officials said.

It was not until he heard fighter jets screaming past his office that D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey had an inkling of the events that had been consuming federal officials for a half-hour. And several more minutes elapsed before Ramsey received official notice and then alerted Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).

"I'm not going to sit there and make believe that their notification system is flawless, because it's not," Ramsey said. "There are some issues there that need to be addressed. . . . This was all going on in a matter of minutes. We're only talking about seconds and minutes, but they count when you are talking about an aircraft."

Although police took responsibility for failing to monitor the FAA, D.C. and federal officials gave conflicting reports yesterday about what the sergeant knew at the homeland security center -- a place designed to speed communication among the many agencies that respond to terror threats. Ramsey insisted that the sergeant was not told by his federal counterparts what was happening, but federal officials took issue with that account.

The mayor yesterday sought a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to review what D.C. officials called a dangerous delay that prevented the city from mobilizing emergency workers and taking steps to protect the public.

Spokesmen for President Bush and Chertoff yesterday praised the work of the Department of Homeland Security, the FAA, the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol Police and other agencies that helped divert the plane out of the restricted area and to an airport in Frederick on Wednesday afternoon.

The pilots of the single-engine Cessna, Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer and Troy Martin, were released after officials determined they had become lost while traveling from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and posed no security threat. The FAA is considering sanctions against the men.

"It appears the system worked as it should have, since the appropriate and effective security measures were performed," said Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department. "As we do after every single incident, we will review actions of all parties to determine areas where we can collectively improve."

On a day when federal agencies were keeping track, second by second, of a potential attack on the capital, however, the city was out of the loop.

About noon, with the plane approaching, the Capitol Police and the Secret Service were ordering evacuations of the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court, sending more than 35,000 people into the streets. And fighter jets were ready to fire missiles at the Cessna when it came within three miles of the White House. Officials said the incident was the closest the government has ever come to shooting down a civilian plane.

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