Hill Evacuation Largely Smooth

Posted June 11, 2004 at 5:35pm

Congressional officials said emergency systems functioned largely as designed after an unidentified plane entered restricted airspace last Wednesday, but two Library of Congress buildings were not evacuated, prompting employees to file complaints that the disaster communications excluded them.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer ultimately made the decision to “dump the buildings” when the plane was about 3 minutes out, said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle, who chairs the Capitol Police Board. Pickle, who said he was one of the last people in the Capitol, added that the building was 95 percent empty within 90 seconds. The office buildings took a few minutes more to clear.

Senate and House offices, along with the Library’s Jefferson Building, were evacuated, but apparently the two other facilities, the Madison and the Adams buildings, did not receive word that a plane — later determined to be carrying Kentucky Gov. and former Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) — was within 15 miles of the Capitol and not responding.

Two chapters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Congressional Research Employees Association filed a complaint Thursday with the Office of Compliance, seeking a review of the Library’s emergency procedures, specifically its “command-decision making structure” and its communications systems.

The LOC Police Labor Committee plans to file an identical request with the Office of Compliance today.

“The Capitol office buildings, the Supreme Court — they reacted within that time to evacuate their buildings,” said Nan Thompson Ernst, an employee in the Library’s Manuscript Division and an AFSCME Local 2910 representative. “It seems to us there should be some kind of unified response. … The Library should be an integral part of the whole plan.”

Officer Mark Timberlake, chairman of the LOC Police Labor Committee, added, “We’re very upset that there’s been a breakdown in the system.”

“It’s this kind of disparity, with what’s going on across the street, literally, that creates concern that we’re out of the loop,” said Ernst, who represents AFSCME Local 2910 on the Library’s Safety and Health Committee.

Ernst asserts that many employees heading from the Madison Building to the Capitol South Metrorail station encountered a “scene of pandemonium” as Hill staff poured forth from the Cannon Office Building.

The Library of Congress was closed Friday in observance of former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral, and an LOC spokesman could not be reached for comment. On Thursday, however, the public affairs office issued an unsigned e-mail to Library employees in an apparent attempt to explain the incident.

“We apologize for any confusion related to this matter, which was widely covered in the local and national media, and we will redouble our efforts to get critical information from the emergency officials to the Library staff in a timely and useful manner,” the e-mail stated.

The three-paragraph message noted that “a Capitol Police officer informed a Library of Congress Police officer” about the emergency situation at 4:38 p.m., just a few minutes after an e-mail notification went out to House and Senate staff, prompting evacuation of the Jefferson Building.

“While in the process of determining if the other Library buildings needed to be evacuated, the Library Police Communications Center received an ‘all-clear’ message from the Capitol Police at 4:41 p.m., indicating that the emergency was over and further evacuation of Capitol complex buildings was unnecessary,” the e-mail states.

The Library’s unions have filed numerous complaints with the Office of Compliance over the past two and a half years, often focusing on police training, communications and other aspects of emergency planning.

“While a lot of progress has been made … there still seems to be a few areas that need improvement,” explained Ernst. “And one of the particular places where we’re concerned has to do with issues of communications, particularly throughout the Capitol complex.”

Congress has mandated that the Library of Congress Police merge with the Capitol Police to better facilitate communications as well as achieve other efficiencies, but the details of its implementation have yet to be approved by the two chambers’ oversight committees.

Top security officials in the Capitol were alerted to the unresponsive plane shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday by a regional coordinating center in Virginia that handles airline safety. “Within a matter of seconds,” Pickle recalled Thursday, he called a hotline that was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was punched through to an instantaneous conference call with House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood, Gainer and his top deputies.

“We had very little time to make a decision,” Pickle said. After quickly debating what to do with the “real-time information” they were receiving about the aircraft, Gainer ordered Congress’ first full-scale evacuation since Sept. 11.

“It was his recommendation,” Pickle said, adding that Gainer “said he was going to ‘dump’ the buildings” and that he and Livingood immediately backed up his decision. “There was not a lot of deliberation because there’s not a lot of time for debate.”

Within seconds, alarms sounded throughout the Capitol campus and police inside the Capitol started screaming “get out.”

For the hundreds, even thousands, of visitors on hand for the Reagan services, this was likely their first experience with Congress in the age of terrorism. Although staffers have been through at least a dozen drills, they seemed to know this one wasn’t planned and wasn’t just for practice.

“In all of these drills, you go down the stairs, and everybody walks calmly,” said Beth Bellizzi, spokeswoman for Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.). But on Wednesday, “You couldn’t help but feel a little bit of difference in the air.”

The difference was more dramatic in some instances than others. Pickle said he has heard complaints about the police screaming but has no qualms with how they handled the situation, particularly because many fire drills and false-alarm evacuations have been held during the nearly three years since 9/11. The institution’s top law enforcement officers viewed the incident as the most serious threat the Capitol had faced since Sept. 11, Pickle said.

A potential strike was actually more imminent last week than on Sept. 11, Pickle said, since United Airlines flight 93 was more than 100 miles away in southwestern Pennsylvania when officials learned it could be headed to Washington.

Complicating the evacuation was that the Capitol was filled with guests for the Reagan memorial service who were elderly, unfamiliar with the Capitol, or both. Some Capitol rooms were filled with VIPs.

Alerting people to the danger, police screamed “this is not a drill” and “get the [expletive] out, there’s a plane, two minutes.” Outside the Capitol one officer started yelling “one minute.”

Aside from complaints by Library employees and reports of more minor glitches, the evacuation received near-unanimous praise.

“People were evacuated in an orderly fashion,” said House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio). “The Capitol Police responded correctly. It went pretty good, I believe.”

That assessment was echoed by staffers on both sides of the Capitol and in the office buildings.

Although some offices did not correctly execute their individual emergency evacuation plans, which dictate where individuals are to meet, most offices met at their predetermined posts only to be told by police to keep going farther from the Capitol. And while a few of the temporary, mobile annunciator systems did not function properly, the communications system — including BlackBerries and the permanent, hard-wired annunciators that are in the process of being installed — did by and large work as planned.

Even so, Ney said, “We’ll look this over top to bottom to see if there are any flaws.”

Acknowledging the fear the event instilled in people as they ran out of the buildings, Ney said it was nonetheless an opportunity to evaluate emergency plans. “In light of a scary and bad situation … it lets us know in a strange way that the system works.”

“It’s just a reminder that you work in a place where this can happen,” said Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).