There are annual rites of spring in Washington. The cherry blossoms erupting into bloom. Out-of-town visitors strolling along the Tidal Basin. Tour busses clogging Constitution Avenue. And stray airplanes forcing officials to take emergency measures at the U.S. Capitol and White House.
Such was the case Friday afternoon when a pilot flying a single-engine plane from Maine to North Carolina came close to piercing the no-fly zone circling Washington. The incident created a few tense moments at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
And by my count, this is the sixth such episode since September 11th. And I’ve been there for every one of them.
On Friday, the North American Aerospace Defense Command scrambled two Coast Guard helicopters and a pair of F-16 fighters to intercept the errant Piper Cub. They forced the plane to land at an airfield near Indian Head, MD, south of the capital city.
At the White House, the Secret Service hustled President Obama and Vice President Biden out of the building and evacuated TV photographers from the North Lawn.
In the Senate, presiding officer Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL) cut off Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-UT) speech about federal spending.
“We’re in an emergency!” interrupted Burris, hastily banging the gavel. “The Senate stands in recess subject to the call of the chair! Please await further instructions from the Capitol Police!”
At the time, I was in the House Daily Press Gallery on the third floor of the Capitol attempting to buy a Diet Barq’s Root Beer. The machine already ate two of my quarters. I was trying to get them back when I overheard a few other reporters murmuring there was an errant plane. At that, I abandoned my root beer quest and walked into the hall. There, seven Capitol police officers moved briskly down the corridor. Their radios crackled with instructions.
They told me we were evacuating. They nodded yes when I asked if it was a plane.
Here we go again.
I walked down two flights of steps to the House carriage entrance and called FOX’s “320 Line,” a hotline for breaking news that rings at the Washington, DC and New York assignment desks. As I exited the building, police were starting to shoo people away from the Capitol. I overheard another radio transmission. “This is NOT a drill! This is NOT a drill!” barked a female voice. “The pilot is not responding!”
Another Capitol Police officer told me we were at “Orange.”
I marveled at his calm and courage. The officers stood their posts while I got out of Dodge.
Having experienced several of these incidents, I’ve developed a sense of what seems serious. I watched the body language of the officers and listened to the radios. And at least for a few moments, this appeared particularly intense.
I walked quickly away from the Capitol and toward the Library of Congress. Then I realized that I might not be safe just because I was out of the Capitol. Planes miss. It could crash into the Cannon House Office Building nearby. There could be a fireball. A debris field. I know this is absurd, but not all terrorist-aviators are as “skilled” as Muhammad Atta.
I watched as police closed off Independence Avenue and First Street. I listened for the roar of fighter jets and scanned the skies. The sky was a soft, powder blue and the sun was radiant.
Eerily like 9-11.
And within a few minutes, the emergency was over.
The pilot had defective navigational equipment and wandered a little too close to Washington. The Air Force finally raised him on the radio and escorted the plane to the Indian Head air strip.
Airport owner Gil Bauserman told the Associated Press that the airspace restrictions seemed absurd.
“All it does is catch poor, innocent people. They’ve never caught a terrorist. It’s just people making a mistake,” Bauserman said.
In Washingtonese, it’s often said that “mistakes were made.” Well, since 9-11, a number of pilots have committed a number of these “mistakes” when flying near Washington. Each has created some degree of chaos, misinformation and in some cases, sheer terror.
Without question, the craziest event was a full-scale evacuation of the Capitol complex on June 9, 2004. Then-Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher (R) was flying in for President Reagan’s funeral. But radio problems on Fletcher’s plane freaked out security officials. They scrambled fighter jets and ordered everyone out of the Capitol and the surrounding Congressional office buildings.
I was in a room near a door in the Dirksen Senate Office Building when a female police officer grabbed a bullhorn and shouted for everyone to evacuate the building.
“Run away from the building as far as you can!” she yelled.
Swarms of people squeezed through the door. As a public radio reporter at the time, I grabbed my tape recorder and a police scanner I stowed in my bag. I flipped on the recorder as I moved down the hallway and was one of the first ones outside. I broke into a sprint toward Union Station, . Then I stopped short, thinking the train station that might not be a safe place either. Then it occurred to me that this threat must be REALLY serious, considering who was at the Capitol to pay homage to the former president. Everyone from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in attendance. Something big must be going down.
It was unmitigated panic.
Someone yelled that a plane was 60 seconds out.
“Run as though your life depends upon it!” shouted an officer. Women were ordered to take off their high heels and book it.
Apprehension gripped the faces of the evacuated Congressional aides, still shell-shocked from 9-11 and the Senate Anthrax attacks scare. People got trampled. Others fell over one another and sprained their ankles. A man ran up First Street, pushing an infirm woman in a wheelchair. Thousands of people milled about the Russell Senate Park near the Capitol. Everyone thought this was the moment they had been dreading.
But it wasn’t.
Word then came that the alert was over and the plane was indeed Fletcher’s. It landed without incident across the river, ironically at the airport that bears Ronald Reagan’s name. Everyone relaxed. But we learned later that the general watching the aircraft was prepared to shoot it down.
Fear returned on May 11, 2005 when another small plane wandered into Washington’s security perimeter. I was still working in public radio and trailing former Sen. George Allen (R-VA) for a “day-in-the-life” profile. Allen had just voted in the Senate chamber and was walking down the steps to an awaiting SUV to whisk him over to CNN for a live interview. Then officers yelled for people to get out. A couple of cops helped load the senator, three of his aides and myself into the SUV. Feet, arms and legs flailed all over the Jeep Grand Cherokee as the police lowered the retractable, hydraulic traffic bollards. They waived Allen’s vehicle out onto Constitution Avenue. His driver floored it and tore down the street.
The Capitol Police seemed determined to get Allen’s SUV off the Capitol plaza that I later remarked they figured “well, at least we saved one of them.”
The senator flipped on WTOP-FM, the all-news station in Washington just as they broke in with a special report. Fighter jets buzzed above the Capitol. And I recorded the whole episode on tape.
“I always want to know what it is,” said Allen at the time. “Is it a bomb? Is it a plane?”
Things were just as tense on the House side. The security detail of then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) moved so quickly to evacuate her from the Capitol that she lost one of her shoes. Pelosi told the officers that she was losing her footwear. But they told her to just keep going,.
In the pandemonium, the sling back materialized in a scrum near Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA). The Congressman recovered the shoe and returned it to Pelosi at a press conference a few days later. He even dropped to his knee and presented it, Cinderella-style.
There was another incursion that June.
The House and Senate were both in the middle of votes. I sat at a table in the Speaker’s Lobby by the House chamber interviewing former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-TN) when the evacuation order came.
“Everybody out! OUT! OUT! Let’s go!” the security officers yelled.
The House chamber emptied. Again, still rolling audio tape, I followed Ford and a pack of lawmakers down a “Members Only” staircase and out the south door of the Capitol.
“We’re at red,” an officer told Ford.
As I walked outside, I watched the Capitol Police press then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) into a black SUV and speed onto Independence Avenue.
People were concerned. But it was orderly.
“What worries me is how I’m not worried,” I overheard one aide say to a colleague. “It’s all become so routine.”
I walked briskly away from the Capitol, finally winding up behind the Longworth House Office Building. Another stray plane. And soon they again gave the all-clear.
There were two incidents in late March of 2008. Actors Tom Hanks and Paul Giamatti accompanied author David McCullough to a special party in Statuary Hall of the Capitol. It marked the premiere of HBO’s heralded “John Adams” series.
Again, another plane incursion. This time, the Capitol Police escorted out House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), right between the canapés and revelers sipping Chardonnay and nibbling toast-point sandwiches. But the Capitol police never removed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), even though she was now second-in-line to the presidency.
A similar incident came a week later. I was downstairs near the door where President Obama walked out to be sworn-in on the west front of the Capitol. Another plane punctured the restricted airspace and a police officer told me they were evacuating. I exited through that door and down the steps toward the National Mall. It was a chilly, but clear, sunny day. Yet another day perfect for flying. Order was restored rather quickly.
Six incidents. Each imposing different levels of confusion. Some calm. Others, nothing short of bedlam.
I work in the most dangerous building in the world. Simultaneously, through the efforts of the U.S. Capitol Police and Homeland Security officials, it’s also the most safe. But the reality is that the Capitol is a high-value target. And any terrorist worth his box cutters could impose mayhem at the Capitol if they really wanted to.
Thankfully none of these adventures has been the real thing. But I’ve lived through enough of them to wonder if one day, this will once again be real.
It was all too real on September 11th.
On the morning of 9-11, I was at home in bed in Alexandria, VA. I was still asleep after working late the night before at National Public Radio. Four miles from the Pentagon, the tremor of the plane’s impact rousted me from my slumber It shook the house, rattled the window panes and clanked the dishes.
“It’s all become so routine,” the Congressional aide said during the June, 2005 Capitol evacuation. “What worries me is how I’m not worried.”
September 11th broke the routine. Rogue planes and evacuations are the new normal.
And eight years later, this is how we live in Washington.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.