Violence Shatters a Summer Pilgrimage
By Gabriel Escobar and Michael Powell
In the Friday normalcy that preceded yesterday's madness, the Pentecostals had delivered the Ten Commandments, in life-size tablet form, to Rep. Dick Armey, fulfilling one of the countless tasks that define activity at the U.S. Capitol. Constituents, moved by causes or curiosity, are part of the daily pilgrimage, and until 3:45 p.m., this was any other Friday in July.
Now, with an ambulance and an army of tense police officers framing the scene, the Rev. Paul Schenck knelt with the rest of the Pentecostal pilgrims on the grass, his words a reminder that this Friday would always be remembered for the unthinkable. They knew there had been gunfire but did not know then that two officers were dead and two other people were wounded, victims of the first deadly shootout at the nation's Capitol.
"Now Father, we pray your grace attend," said Schenck, extemporaneously capturing the incongruity of violence in a place so unaccustomed to it. "We pray for those who came to be exposed to the grandeur of the nation's capital and instead were faced with the debased human nature."
Between 3 million and 4 million tourists visit the U.S. Capitol each year. They climb Jenkins Hill and, especially in July, line up to see where the country's laws are forged, "where men wrestle daily with the afflictions of society," as Schenck said. The tour buses line First Street all day long and all year long, but the most common sight at the height of summer is the tourist as family father, mother, children.
They are like the Hickmans from Texas, who wandered around the city yesterday and got lost, only to find themselves in a scene out of an action movie. Helicopters whirled overhead. There were the ambulances and the stern stares of preoccupied police officers. "It is not what we expected," said an understated Steve Hickman. "We heard the sirens," said his 11-year-old daughter, Kelly.
There are days in July and August when the lines are so long that 30 people are allowed in every five minutes, twice the normal number. They enter, past the metal detectors, and often get lost in the warren of corridors. The Capitol has a staff of tour guides, people like Benjamin Rohan, 18, who has been on the job for only two weeks, stationed where the old Senate Chamber and the old Supreme Court were once housed.
"Weekdays are the busiest. Lots of tourists, lots of foreigners," said Rohan, 18, of Upper Marlboro. He was wearing the red polo shirt with an emblem on the left side, the uniform of the tour guide. But the last hour had been like nothing he had ever experienced, like nothing the tourists who were briefly trapped in the old chambers had ever experienced.
He and the others were removed from the tragedy, but not by much. They were far enough away to confuse gunshots and the chaos that followed with something else. "It sounded like somebody dropped something," he said. "People started screaming."
The tour took a turn. People rushed into the chamber. A visitor locked one door, Rohan another. There were 40 to 50 people locked inside, almost all tourists. A U.S. Capitol police officer came, gun in hand, and told them the building would be evacuated, through the law library. Rohan looked at the officer's weapon. "It kind of sunk in," he said. "People were kind of nervous. ... Everybody was upset."
The officer started to lead the tour out, and the first to follow were a mother and a father with his son in his arms. But a plainclothes officer halted the evacuation, the uniformed officer left and the door was locked again. There was more suspense, and then the officer returned. Rohan remembers the man's uncommon composure, given the chaos.
"He came in and told us, matter-of-factly, 'Okay, folks, we're going to take care of you.' "
For Jessica Montoya and Kevin Downes, staff members from the office of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the first loud bang echoed just as they were shepherding 50 Boy and Girl Scouts through the Capitol Rotunda, pointing out a mural of angels carrying George Washington to heaven. "We heard the sound and just froze for a second," said Downes, 30.
Montoya thought maybe it was the sound of a metal beam falling. Downes, an ex-Marine, had another thought: gunfire. He told himself it couldn't be. "You don't want to think that," he said.
"Then we heard bam, bam, bam, bam, four more shots," said Montoya, 26. "That's when I knew it was an automatic weapon."
The Girl Scouts from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, most ages 5 to 9, wrapped arms around Montoya's legs, grabbed for her hands. The dozen or so Boy Scouts did the same with Downes. No crying. Just scared. About 200 tourists milled about in the Rotunda, 180 feet high, 96 feet in diameter, but suddenly small and scary. A few ladies began screaming.
"I said, 'Let's get out of here,' " Montoya said. "We saw police officers running up, guns drawn. We got everyone together and walked real quick to the west door."
No one was crying, not the kids, not Montoya or Downes. But they don't mind admitting they were shaken. "I'm a Marine, I grew up in Southeast, I know the sound of gunshots," Downes said. "But you don't expect to hear it inside your nation's Capitol."
At what is known as the Triangle, where camera crews normally host lawmakers, the appearance of Sgt. Dan Nichols seemed as out of place as what he said. The word "tough," the phrase "sad day for the nation's" whatever, have probably been uttered many times. But it was certainly a first for the longtime spokesman for the U.S. Capitol Police, who is known among police reporters for his efficiency and good humor.
"This is a tough day for the United States. It is a tough day for the United States Congress," said Nichols. And then later, when he announced the death of his comrades: "This is, indeed, a sad day for the nation's Capitol Police."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company