Shots fired on Capitol Hill

Friday, May 26, 2006

There have been reports of gunfire heard in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington D.C. at approximately 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430 UTC), leading to a lock down of the United States Capitol. Senate Sergeant at Arms Bill Pickle announced there were no injuries. FOX News reported that a man with a gun was apprehended by Capitol police, but no confirmation has been made of this.

The Senate was in session when the lockdown occurred, but the House of Representatives was not. Many members of congress had already departed in advance of the long Memorial Day holiday in the US. BBC News initially reported some witness as saying the sound may have been a car backfiring. The Associated Press and FOX News also reported speculation about fireworks or the gunfire having come from an indoor shooting range located in the basement of the Rayburn building. MSNBC suggested the noise may have been from a maintenance man working on an elevator shaft near the area where the shots were heard.

Police evacuated portions of Capitol Hill and told staff members to lock their office doors and "stay inside" as police searched the Rayburn Building floor by floor. At 3:15 p.m., CNN reported that Capitol Police had declared an "all clear" and employees and others inside the Rayburn Building were allowed to leave.

Employees in the Capitol complex were alerted to the incident via messages sent to their BlackBerries. They first urged employees to move to an interior office space away from windows, closing doors, grabbing their 'Go-Kits' and then to await further instructions. A second message sent at 12:20 p.m. EDT reminded employees to lock their office doors, and issued a code word that Capitol Police would use to confirm their identity when knocking at any door.

As the events unfolded, Bill Pickle said "we have been told by staff of shots fired and the smell of smoke in the lobby of the Rayburn House building," said Mr Pickle. In a later statement he said "Police responded to the area where they believed the shots came from and smelled what seemed to be gunpowder."

At a Press Conference lead by Sergeant Kimberly Schneider, public information officer of the U.S. Capitol Police, reported that shots were fired inside Rayburn House Office Building garage but that there were no current reports of injuries. It was later announced at 1:20 local time that there were two minor injuries, a woman who was shaken up and a policeman who twisted his ankle.

Current evidence indicates that the reports of gunfire in the Rayburn Building were actually staffers and Congresspeople hearing the sound of construction work in the elevator. A mechanic was reported to be using a pneumatic hammer, the sound of which, when echoing up the elevator shaft, could be misheard as gunfire by those unaccustomed to either sound. Reports of smoke have not been officially explained, though several comments have chalked the reports of smoke up as paranoia induced, suspecting people heard the warning of gunfire and attributed the origin of a slight or strange smell to the ignition of gunpowder.