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Panic, Fear Quickly Took Hold After the Gunfire

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The rapid burst of gunfire echoed deafeningly through the Capitol’s crypt Friday, sending tourists scattering in confusion.

Many became separated from their screaming spouses, children and friends. People darted behind columns or around corners. Others simply hit the ground, cowering in fear.

From all directions, police officers came sprinting--their guns drawn, fingers on the triggers.

One British tourist was so close to the shootout that he not only witnessed it unfold but ended up with blood splattered on his khaki slacks. “His left eye appeared to be gone,” tourist Ronald Beamish, 69, said moments later, referring to one of the Capitol police officers who later died.

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On the House side of the Capitol, police officers screamed for everyone to “Get out! Get Out!” But on the Senate side, officers urgently coaxed people to “Get inside! Get inside!”

In the frightening moments immediately after the shootings, as rescuers descended on the East Plaza in ambulances, fire engines and helicopters, panic and pandemonium reigned everywhere.

Everywhere, that is, but inside the House of Representatives, where one member after another, oblivious to the shootings, continued to deliver speeches to an eerily empty chamber for, incredibly, a full hour.

Had the gunman appeared just 45 minutes sooner, he would have encountered hundreds of Congress members descending the Capitol steps, racing to catch airplanes home for the weekend.

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When the shots rang out, Rachel Threlkeld of Spokane, Wash., was touring the crypt, a low-ceilinged, windowless exhibit area on the ground floor directly under the Rotunda--and just steps away from the shootout.

“We were standing there looking at the displays when we heard a shot. Then we heard more, and we hid around a corner. There were about 40 of us, and the police told us to run,” Threlkeld said, still trembling.

Threlkeld was among the hundreds of tourists and congressional aides who mingled on the expansive lawn between the Capitol and the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, trying to make sense of the latest violence to strike the very symbol of America’s democracy.

Mark Mantovani of St. Louis was in a line of tourists and just about to step into the Capitol with his wife and three young children when the shots rang out. “We saw a lot of people coming out. We thought we saw a puff of smoking coming off an officer’s gun. Then it was pretty much pandemonium.”

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One Democratic House aide stumbled upon the scene when she came down an elevator that opened on the first floor--right near the shooting.

As the doors of the elevator opened, the aide--and a group of tourists she was escorting--were greeted by Capitol police facing them with their guns drawn.

When the officers recognized the aide, they shouted: “Run, run, run!” and rushed the aide and tourists out a main door.

Many Capitol aides learned of the shooting from television reports. On the second floor, just down the hall from the Rotunda, aides to House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) ushered about 140 tourists into a suite of offices for safe harbor. One of the visitors became separated from a child, but a Capitol police officer located the youth.

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Brian Addotta of Rockford, Ill., also became momentarily separated from his wife and three sons amid the chaos in the crypt. “I was completely panicked, looking around for my family as I heard bang, bang, bang!”

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was about to leave the Capitol just before the shootings occurred, according to spokesman Andrew Weinstein. The speaker quickly canceled plans to attend a fund-raiser in Pensacola, Fla.

About the same time, Mara Cleary, a legislative aide to Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), was escorting through the crypt her relatives and a girl from Belfast, Ireland.

“I heard three shots. . . . They reverberated through my chest and rang in my ears . . . I knew I just needed to get out, I needed to get away from the sounds, I needed to get my family out of the building,” she said.

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Almost immediately, Cleary heard officers yelling: “Everybody out! Evacuate! Everybody out!”

“People were running and crying and screaming--panicked--and we just followed the crowd,” Cleary said.

Among those who rushed to the rescue was Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a heart surgeon. Frist said he performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on one man with multiple gunshot wounds to the extremities and the right side of the chest. The doctor then rode with the injured man to District of Columbia General Hospital.

Frist, a first-term senator who has tended to a number of tourists for a variety of health problems, also treated a second man, who had been shot in the face.

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“I was really just focused on keeping their hearts and lungs moving,” he said.

Moments earlier, Frist had been presiding over the Senate.

The 3:40 p.m. shootout occurred on a day when both the House and the Senate held rare Friday sessions to conduct legislative business.

Barely a half hour earlier, the House had completed a series of votes approving a controversial Republican health care reform measure.

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As most members began heading for the airports, a group of Democrats who had opposed the GOP bill was holding a press conference on the third floor of the Capitol. Word of the shootings reached individual reporters inside the room and began to spread, touching off a mass exodus.

Yet, inexplicably, in the largely deserted House chamber, members continued making speeches on issues ranging from Medicare reform to ballistic missile defense.

At the instant that shots rang out, Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) was lauding the concert singers from Ole Miss.

And for the next full hour, five more members held forth on a variety of subjects, concluding with Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), who made an impassioned plea for Puerto Rico’s independence.

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At 4:40 p.m., Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), the presiding officer, gaveled the day’s session to an end. No one in the chamber had uttered a word about the violence that had visited the Capitol on a hot and muggy afternoon.

As the summer sun began casting long shadows on the Mall, flags over the Capitol were lowered to half staff.

Inside, police severely restricted the movement of congressional staffers and reporters as they conducted a room-by-room search that went long into the night.

Times staff writers James Gerstenzang, Janet Hook and Alissa J. Rubin contributed to this story.

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