Five or six or seven heavily armed Hanafi Muslims held more than 100 hostages and two floors of the B'nai B'rith headquarters yesterday, while an unknown number of heavily armed police controlled six floors and all the entrances, but no people.
Outside the building at 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW the media crowd mixed with spectators and lounged on the badly trampled grass of Scott Circle, enjoying the sun and waiting for somebody, anybody, who would stand for an interview.
Daniel Thursz, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith, obliged early in the afternoon. "There are a hundred or more hostages in there," he told reporters. "Maybe 105, maybe 104, maybe 110 - we're not sure. It's hundred or more."
Such uncertainties made the situation even more difficult for those whose friends, colleagues and loved ones were trapped inside. The Hanafi Muslim siege was in its second day, and everyone was being very cautious.
Two hostages were released during the day, both of them complaining of chest pains. Both were taken by ambulance to city hospitals. The first, a woman, told police that five gunmen held the hostages. That was early in the morning.
The second, an elderly men, told police that seven gunmen were control. That was in the middle of the afternoon.
The woman, who requested anonymity, arrived at the George Washington University Hospital about 7:30 a.m. and was treated and released by noon. The man, Henry Sigel of Maryland, was admitted to the coronary care unit about 5:30 p.m. and was being held for observation.
"There are lots of non-Jews in there," Thursz said, "both black and white. Nobody at this point is in any danger. No demands have been made of B'nai B'rith."
Police and B'nai B'rith officials set up a command center of sorts in the Grammercy Inn Hotel next door. They were able, from what they knew of the building and from interviewing former hostages, to get some picture of what was going on inside.
All of the hostages, they believed were being held in an eighth floor conference room. "There is nothing in that area but a new cement floor." said Helen Champeaux, secretary and receptionist for B'nai B'rith Women. The building is undergoing renovation.
Male hostages were bound, some of them were lying on the floor, and female hostages were being treated "with extreme courtesy and great care," the husband of a hostage said.
Some food and drugs were sent up to the hostages on still operable elevators. There was one report that specific orders - such as for a carton of Benson and Hedges cigarettes - were being filled.
The gunmen were by all accounts well armed. One police sergeant paused to talk with spectators on Scott Circle and said: "They must have all kinds of weapons up there." He made that assessment "judging from what they left on the truck."
When the terrorists began their takeover of B'nai B'rith and Washington's attention they had backed a rental truck up to the building and carried armaments inside. Rifles and long knives were left in the van, the sergeant said.
Some automatic rifles appeared to be part of the arsenal the Hanafis took with them. "We know they have some kind of weapon that uses a banana clip," the sergeant said.
The leader of the Nanafis and of the B'nai B'rith takeover has been identified as Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, and his son-in-law said Wednesday that "heads will be chopped off, a killing room will be set up at B'nai B'rith and heads will be thrown out of windows" if demands were not met.
Yesterday afternoon, officials close to the negotiations told reporters that an "execution room" had been established in the building. They had been told that by the Nanafis, they said. There was no other confirmation.
While the police were hoping for a peaceful resolution, they were also preparing for other possibilities. Police vehicles moved back and forth on Rhode Island Avenue and in alleyways all day. Crates and boxes and paper bags, some apparently containing weapons, were being carried into the B'nai B'rith building.
In those first hours of the takeover, before police established control of the first six floors of the building, some people who found themselves there did not know whether they were hostages or not.
Dr. Max Baer, international director of B'nai B'rith youth organizations, was dictating "a very sensitive, lengthy letter" when the takeover began. He heard a shout outside his office, but ignored it. He took a phone call, then went out into the clerical pool.
"Nobody was there," Baer said. "I went into each of the executive's offices in my department, but nobody was there. Intuitively, I determined that we were being besieged, so I went back into my office, locked both doors and went to the window."
He could see police and fire vehicles on nearby Connecticut Avenue. He waited for a policeman to walk within hearing distance of his fourth-floor window. "I asked him what was going on," Baer said. "He told me to get back in my office . . . then he said if I had a closet to get inside and lock it." Baer did, and stayed for an hour and a half.
He emerged from his closet and tried to call the police. "They said they couldn't hear me, but I was afraid to raise my voice." He hung up. "I stayed crouched down on the floor until the police broke my door in about 6:30 p.m."
By that time, seven hours after the takeover, police had begun a fairly methodical sweep of the building. As they advanced, they would knock on some doors, break down others.
Jean Eiland, a secretary, joined six other women behind a self-constructed barricade on the sixth floor when the takeover began. They felt safe behind their door, she said, even though they could hear the sounds of gunmen moving around. "I was calm, really," she said.
Then the police arrived and the calm departed. "The special squad arrived with all those guns poised," she said. "I was more frightened getting out than while barricaded . . .
"We had to walk barefooted. They told us not to say a word and to stay near the wall . . . We wouldn't breathe for fear of making a noise.
"We crept like mice down a dimly-lighted back stairway. Then they took us one by one across an alley to the Gramercy" and to safety. Police interviewed her, and offered drinks.
"I had a good stiff Scotch," she said.
Throughout the night and into the morning police and B'nai B'rith officials worked with payroll lists, other documents and the telephone to find out who worked there and who was not at home. It was the only way they could develop a fairly accurate hostage count.
But there were problems with that method. One young man went to work Wednesday for the first time at B'nai B'rith and is still apparently a hostage, although he would not have appeared on the payroll list.
A great many relatives of hostages still being held asked that their names not appear in the paper. "How can I say anything," one woman said, "when I know it will just hurt my husband."
At the same time, relatives said they are being told by B'nai B'rith officials to "dig in" for a long siege. Special telephone numbers were set up so officials could answer questions. A vigil was established by some relatives at the nearby Foundry Methodist Church, 1500 16th St. NW.
The husband of one hostage said that he had heard from relatives of other hostages and that all praised the police for handling the situation "with such precision, delicacy and sensitivity . . . They have made their prime objective the safety of the individuals," he said.
Several police offices told reporters "we have nothing but time, we can wait 'em out." But at the same time, they were making plans for any contingency.
The police tone was pessimistic: they had a three-front war and one murder at the District Building already on their hands. "These people are facing murder one and a hundred counts of kidnapping." one official said. "The ods are against them."
Several police officers told reporters "we have nothing but time, we can wait 'em out. But at the same time, they were making plans for any contingency.