Unconfirmed Report of Gunfire Stirs Up Capitol

Police at the U.S. Capitol investigate reports that gunfire was heard at the garage level of the Rayburn House Office Building. So far there is no confirmation of any shootings. Capitol buildings are sealed.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There are reports that gunshots may have been fired at an office building at the U.S. Capitol. Capitol Hill Police are investigating the sounds of gunfire at the Rayburn House Office Building. That building has been sealed off.

Republican Representative Peter Hoekstra interrupted a House Intelligence Committee hearing with news of the gunfire, telling those present to remain in the room. It happened during testimony from Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary magazine.

(Soundbite of House Intelligence Committee Hearing)

Representative PETER HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): I'm sorry, Mr. Schoenfeld, it...

Mr. GABRIEL SCHOENFELD (Senior Editor, Commentary Magazine): That interruption is quite understandable.

Rep. HOEKSTRA: I think you saw there was a little bit of going-on here in the panel, and it was not at all any disrespect to your testimony. It's a little unsettling to get a Blackberry message put in front of you that says there's gunfire in the building.

MONTAGNE: NPR Congressional Correspondent David Welna is at the Capitol, and joins us now. Hello, David.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We want to stress that there's a lot that's still unclear about what exactly happened this morning. But what can you tell us, so far?

WELNA: Well, you know, I was actually at Rayburn at a press conference on my way back to the Capitol, and I came through the level of Rayburn - the garage level - where there were reports of what appeared to be gunfire.

I heard nothing. I went through security going over to the Capitol. By the time I went through the tunnel and got to the Capitol and was taking the elevator up, I ran into a policeman sprinting in the opposite direction; got in the elevator and found another policeman saying that something had happened. And then I got to the ground floor of the Capitol, and when I got out the scene was chaos. Let's take a listen to it.

(Soundbite of Capitol building's ground floor during gunfire allegations)

Unidentified Security Officer: (unintelligible) Stay to your right.

(Soundbite of panicked voices)

Unidentified Security Officer: Stay to your right!

MONTAGNE: Then, do you know what was actually happening there? Just people walking in circles?

WELNA: Well, there were hundreds of tourists all over the ground floor of the Capitol, who were being herded into lines and being told to exit from the back - the west side of the Capitol. However, when I and the tourists got there to get out of the building, we were told that the Capitol had been locked down. I ran into a Congressman who was also unable to leave the building, and there were policeman carrying automatic weapons going through the hallways - a real state of alert.

Now, there has been more information that's come out since then. The Capitol has been re-opened. The only building that is shut down now is the Rayburn Office Building, and the tunnels going into it.

But I got a report from the House Emergency Communications Center just a few minutes ago saying that the Capitol Police are continuing to investigate the reports of gunshots in the Rayburn House Office Building; that the police had completed clearing the garage levels where there were reports of these shots being heard, and that they're beginning to search the remainder of the Rayburn Building, beginning at the top floor and working down. There are four ambulances that have arrived and have parked outside the Rayburn Building, but a driver of one of the ambulances told NPR's Laura Sullivan that they were just there on stand-by; there were no reports of any victims.

MONTAGNE: So, at this point, we really do not know what happened, at all? But security measures have been tightened at the Capitol, generally. Has there been anything like this before?

WELNA: Well, there was a couple years ago. There was a gun that was detected in somebody's bag after the person had gone through, going into another office building. That resulted in an evacuation of the building. However, some of the lawmakers weren't advised then. This time, lawmakers were told to stay in their offices, to not move. And it seemed that, even though the sounds of it were chaotic, this was quite an orderly response to the incident.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR Congressional Correspondent David Welna.

And NPR will continue to follow this story and bring you more as we learn it.

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Chaos Disrupts a Day on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Guns drawn, police briefly sealed off the Capitol Friday and launched a floor-by-floor search of the largest office structure on Capitol Hill after an unidentified caller reported gunfire. Amid chaos and confusion, police said there were no injuries, arrests or confirmation of the gunfire.

"The report is that shots were fired" at 10:30 a.m. EDT in the garage of the Rayburn House Office Building, said Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider. A single telephone call from an unidentified individual triggered the massive police deployment.

"We have not gotten any reports of anybody being captured, anybody being arrested," she said.

On high alert, police lined the street between the Capitol and the Rayburn building, rifles prominently displayed, and four ambulances, two firetrucks and other emergency vehicles were on standby outside the office structure. Police methodically searched the sprawling building, where congressional staff had locked themselves into their offices as a precaution.

"Every square inch of the Rayburn building is going to be cleared out today" as police make sure everyone in the structure belongs there, Schneider said at a second news conference.

An Associated Press reporter overheard a dispatch on a police radio saying police were looking for someone who was about 6 feet tall. It was not known whether the dispatch was related to the incident at Rayburn.

"Right now we want to err on the side of caution," Schneider said. "Lives could be at risk. If we have a gunman in the building we certainly want to find him. It's premature to assume that it may not be a gunman."

The Senate was in session at the time, but the House was not as most lawmakers had left for the Memorial Day recess.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, (R-MI), conducting a House Intelligence Committee hearing, interrupted a witness to request those attending the meeting to remain in the room and said the doors must 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.

Indeed, one congressional staff member was taken to a hospital after suffering a "panic attack" during the lockdown and search, Schneider said.

The search was a complicated one and police said it could take hours. The building, which covers an entire city block, is connected to a second office building by an underground tunnel.

That building, in turn, is connected to the Capitol by a second underground tunnel.

The Rayburn House Office Building was completed in early 1965 and is the third of three office buildings constructed for the U.S. 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.

Nearly two hours after the first alert, Capitol police sent an e-mail message to occupants of the office building saying they would soon begin a floor-by-floor search.

"During the search, the police officers will knock three times on each office door, announce 'United States Capitol Police,' knock three additional times," and then confirm their identity by speaking a code word, it said.

Steven Broderick, press spokesman for Rep. William Delahunt, (D-MA), 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.

A second Associated Press reporter heard noise outside a Rayburn press room and peeked out the door. A police officer, gun drawn, shouted, "Get in the room. Get in the room."

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.

"No one's panicking, everyone's calm," said Charles Isom, spokesman for Rep. Chris Cannon, (R-UT) "It did ruin some people's lunch plans."

At the Capitol, police quickly closed all doors, stopping people from either entering the building. Tourists were herded into a first-floor chamber in the middle of the building.

The Capitol was reopened within an hour, then sealed back off by police, and eventually opened to the public again about 12:30 p.m. EDT.

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