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"White House, U.S. Capitol emptied in plane scare"
- From: "Stephen Irwin" <stepheni@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Wed, 11 May 2005 20:55:13 -0500
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
White House, U.S. Capitol emptied in plane scare
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fighter jets scrambled over Washington on Wednesday
when a plane breached restricted airspace prompting the evacuation of the
White House and the U.S. Congress amid fears of a Sept. 11-style attack, but
the president was not told until he finished a bicycle ride.
The light private Cessna had ignored calls from air traffic controllers and
entered the restricted air zone around Washington, coming within three miles
of the White House before turning away, authorities said.
The plane's approach sent two F-16 fighter jets into the air over the U.S.
capital and thousands of staff and tourists into the streets outside the
White House, Capitol building and Supreme Court in an urgent evacuation.
The U.S. Customs service also scrambled Black Hawk helicopters during the
alert, which the White House characterized as the most serious since the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by hijacked airliners on New York and Washington.
But President Bush was on a bicycle ride at a suburban wildlife preserve in
nearby Maryland at the time and was not told about the crisis until the end
of his bike ride and some 40 minutes after the "all-clear" was given.
Vice President Dick Cheney who was at the White House at the time was
quickly evacuated, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, and Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was told about the incident just before noon (1700
GMT), around the time it happened.
A Homeland Security Department officials said the Secret Service determined
the air intrusion appeared to be accidental and no charges would be filed
against the two men on board.
First lady Laura Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan, who was visiting,
were rushed to a secure location on the White House grounds, McClellan said.
"A determination was made that the threat posed no danger to the president
since he was at an off-site location, and protocols were in place to protect
people in the area of the threat," McClellan said. "Those protocols did not
require any presidential authority."
"Given such circumstances and the fact that the plane turned away from the
White House, the decision was made to inform the president upon conclusion
of his bike ride," McClellan added.
The two fighters, which scrambled from nearby Andrews Air Force base,
intercepted the Cessna and fired four flares to get the pilot's attention
before escorting the plane to nearby Frederick, Maryland, officials said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was advised of the incident just before
noon (1700 GMT) and "was available to make any necessary decisions as the
situation developed," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
Whitman refused to discuss the rules of engagement or whether such
"decisions" might have included a potential order to shoot down the errant
An aircraft owners and pilots Web site said the two men on board the small
plane were a flight instructor and a student pilot who was a member of the
10-person flying club that owned the plane in Smoketown, Pennsylvania.
But Capitol police took no chances. "Get out, get out," they shouted to
lawmakers and staff as they moved through the building and adjacent offices,
clearing the floors and galleries in both chambers.
U.S. senators debating highway legislation dropped their papers and ran from
the chamber. House of Representatives lawmakers were in the midst of a vote
when the evacuation order came.
Capitol police swiftly moved senators, aides, lobbyists and journalists
toward Union Station, about two blocks away. Police used bullhorns to order
onlookers near the Capitol to "stay away from the building."
The incident, which briefly drove U.S. stock prices lower, prompted the
government's joint operations center to send an "alert" to White House
staff. "Do not leave building. Proceed to interior halls and lower levels.
Avoid windows," the alert read.
The Secret Service and Capitol police gave the "all clear" 15 minutes after
the first alert and allowed staff to return to their offices.
Pilots are not allowed to fly into airspace set up by the Federal Aviation
Administration after the Sept. 11 attacks.
If warnings are ignored and the aircraft remains in restricted airspace it
could be shot down. All pilots with permission to fly into or through
Washington airspace -- mainly commercial flights -- must transmit special
identification codes to air traffic controllers.
Since Sept. 11, various Capitol buildings have been evacuated for a range of
security reasons, from fears of anthrax to bomb threats.
On June 9, 2004, the Capitol also was evacuated after a plane carrying the
governor of Kentucky to former President Ronald Reagan's funeral entered the
The Capitol was also partially evacuated last month when an Australian
citizen stood outside the Capitol with two black suitcases and demanded to
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