WASHINGTON -- A choreographed partisan clash on the House floor over health care policy, expected to provide the day's drama, yielded late yesterday afternoon to the searing news that a shooter had taken a lethal dash through the most august corridors of the nation's government.
"It was so loud, I thought someone had dropped something in the hallway," said Justin Brown, a young worker in the House gift shop near the entrance where the gunman had entered. "It was so fast. He was shooting just at people," Brown said.
One man, a tourist from Washington state, dived to cover his wife; another woman wailed as she searched for her young child. And visitors throughout the U.S. Capitol scrambled for cover, weaving through the building's stately marble columns and passageways for protection, as security guards fanned out to try to lead them outside.
It was a particularly chilling sight for the many children at the Capitol, among the hundreds of summertime tourists who visit the building every day.
Derek Zalewski, 13, from Stevens Point, Wis., said he saw a blond woman assumed to be Angela Dickerson, a 24-year-old who was shot and seriously injured, with her eye covered and splattered with blood. "She was bloody. Her clothes were soaked," said Derek, who was standing outside on top of the Capitol steps, looking down on the exit.
Tourists, blinking away disbelief, watched as a daunting fleet of ambulances, trucks and squad cars, all with sirens blaring and lights flashing, massed in a crescent at the east entrance of the Capitol. A helicopter lifted some of the wounded to hospitals for treatment.
On the advice of police, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, remained barricaded in his first-floor office for several hours.
Ronald Beamish, 69, a tourist from Gloucester, England, said he heard gunshots and then saw one of the officers, Jacob Chestnut, 58, hit the floor. Beamish approached the 18-year veteran of the Capitol police force.
"His lips moved; he was trying to say something," said Beamish, whose gray dress pants were stained with blood. "He wasn't dead, but he wasn't far from it."
Lawmakers out of danger
Just before the first round of shooting, a group of about 15 House Republicans had been nearby, in the office of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas. They had been savoring their narrow victory in passing a bill to regulate health care insurers and holding off Democratic efforts to pass legislation more punitive to HMOs, said Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican.
Then came the first shots, after which lawmakers were told to stay in their offices. The suspect, Russell E. Weston Jr., 41, was shot by police, but made his way into the outer room of DeLay's office. Weston mortally wounded John Gibson, 42, a plainclothes aide to DeLay who had cautioned lawmakers to stay in the inner room. Weston was hit either by Gibson or by another officer. Both Gibson and Chestnut died of their wounds.
During the melee, Nicole Haraf screamed "gunshots" and ran with her husband and two daughters to a hallway. The couple threw their children behind a statue and ducked over them like shields. Another tourist, Brian Addotta, from Rockford, Ill., hid behind a pillar.
Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, a cardiac surgeon, raced from his office to the Capitol, and helped to treat two men who had been shot. He did not know that one of them was the gunman. "I was really just focused on keeping their hearts and lungs moving," he said.
Security measures are already in place at the Capitol: All people entering must pass through a metal detector and have their belongings searched by police. Patty Kast, from Williamsport, Pa., said she was turned back until she got rid of her child's balloon.
Jillian Simon, a high school teacher from Wilmington, N.C., whose hands were trembling an hour after the shooting, had been standing on the first floor, after descending a flight of stairs. "I heard a shooting, and I thought that couldn't be possible," Simon said. "I had been upstairs, and they [security guards] were taking my keys out of my purse. They checked everything electronic."
By the time of the shooting, the House had already concluded its business for the day. Yet throughout the frantic efforts of police, several seemingly oblivious lawmakers -- including Republican Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota and Democrat Jose E. Serrano of New York -- were on the floor delivering long speeches destined solely for consumption of voters back home.
Previous violence at Capitol
Twice before in the 20th century, people have fired shots in the Capitol: In 1954, five congressmen were shot by three extremists seeking nationhood for Puerto Rico who had been sitting in the visitors' gallery. A fourth assailant was captured later. In 1947, a former Capitol Hill police officer shot at an Ohio senator after losing a great deal of money.
Three times since 1900, bombs ripped through rooms in the Capitol -- in 1915, 1971, and 1983 -- but there were never injuries.
Richard Reeves, the former chief political correspondent for the New York Times, wandered by the Capitol lawn yesterday after an afternoon of research on former President Richard Nixon at the Library of Congress. Until the 1971 bombing by the radical Weatherman group, Congress functioned much like a state legislature, with relatively lax interaction between lawmakers and others, he recalled: The shootings of the Puerto Rican nationalists had been viewed as an aberration.
"House members were totally unknown to the general public and there was the usual courtship" with reporters, Reeves said. It allowed for a time when lawmakers and journalists knew one another by name, and flashing a press pass was merely a formality for entrance into the building.
But with the tumult of protest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the 1971 incident took on another tone, as police became far more protective. The spate of car-bombings directed at Americans in the Middle East led to another layer of protection, he said.
Outside the Capitol, some sought to offer comfort.
"Father, we can't help but feel that we are in a prophetic moment in our nation's life," intoned the Rev. Paul Schenck, a minister at Bishop Cummings Reformed Episcopal Church in Catonsville who was visiting the Capitol. At 5: 30 p.m., as he knelt beneath the extended branches of a tree next to the parking lot swarming with squad cars, Schenck was leading in prayer a group of about 15 people who had met earlier yesterday afternoon with Republican lawmakers to promote the importance of the Bible's 10 Commandments.
"In this House, where men and women wrestle daily with the resolutions to the afflictions which face our society, father, we pray," Schenck said, as bells toned nearby. "We pray for those who come into the Capitol -- for those people who come to contemplate this great experiment in democracy."
Slightly past 6 p.m., before a press conference at which the two deaths were confirmed, two Capitol police officers stood at the top of the building's roof, and slowly lowered the flag to half-staff.
Pub Date: 7/25/98