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Inside a Capitol Hill Emergency

By Rachel Marsden | Bio


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It was supposed to be a slow day today.  The radio show that I produce ended up going on location to a cafe in Georgetown for a round-table discussion and debate, and most of the work had been done before hand.  And in this town of constantly breaking news and shocking revelations, planning stories and booking guests even three days in advance usually proves to be an exercise in futility.  

I finished up at the station (which is three blocks from the White House) at 3pm, and took the metro to the Library of Congress.  I intended to do a little background research in preparation for my political commentary this week.  

I emerged from the Capitol South metro station to sounds of several sirens and helicopter.  In my high-heeled black pumps and pinstriped business suit, I followed the firetrucks and sprinted a few blocks towards the Capitol building.  When I got there, the building had been evacuated.  People stood on the lawn and on the steps of the building, beneath and around a large red and white banner which read, "In God We Trust."  Reporters from various agencies such as the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and CBS gathered with their notebooks and cameras in front of the building at the corner of East Capitol Street and First Street.  Most of them were explaining to their editors via cellphone that they were hoping for a press conference to determine what had just transpired.

I turned around and noticed that a couple of 30-something men, with a pamphlet-sized guide to the Capitol Building in hand, were hovering around the reporters.  They were being completely ignored.  I asked the one with the pamphlet if he got it from the Capitol Building, and he said that they had just been on a guided tour of the building when the mayhem hit.  I immediately whisked them off to a shady place under a few trees on East Capitol street--about 25 meters away from where the other reporters were perched, waiting for their next spoon-feeding of information from some official government mouthpiece.

My witnesses were John Lazarus and David Withem:  a couple of tourists from Oregon who happened to be near the rotunda--the main, dome-shaped part of the Capitol that is always shown on postcards--when alarms started going off at 3pm.  They were on a tour of the Capitol with two interns from the office of Senator Conrad Burns of Montana.  Withem described the alarms as being "not like a school recess alarm, but much softer."  Lazarus said that there was an "eerie calmness" about the incident, despite all the threats with which this town has been bombarded recently.  As recently as this week, 25,000 heavy duty astronaut-style gas masks had been ordered for politicians, staffers, and tourists on the Hill.

A guard came up to the tour group and said, "Everyone must exit the building immediately.  This is not a drill."  Lazarus said that the interns and guards directed the flow of people to the south exit of the building, and they walked out just as firefighters were coming in and beginning to scale the building from the outside.  

But the scene wasn't without some panic.  One of the interns--who was on the last day of her internship--had invited her parents along on the tour.  When the alarm bells started ringing, she ordered her father to hand her his cell phone.  She immediately called Senator Burns' office in a panic, only to find that no one there knew anything about what was going on.

Lazarus claims that, once outside, they were told that the alarm was set off by smoke on the fourth floor of the building.  That happens to be the floor where the cloakroom is located and where politicians can go to conduct private negotiations during breaks in session.

As it turns out, neither the Congress nor the Senate was in session during the incident.  They had all left earlier that day to go home for the weekend.  Lazarus said that once they arrived back at Senator Burns' office in the Senate Building after the evacuation, a staffer told them that it had been months since they had experienced a similar scare on the Hill.

Later on in the day, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said the smoke that sparked the incident was actually dust that settled on an attic fan on the House side of the building. The dust created a scent of smoke as it spread through the ventilation system.

Although it turned out to be a false alarm, the event made for an inadvertent test of the security and emergency systems on Capitol Hill.  I, for one, find some comfort in knowing that all systems are clearly operational.  Withem doesn't feel quite the same way.  He was disturbed by the fact that interns with barely any experience were left to deal with an emergency that could very well have been another September 11th type of incident.  Withem and Lazarus are a little shaken up, but they are shrugging off the incident.  Withem says they are determined to continue on and "explore some other things here in Washington before they catch fire." 


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