Lockdown Follows Report of Gunfire in Capitol Garage

The U.S. Capitol is sealed and a House office building is searched after an unconfirmed report of gunfire in a nearby garage. Capitol Police say they are "erring on the side of caution." No injuries were reported, although one staffer suffered a panic attack.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

It has been tumultuous week in Washington politics. Rhetorical combat hit a fever pitch with charges flying from Capitol Hill to the White House and the Justice Department joining the fray in between. At issue were investigations of members of Congress, both real and reported. Also, the bitter immigration debate and plan indignation over turf and prerogatives.

Then today, the whole Capitol Hill complex was put under lockdown as police investigated what turned out to be erroneous reports of gunfire in a House office building. We'll have analysis of the political jousting in a moment.

First, NPR's Brian Naylor reports on today's false alarm on Capitol Hill

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

At around 10:30, what had been a quiet Friday morning at the Capitol turned chaotic.

(Soundbite of crowd)

NAYLOR: That's when Capitol police received a report of gunshots in the parking garage underneath the Rayburn House Office Building. Police immediately locked down Rayburn and for a time the Capitol itself across the street. Heavily armed officers appeared, fire trucks, ambulances and something labeled a mass casualty unit arrived outside the garage's entrance. Police spokeswoman Sergeant Kimberly Schneider says Capitol police tactical units joined by FBI agents began an extensive search.

Sergeant KIMBERLY SCHNEIDER (Capitol Police): That means doing it the old-fashioned way. We're going door to door, floor by floor. Every inch, every square inch of the Rayburn Building is going to be cleared out today.

NAYLOR: For those members of Congress and staffers who were trapped inside their offices, it was a long, hungry day. Among them was California Democrat Bob Filner.

Representative BOB FILNER (Democrat, California): The food stores are rapidly diminishing, so send pizza whenever you can. But you know everybody's calm and just doing their work and we expect it to be resolved fairly quickly. They came around with a door-to-door search. They had advised us that they would have a secret knock and a code word so we'd know who it was.

NAYLOR: About five hours after the shots were reported, Capitol police announced the search was over and reopened the building, saying construction workers apparently caused the noise that sounded like gunshots.

Republican Congressman Jim Saxton of New Jersey says he was the one who heard what he thought were the shots and told his chief of staff to call the police.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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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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