Capitol Shooting
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  • Witnesses report panic during shooting
  •   In Hallowed Halls, Tranquillity Vanished

    Angela Dickerson, 24, with blood on her legs, sits outside the Capitol moments after she was wounded in the shooting that claimed the lives of two Capitol Police officers. (By Paul Labohm – The Washington Post)
    By Marc Fisher and Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, July 25, 1998; Page A1

    Tony Rudy, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's chief counsel, said it sounded "as if somebody had a giant metal tray and was banging it." Hitesch Shah, visiting the Capitol with 12 relatives from Queens, N.Y., thought the tall bronze statues were falling over. Justin Brown, working the gift kiosk immediately across from the shooting scene, assumed someone had dropped something.

    Leigh Crockett – who said he is a descendant of Davy Crockett and was leading his family on a search for a statue of the frontiersman – heard it as a rumbling, odd, dangerous.

    But then the sound repeated, and repeated and became unmistakable.

    In an instant, the pop-pop-pop of gunfire pierced the hush of the Capitol, where the high ceilings turn even the constant clatter of government workers and tourists into muffled echoes.

    A man and woman leave the Capitol as a mobile crime unit arrives. (By Shawn Thew – The Washington Post)
    Jason Wong, 25, a staff assistant to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), was showing a group of American and foreign tourists around Statuary Hall on the second floor when he heard what "sounded like somebody dropped something down the stairs."

    Even in an era when shootings seem commonplace, few of the several hundred tourists strolling through the Capitol on the summery Friday afternoon thought it could happen here.

    "The American tourists couldn't imagine it could be gunfire," Wong said. "The foreigners knew, they started running right away."

    And in a few seconds, everyone knew. They saw guards running, cops waving people away, security guards crying.

    "Move, move, move, move, move!" the police shouted as they whisked everyone down the halls, out of the Crypt – the open space one floor below the Rotunda – and out the doors.

    "People were scrambling to the floor, a few people had been shot, and they were lying there bleeding," said another witness, Karen Frank, a tourist. "There were children there and we were just trying to throw ourselves on top of them."

    The vast plaza outside the Capitol, normally a pacific zone of routine activity, became a controlled frenzy of police lines, people running alongside gurneys, camera crews clustering and angling for position, police spokesmen struggling to command the flow of information, strangers passing along rumors, politicians urging calm, TV anchors urgently reporting morsels of news.

    It had been relatively lazy day on the Hill. The sun blazed down on lines of tourists waiting to climb the steps to the second floor Rotunda. Staffers hurried from office to office. Summer interns showed around their out-of-town visitors. Reporters scurried to news conferences and interviews.

    Most House members and senators had gone home, but the House stayed in session for nearly an hour after the shooting. Then the House chamber's doors were closed and C-SPAN's cameras turned off. Teenaged pages stood in the well of the chamber reading to each other.

    The Capitol is a security paradox, a fortress surrounded by anti-terrorism barriers and protected by its own police department, yet open to a vast work force and the general public. In recent years, the threat of terrorism has prompted authorities to add layer upon layer of security to Capitol Hill: X-ray machines, metal detectors, concrete planters and barriers.

    The building is at once the workplace of 535 of the most important people in America and a tourist attraction of the first magnitude.

    There hadn't been a shooting in the Capitol since March 1, 1954, when Puerto Rican independence advocates pulled guns in the House gallery and fired about 30 shots onto the floor, wounding six people, including five congressmen. That incident caused the House to consider walling off the gallery with bullet-proof glass, said former House historian Raymond Smock, "but they decided they couldn't wall themselves off from the people they represented."

    Despite more than 100 security cameras and 1,000 police officers today, that tension never disappears, Smock said. Year after year, the House sergeant-at-arms argues for greater security. "But it's up to the members to modify that," Smock said, "realizing that if this was going to be an open place, you can't make it into a garrison."

    Now it was a crime scene.

    Stunned by the event, by the shooting deaths of two of their own, Capitol Police moved quickly to restore the building they protect to its rightful stature. An hour after the shooting, a police spokesman went on television to pronounce order restored.

    Two and a half hours after the shooting, Capitol Police officers moved with military precision to the flagpoles that stand below the dome, lowering the Stars and Stripes to half-mast.

    All along the lawns, those who had seen the shooting or its immediate aftermath spoke of a moment when time seems to slow, when you see things happening and know they will be horrible, but stand powerless to stop them.

    "The first thing I heard was a big boom," said Justin Brown, the gift kiosk worker. "I looked to the right and I saw a guy with a gun. The first thing I thought was 'duck.' It was so fast, a split second. He was shooting, just shooting anyone. Some of the police were shooting. He was shooting at them."

    Brown said the gunman ran into the building, rushed through a metal detector, and opened fire. The man ran down a hallway firing shots, and the police fired back. "They had a running battle down the hall," Brown said.

    "The noise inside was so loud with all the echoes, the noise was astronomical," said gift shop manager Patrick Shall.

    The shots came rapidly, "Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop," said tourist Jud Threkeld from Spokane, Wash.

    "People started screaming," said his wife, Rachel. "It was horrible. I never want to come back. You would think in the Capitol you would never get hurt." She and Jud hid behind a column, then "he pushed me to the ground and threw himself over me," Rachel said.

    Some tourists found themselves escorted out of the building through the Capitol's tunnel system. "You're safe. I'm a police officer," a Capitol security officer told one family as he ushered them into a third-floor elevator on the House side, leading them to the basement.

    Gift shop employee Tyvon Crawford, 22, said he "was helping customers when I heard a big boom. I looked around to my right, where the sound came from and I saw a security guard return fire. I ducked down behind the booth. I looked up through the glass and saw a tourist down. I was scared I might get hit by a bullet. Honestly, I thought it was kind of cool because I had never seen anything like that."

    Amber Simas, a summer intern touring the building with a friend, had just finished asking her friend how many people had ever been shot in the Capitol.

    "People were screaming," said Simas, 21, an intern at the Talk Radio News Service. "Everyone was shocked. You don't walk into the Capitol and expect to get shot." Simas's friend had just shown her the blood stains on the steps leading to a statue of Jefferson, stains remaining from the 1890 incident in which a newspaperman shot a congressman as they argued over a story about a scandal involving the lawmaker.

    Simas was still shaking two hours after the shooting as she recounted the vision of several hundred people running through the Rotunda, searching for an exit.

    The first D.C. police ambulance arrived within a minute. In 20 minutes there would be a half-dozen. Two fire trucks arrived. Plainclothes and uniformed cops – FBI, D.C. police, Capitol Police plainclothesmen – cordoned off the area where the gunman had entered, in front of the Document Door, an entrance on the House side near the central stairway.

    Thousands of people watched from behind police barriers, their summer holiday or workday at the nation's Capitol suddenly transformed into a day they would not forget.

    Tourist Angela Dickerson, 24, lay outdoors inside a colonnade leading to a staff entrance. Her shorts were spotted with blood. Bandages were wrapped around her forehead and her right biceps. A woman policewoman, her own hand bandaged, held a compress to Dickerson's left temple.

    Others were hurt. "It's John Gibson," a Capitol policeman whispered to a colleague as he raced toward the Capitol steps. Within minutes, two victims were wheeled out of the Document Door. Jacob Chestnut, the Capitol policeman the gunman shot on his way into the building, was put aboard one ambulance. Dickerson went into another. Gibson was wheeled out on a gurney and rushed to the helicopter. He had bled the least, but died first.

    House Administration Committee Chairman William M. Thomas (R-Calif.) said the gunman had started to rush down the long chandeliered corridor beneath the House chamber, when he turned, barged into DeLay's Whip's office through a door marked "Private" and found himself face-to-face with Gibson: "They shot each other," Thomas said.

    Rudy, down on the floor with the rest of DeLay's staff, had no doubt what had happened: "John Gibson is a hero, and we all believe he saved our lives," he said.

    On the Plaza, passersby and tourists patiently told their stories. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), trying to get to his car, saw ambulances and "thought it was some kind of patient protection demonstration."

    Inside, within a couple of minutes after the shots ended, Capitol Police were lining up everyone who'd been within sight of the incident, holding them against a wall as potential suspects or witnesses.

    Susana Aguilar, a summer intern from Sacramento, was on a tour in the Rotunda when she heard the shouts and the shots and before she knew what was happening she was rounded up by police. Officers took witnesses' names, addresses and phone numbers before letting the bystanders go 90 minutes later.

    "Children were screaming and yelling and saying, 'Mommy, we want to get out of here.' We were not getting any information. People were unsure what was going on," Aguilar said.

    House members, many rushing out of town, did not have to remain behind. DeLay slipped out the main door of the Capitol less than 15 minutes after the shooting. He looked stricken. Asked if he'd seen anything, he said, "Did I ever. I don't want to talk about it." Aides rushed him into his waiting car.

    In the immediate panic, tourists Bob Whinery, 68, a retired radiologist from Gorham, Maine, and his daughter Catherine Whinery, 41, found themselves herded into a bathroom with at least six other people, but not the Whinery children.

    Despite the missing kids, Whinery said he and his daughter were "told to stay in there and lock the door. We were in there 10 to 15 minutes until someone came and knocked and said he was a security guard."

    Reunited with his family, Whinery said, "I think I am 98 right now." His daughter added, "This is the worst tour I have ever been on."

    On the lawn after the shooting, the executive board of the National Clergy Council formed an impromptu prayer circle.

    "We lift up the children who might have been touring this day and pray this will not be etched in their minds," prayed the Rev. Johnny Hunder of Chesapeake, Va. "Keep them from nightmares. Work things out in our nation where we are not a nation of violence."

    Staff writers Juliet Eilperin, Patrice Gaines, Saundra Torry, Eric Pianin, Amy Goldstein, and Nicholas Day contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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