Peoria Journal Star

May 12, 2005

Illinois lawmakers describe evacuation

BY Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- When an order to evacuate the U.S. Capitol came shortly before noon Wednesday, Rep. Ray LaHood was eating lunch in the House members' private dining room.

"I heard a lot of hollering in the hallway," the Peoria Republican recalled later. "There were loud voices. They were yelling for us to get out of the Capitol. They told us to make it quick, that there was a plane coming... So we started running down the street. We took it very seriously."

As they ran, they saw and heard the F-16s jet fighters flying overhead.

Later, LaHood and others would learn that the pilot of a small plane had violated Washington's no-fly zone, apparently by mistake, and that no threat had existed. But no one knew that as the Capitol Police shouted, "Get out quick!" and, "A plane is coming."

"I think people now are being sensitized to the idea that these things have to be taken seriously," LaHood said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was on the Senate floor when the order to evacuate came. He and other Senate leaders were whisked away by their security details to an undisclosed safe location, an aide said.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was in a meeting in his office. He and his staff evacuated to a park four blocks away, where Obama called his wife in Chicago to say he was safe, his aide said.

"It's a startling event," said Obama's communications director, Robert Gibbs, who worked on Capitol Hill during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but missed subsequent scares.

For those who were in the nation's capital last June, Wednesday's event brought back memories of that earlier evacuation as a plane flew into restricted airspace just before the funeral procession for President Reagan.

"That was more chaotic than this time," said Steve Vetzner, press secretary to Rep. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island. "This was pretty orderly. People moved quickly."

Joan Mitchell DeBoer, LaHood's scheduler, said an emergency announcement made over a public address system in the House offices said a plane was approaching, indicating the evacuation was not a drill.

"You could tell people were scared... No one said a word as everyone rushed out of their offices immediately," she said. "People realized how serious it could be."

LaHood said he was pleased with how smoothly the evacuation went.

"The system worked. I think everybody was fine because they practiced this," LaHood said.

"Within five to seven minutes, the entire Capitol and all three House office buildings were evacuated in a very orderly way - in a way that would lead one to believe that if something dramatic happened, if there were a bomb, if a plane were to hit, that probably a lot of people's lives would be saved. And probably it would save a lot of people from injury.

"I was very impressed with the way that people handled it," LaHood said.