Police investigate reports of gunfire in U.S. Capitol building
By DAVID ESPO
WASHINGTON- Police investigated reports of gunfire in a House of Representatives office building on Friday and briefly sealed off the U.S. Capitol as a precaution.
Still, police lined the street between the Capitol and the Rayburn building, rifles prominently displayed, and four ambulances were on standby outside the office structure.
The Senate was in session at the time, but the House was not. Most House members had left for a U.S. holiday recess.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, conducting a House Intelligence Committee hearing, interrupted a witness to request those attending to remain in the room and said the doors had to be closed.
"It's a little unsettling to get a Blackberry message put in front of you that says there's gunfire in the building," he said.
The Rayburn House Office Building was completed in early 1965 and is the third of three office buildings constructed for the House of Representatives. It sits across the street from the Capitol. The building has four stories above ground, two basements and three levels of underground garage space.
Steven Broderick, press spokesman for Rep. William Delahunt, was in his car in the Rayburn garage Friday morning getting ready to drive his boss to the airport when he was ordered by a Capitol Police officer to park the car and put his hands on the steering wheel. The officer then told him to run toward an exit where other officers where gathered.
"He just told me to run and don't look back," Broderick said.
The U.S. Capitol Police Department's Containment & Emergency Response Team maintains an indoor shooting range in the basement of the Rayburn building, according to the department's Web site. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress, raised the possibility that noises from a nearby construction site were mistaken for gunfire.
Within minutes of the reports, Rayburn's halls were virtually empty, and police were not allowing anyone to leave or take elevators or stairs to the garage.
"No one's panicking; everyone's calm," said Charles Isom, spokesman for Rep. Chris Cannon. "It did ruin some people's lunch plans."
The incident occurred at the end of a week of unusually tumultuous series of events that, ironically enough, began in the same building. FBI agents armed with a search warrant seized documents and computer material from the office of Rep. William Jefferson in a weekend raid. Jefferson is at the center of a federal bribery investigation.
At the Capitol, police quickly closed all doors, stopping people from entering the building. Tourists were herded into a first-floor chamber in the middle of the building. Other corridors on the House side of the building, where lawmakers had already left for the recess, were deserted.
The Capitol was reopened within an hour.
Jeff Connor, a spokesman for Rep. Jo Ann Emerson said Capitol Hill police notified the office that gunfire was heard in the Rayburn building garage.
"They specifically said there was the sound of gunfire on one of the garage levels of the Rayburn House office building and asked staff to remain in their offices," Connor said.
Incidents of violence inside the Capitol and its office buildings are rare.
On July 24, 1998, a man with a history of mental illness shot and killed Capitol Police officer Jacob J. Chestnut at a first-floor Capitol entrance. He then charged into an adjacent suite of offices occupied by Tom DeLay, then the House Republican whip, and exchanged fire with officer John Gibson, who also was killed. The gunman was wounded and captured.
In 1983, a late-night bomb, possibly set by someone protesting U.S. military action in Grenada and Lebanon, exploded just outside the Senate chamber. No one was injured.
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