'Don't Move! You Just Shot 2 of My Men!'
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 26, 1998; Page A1 Patrick Shall sees him in the corner of his eye, a slight, red-haired man on his way into the nation's Capitol. It's less than two hours before closing on a Friday afternoon, and he figures it's just another tourist giving Capitol Police Officer Jacob J. Chestnut a hard time.
Then the manager of the Capitol gift shop hears a crashing sound, a rippling echo in the marbled halls.
"We looked at each other in the shop and thought, man, that was pretty loud," Shall recalls. "There's a time delay, and we hear a second shot."
A middle-aged man freezes with his wallet out.
Shall and two employees push him behind the counter.
Employee Tyvon Crawford is on the floor, the tourist spread over him.
Shall is on top, peering through the glass counter.
Out in the gleaming corridor, Capitol Police Officer Douglas B. McMillan is aiming and firing, the semiautomatic recoiling in his hands like something alive.
"I see this officer dash out and crouch in front of a tourist on the floor," Shall remembers. "He completely exposes himself to shield someone else. It was incredibly brave."
The bullets that flew in the nation's Capitol on Friday cut down two officers and twisted hundreds of lives together for a few frenzied and tragic hours.
An aide to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay crawls under a desk as a gunman bursts through his office door.
A tourist and her son and niece slip through a secret door in the Capitol and watch the events unfold on television.
Mothers lose children and find them again.
A senator sees an officer's life slip away.
A surgeon tries to explain to two teenage sons why he couldn't save their father.
It begins at 3:40 p.m. on a sultry July afternoon.
The Office of the House Majority Whip
Inside the office complex of DeLay (R-Tex.), aide Scott Hatch knows right away what that unmistakable "rap-rap-rap" is. Hatch turns toward the back door and Special Agent John Gibson, DeLay's bodyguard.
"We both had that look, 'It's gunfire,' " Hatch recalls.
The images come split-second, rapid-fire. Gibson, who sits with his back perhaps a foot from the door, rises. Spins. His right hand goes toward the gun at his hip, his left hand touches the door.
"I heard him yell, 'Get down!' " Hatch remembers.
The door is opening at that point, just a crack. Hatch cannot tell whether Gibson is pulling it open or someone is pushing from outside.
It is the last thing Hatch sees before running into an inner office, rounding up other aides and locking the door, with about 15 staff members inside, huddled together for safety.
Tony Rudy, DeLay's chief counsel, and Tim Berry, Rudy's office mate both on the phone are in an office across the hall from Hatch. Rudy has just come back from the House floor, where Republicans have pulled off a razor-thin victory on their patients' rights bill. Berry and others have watched the close vote on C-SPAN. Lining up and counting votes is what the whip's office is all about, and everyone is in the mood for a celebration.
At the sound of the gunfire, they dive for cover, too, under their own desks. But now all Rudy can think about is the hallway, with its two-way junction just outside his office. If the gunman or maybe it is more than one turns right at that spot, he'll be in Rudy's office.
"I was looking from under my desk, waiting for footsteps," Rudy recalls. "Then I thought, 'I'm not risking my life on whether he turns left or right.' "
Rudy bolts, Berry right next to him.
But before they get very far, a young staff member runs in, screaming, "They killed Gibson! They shot Gibson!"
For about 30 seconds, there is silence. And maybe, Rudy thinks, it is over.
He and Berry walk toward the hallway and then to the back of the office. By that time, DeLay, who pulled a couple of staff members and a tourist to safety in his office's private bathroom, is coming out, too.
They see one man "lying on the ground, with a weird hat next to him" and a huge pool of blood by his side. He is later identified as the gunman, Russell Eugene Weston Jr. Rudy can't see Gibson, who is lying on the ground, obscured by a desk.
A police officer is standing over the gunman, with a pistol pointed at the prone man's head. "Don't move," the officer shouts, as Berry recalls it. "You just shot two of my men."
One short flight upstairs, Babs and David Melton step out of the vaulted Rotunda in Statuary Hall with their 11-year-old son, John, and 12-year-old niece, Shelly. In all the years they had visited Washington, they had not taken their son inside the Capitol.
So on this Friday afternoon, the family from Winchester, Va., is doing the grand tour. Then they hear the sounds that are the common memory of everyone who is here this day.
"The place went dead silent until that next shot," Babs Melton recalls. "Then somehow you know it's gunfire."
Three police officers run by, guns drawn. As if in slow motion, she says, 40 or 50 tourists back against the walls, some tucking themselves behind statues of Ethan Allen, Robert E. Lee and Sam Houston. She motions to the children to get back, but they are more or less completely exposed.
"Then to my amazement, one of the walls opens up, and it's a door. Someone inside said, 'Come in here, you'll be safe here.' "
It's the policy office for Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). Security has phoned Peter Davidson, the 36-year-old director, and told him to lock the door. But he hears the tourists outside and brings them in. Some of the adults verge on hysteria.
"They were so nice to us, very calm," Babs remembers. "They are asking the children, 'Where are you from?' 'Boy, this is a heck of a thing, huh?' It is such a commonplace thing that it calms you down."
The television is tuned to CNN. Five or six children sit on the floor and watch the horror unfold on the television screen. One young mother, with long dark hair, is crying softly. She's separated from her 2-year-old son, who is with her grandmother.
Davidson asks her some questions. "She keeps saying, 'He's in the place with the big picture,' " he says. "We know that's the Rotunda, and we arrange to get someone out there and find her baby."
After 45 minutes, security officers lead the 40 tourists mother and child reunited through a labyrinthine warren of tunnels to the outside. The sun is blazing, a Capitol Police captain is talking of a dead comrade, and police and ambulances and thousands of onlookers are everywhere.
"We knew someone had died; it's a sad, sad day," Babs Melton recalls. "It isn't that I was panicky so much as jumpy. It's just so darned unreal."
The House Whip's Office
House Oversight Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), known for his acerbic humor and well-tailored suits, strolls out of a triumphal news conference heralding passage of the GOP health care bill. Then he hears of the shooting.
Thomas sweeps across the House floor and trots quickly down the marble steps. He finds pure carnage. Staff tend to one of the officers with a gaping gunshot wound. Blood pools on the floor.
"We all knew [the officer] was not going to live," Thomas remembers. "It was the wounds he had sustained."
Thomas, whose committee oversees the Capitol's security, gets on the telephone to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and to Capitol security and decides on a strategy for releasing details about the officers' conditions. Amid the blood, the business conversations are comforting, help center him.
"You kick into a routine. The way I react is I become very focused and rational. After the fact, then you're able to look at it as a human being and look at it as a very tragic situation."
'This May Be the Gunman'
Across Constitution Avenue from the Capitol, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a heart surgeon and trauma specialist, has just finished speaking on the Senate floor and heads to his Dirksen Building office suite. "Something bad has happened at the Capitol," an aide tells him.
He does what everyone on Capitol Hill does; he looks at the television and sees only standard programming. So Frist grabs a folder and heads out. He's late for his flight already.
As an aide drives him out of a Senate garage, he calls the Capitol's attending physician and finds out two people "are down" at the Capitol.
In his shirtsleeves, Frist gets out of the car and sprints onto the Capitol grounds, past police and camera crews, tourists and reporters, and into a ground-floor door.
A security guard puts his hand up to stop Frist, then realizes who he is.
A man is being wheeled out on a stretcher.
"This was Chestnut," Frist recalls. The officer has massive head trauma. His heart has stopped. He can't breathe. The Capitol physicians have put in a breathing tube.
"You've got to get air into the lungs, you have to compress on the chest," Frist remembers. "I had a medic compressing on the chest, as I was ventilating through the breathing tube, squeezing the bag."
By now, Frist is in the ambulance with his patient, stabilizing him, getting his heart beating again. Three medics are there by now, so Frist sends the ambulance off. He already knows it is a losing battle. "This severe a head trauma, I have seen nobody survive," Frist recalls.
Frist never sees the other wounded officer, John Gibson. By this time, paramedics have worked on him and colleagues have pleaded with him to "hold on." He has been taken to Washington Hospital Center in a helicopter.
But Frist runs back into the building for another patient and quickly takes stock.
"Severe injuries to his extremities and chest," Frist remembers. Frist takes over the jobs that medics can't do. "I focused on his airway, making sure he could breathe."
Frist doesn't know it, but he is working on Weston. "Somebody may have said, 'This may be the gunman,' " Frist recalls. "I am trained to take care of the patient. I was focused on how to keep his heart going and lungs going. ... I am not trained to think of anything else in that situation ... His injuries are multiple. He would bleed to death from gun wounds to the arteries."
This time Frist climbs into the ambulance with his patient, concerned that the man's chest might have to be opened on the way to the hospital, something the medics can't do.
He stays with the man, who he says has a 6-to-8-inch chest wound, until he turns him over to the trauma team at D.C. General Hospital.
Frist has tried to help prepare the Capitol's emergency teams for such an incident.
"Did I ever think it would happen? I hoped not."
Washington Hospital Center
Across town, at Washington Hospital Center, the voice comes crackling over the intercom just before 4 p.m. "Code Yellow Medstar, Code Yellow Medstar ... five minutes by helicopter, code yellow, code yellow ..."
A nurse runs into the scrub room, where physician Bikram Paul is washing up after a long cancer operation. It's on the television news, she tells him, there's shooting at the Capitol, a U.S. Park Police helicopter is flying to the hospital with a wounded officer. Paul turns off the water and slips on a clean pair of scrubs. Then he orders aides to activate the cardiac resuscitation equipment.
Paul and three trauma nurses walk down the hall to the helipad behind the hospital to begin trying to save the life of Gibson.
The paramedics are pumping and pumping, doing cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They take Gibson off the helicopter and wheel him into surgery bay No. 2. The nurses cut his shirt off with surgical scissors. There is a bullet hole beneath and to the left of the heart.
Gibson's vital signs are flatlined.
"We opened the chest immediately," Paul recalls. "We found the bullet has gone downward to the abdomen, injuring the liver and major blood vessels. ... We could not restart the heart."
Paul, a senior surgeon who founded the Medstar unit, has operated on them all, from homeless men to U.S. senators. But losing police officers and he's worked on several mortally wounded officers is perhaps hardest. "They are young. They give their lives for us and our country."
Gibson's wife is in the waiting room, along with Capitol Police brass. Five chaplains, representing different denominations, come in to say that her husband's body is ready for her. Meanwhile, the Park Police send the helicopter to Woodbridge, where it will land in a parking lot and pick up Gibson's two teenage sons.
Capitol Police chaplain Manuel Rivera later meets with Gibson's wife and his two, strapping blond sons. He leads them to the room where their father's body lies.
"We had a prayer, and then I left them for a few minutes," he remembers. "It was a very personal moment."
In Winchester, Babs and David Melton get home just after midnight. The two children are asleep in the back of the car; they haul them into bed, and then Babs and David just sit there.
They can't turn their minds off. "You just keep reeling and unreeling the day's events," Babs recalls. So they flick on the television news.
Babs pads off to the bedroom about 2 a.m. David falls asleep in his recliner, hours later.
In DeLay's office, the working day never seems to end. Phones jangle, Staff members comfort one another. All night long, it seems, police take statements.
After 11 p.m., about a half-dozen staff members leave together. "We walked out and we could see the media circus," Berry remembers. "The Capitol Police spokesman was giving his final statement, and all the floodlights were on. ... And the thing that was most crushing was that John [Gibson] had died."
Earlier that evening, one more ending: From the parking lot at Washington Hospital Center, a black medical examiner's van wheels away carrying Gibson's body. Once on the street, the driver turns on the sirens, a mournful wail, and disappears north.
Soon Gibson's wife and sons walk onto the tarmac. The sun has retreated beneath the tree line and Washington National Cathedral's spire is stark against a pink sky.
A Capitol Police commander, a few lieutenants, city police officers and nurses stand on the tarmac. Without a word, they form a line and stiffen as the family walks to the helicopter.
The chopper lifts slowly, and pauses for a second over the hospital. A Capitol Police officer lifts his hand to salute, and the chopper does a 180-degree turn and heads home.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company