Plane Scare Evacuates White House

The White House and U.S. Capitol were briefly evacuated when a small plane entered restricted airspace. Military jets were scrambled to intercept the plane. The plane changed course, and two men who were aboard the aircraft were taken into custody at a nearby Maryland airport.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

There was quite a scene today in the nation's capital. Thousands of workers and visitors were rushed out of the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court after a small airplane violated restricted airspace. The plane traveled within three miles of the White House. The incident and the image of employees running through the streets of Washington shows just how on edge Washington is about the possibility of another terrorist attack. NPR's Pam Fessler tells us how the events unfolded.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

The scare was over in about 15 minutes, but not before a fairly normal day at the US Capitol was abruptly interrupted by the blare of alarms, flashing lights and Capitol Hill police ordering everyone to get out of fast.

Unidentified Woman: Run! Run! No, don't stop! Keep going! Don't stop running!

FESSLER: Tourists, staffers and lawmakers were all told to go as far from the Capitol and surrounding office buildings as possible.

Unidentified Man: Head south! Head south! Head south! Go down South Capitol Street.

FESSLER: Top congressional leaders were whisked away in a convoy of black SUVs. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said everything happened so quickly, she didn't even have time to get her shoes on.

At the White House, there was a similar hectic scene. Spokesman Scott McClellan said the first alert came shortly before noon.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Spokesman): At approximately 11:59, the threat level here at the White House was raised to yellow. There was a Cessna plane within about 15 miles of the White House; it was north of the White House.

FESSLER: Two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled from nearby Andrews Air Force Base to intercept the plane. Two Black Hawk helicopters also approached from Reagan National Airport. But efforts to communicate with the pilots failed. McClellan said Vice President Dick Cheney was evacuated from the White House. First lady Laura Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan, who was visiting, were also taken to secure locations. President Bush was out bicycling at a Maryland wildlife center and was informed of the alert.

Mr. McCLELLAN: And then at 12,:03 the alert level was raised to red, and at approximately 12:11, the alert level went back down to yellow. The plane, at that point, was turning west and traveling away from the White House and Capitol. And at 12:14, the all-clear was given.

FESSLER: The Cessna aircraft was then escorted to a small airport outside the Capitol region, where two men were taken into custody to be questioned. Officials later said the pilots, one a student, appeared to have accidentally entered the restricted airspace and they were later released.

Intrusions into the zone--which extends for an almost 16-mile radius around the Washington Monument--are not uncommon, but few aircraft get so far. Phil Boyer is president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents about 400,000 pilots.

Mr. PHIL BOYER (President, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association): It was another case, more than likely, of people doing what you do in a car: getting lost.

FESSLER: He said he was puzzled how the pilots could get so far off track because of all the publicity about the no-fly zone. But he also questioned how serious a threat the aircraft posed and whether some flight restrictions around the capital region are excessive.

Mr. BOYER: If we go back to 1994, this exact same model plane used--was stolen from an airport nearby Washington and flown in a suicidal flight by a pilot into the White House. The plane didn't even break a window in the White House and ended up in a crumpled little mess.

FESSLER: But officials say they can't take any chances. There are even protocols to shoot down civilian aircraft if an attack appears imminent.

Members of both parties praised today's response and dismissed any criticism that the government might have overreacted. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Representative TOM DeLAY (Republican, Texas; Majority Leader): People need to realize that very serious decisions have to be made in times like these: a decision to scramble the jets, a decision to shoot the flares, a decision to shoot the plane down and a decision to evacuate the building when that plane is only three to four minutes away from this building.

FESSLER: And with everyone back in place, lawmakers returned to the pending matter on the House floor, a bill to deter gang violence. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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