Capitol Shooting
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  •   'I've Got to Get Through This Tour'

    Tourists wait in a long line to enter the Capitol on Saturday morning. (AP)
    By Gabriel Escobar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, July 26, 1998; Page A18

    His duty yesterday was to discuss the birth of the nation and not death at the U.S. Capitol. Surrounded by tourists, Gerard Counihan went about his task as a tour guide with animated devotion, pointing to this landscape and that landmark, the only sign of his grief a small piece of black electrical tape on his red shirt.

    The Rotunda where he guided the first tour yesterday morning is, in some ways, a violent place. Gen. John Burgoyne is shown surrendering after the Battle of Saratoga. The Pilgrims are fleeing persecution. Columbus is armed. Next door at Statuary Hall, where the tourists followed Counihan, six national heroes have swords in hand.

    It was here, in the national pantheon, that a 38-year-old systems manager from Houston, Gary Jack, decided to ask about the tragic event Friday. He addressed Counihan only, almost in a whisper. Jack's 5-year-old son, Michael, was on his shoulders. For the first half-hour, on the first day after the first deadly shootout at the U.S. Capitol, tourists had followed an unuttered rule and ignored the horror, instead letting Counihan lead them away from the present and through the history of the majestic place.

    "Where did the shooting happen?" Jack asked. The tour guide, standing below a marble depiction of Liberty he had just described – "The eagle represents strength and the serpent wisdom" – looked alarmed. He paused and tried to compose himself. "I'll start crying if I think about it," answered Counihan, a close friend of one of the two officers who was killed. "And I've got to get through this tour."

    That is what everyone did yesterday – they all got through the tour. The day, by almost all appearances, was normal. The tourists lined up before 9 a.m., and by the time the doors opened, the line stretched almost to First Street. It was as if reestablishing the routine of the Capitol, a national icon and one of the most visited sites in Washington, provided a measure of solace.

    The U.S. Capitol Police announced that the building would open to the public yesterday even before they announced the deaths of two of their own Friday afternoon. Intended or not, the decision reaffirmed the intangible importance of the place to the public. "It's the U.S. Capitol. It's supposed to be open to the people it represents. It's not supposed to be a guarded palace," said Matt Audibert, 23, a staff assistant for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy. (D-Vt.)

    "Except for the cameras and even a little bit more police, it kind of seems like business as usual," said Audibert, who was reading the newspaper's account of the shooting while sitting on the grounds of the Capitol, in an effort, as he explained it, to better understand what happened. "There is no person or action that is bigger than the Capitol or the idea of the Capitol," Audibert said.

    There were many reminders, of course, of what happened. The D.C. police department, now leading the homicide investigation, had its mobile crime laboratory on the grounds. An impromptu floral tribute on the east-side steps grew by the hour as people paid their respects to the dead officers, U.S. Capitol Police Special Agent John Gibson and Capitol Police Officer Jacob J. Chestnut. One note called them "American Heroes."

    Inside, tourists wandered past where the shootings occurred, and most never took note. Two police officers guarded the entrance to Rep. Tom DeLay's suite, where the last fatal encounter took place, and another stood guard near the sealed exit to the Document Room Door, where the gunman entered, and the first shots were fired. But the security posts were so discreet that tourists seldom realized their import.

    U.S. Capitol Police Officer Vidal Adams stands guard Saturday at the scene of the shootings.
    (By Susan Biddle – The Washington Post)
    At one point, the Rotunda was alive with a group of Chinese students, all dressed in canary yellow shirts and pants. Another large group, this time Japanese, was escorted by a smiling guide waving a red flag. These scenes were contrasted with the silent, but very palpable , mourning of staffers going about their work. It was evident in the solemn expressions of the officers, and in the pat on the shoulder that Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) silently extended to a tour guide as the House speaker and his entourage walked into the Rotunda.

    "How awful it's got to feel for these people," said Stacy Joannes, 31, the assistant director for case management at the Justice Department. Joannes had jogged seven miles and, at 8 o'clock on a beautiful morning, stood on the west terrace overlooking the Mall and the Washington Monument.

    "It's the same city it was yesterday, just sadder," said Joannes, like many others moved to eloquence by the tragedy and its aftermath. "It's kind of ironic. The people inside are making laws to cut down on weapons and crime. You know, right inside they are voting on these things. And yet it happens a couple of hundred feet away from where they are voting on those very issues.

    "There are not many mysteries about this, other than why," Joannes said. "It's still a great city, and you have to remember that. The Capitol is still open. It's just such an awful thing to have happened. They had great security. I mean, how much can you do?"

    The tragedy also drew Jan Johnson, of Fort Collins, Colo., a consultant in radiation protection, here on business. "I came out last night," said Johnson, 61. "I just couldn't believe it. And again this morning, I guess I just wanted to see."

    Something had drawn her, but something else was keeping her at bay. "I wouldn't go in this morning, not with the cameras. No. Next time. Maybe," she said. "Two people died here ... and for no reason. When," she asked, "are we going to learn?"

    Inside, Counihan spent the day teaching. He constantly patted the black tape, even when addressing the tour. Downstairs, not far from where the mayhem erupted, he thanked his audience. "And to my friend," he said, referring to Officer Chestnut, "this tour is for you." Few appeared to realize what he meant.

    "He was one of my best friends," Counihan, an advisory neighborhood commissioner on Capitol Hill, explained later. "It's just very hard for me. It's really hard. Really hard. But I got through my first tour."

    The tourists appreciated the effort. "You did a great job, considering what happened yesterday," one man said. Jack, who raised the delicate subject at the Rotunda, patted him on the shoulder and said, "Great job!"

    "It hadn't crossed my mind that he might be a personal friend of his," Jack said. He has been taking his son on a historical tour – last week they were at the Liberty Bell – and he, too, sought a lesson in all this. "It means a lot more, when the price of freedom is paid by anyone but especially right here inside the Capitol."

    The morning wore on, the tourists kept coming. At 10:45 a.m., Counihan was ready again. He takes his job seriously. "I want them to feel good about their government," he explained. The task seemed more urgent now.

    "Okay, I need you to get right in front," he said as he marshaled a much larger group than the first to one side of the Rotunda. "On behalf of our nation's Capitol, I welcome you ... "

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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