WASHINGTON (AP) A frantic guard outside the Supreme Court shouted at strolling passers-by: “You don”t have time to stay in this area!” Why, he was asked, what happened? “Explosions! Leave!”
Secret Service agents similarly yelled at White House tourists to get away. At the Capitol, stunned congressmen huddled under the shade of trees outside. Some officers who typically keep firearms out of sight made a show of toting pump-action shotguns.
Across Washington, people left work and jammed streets and subways to try to get home as the seat of government was evacuated after devastating terrorist attacks at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York.
Sirens wailed. Cars packed the streets, and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the Washington Monument. Unmarked official cars flew through red lights and raced down the wrong sides of streets, holding up insignia to identify themselves.
And a TV news crew worked a deal to perch on a church rooftop with a picture-perfect view of the Capitol framed against a brilliant blue sky, providing a clear shot just in case a plane should demolish the home of Congress.
“I just want to get out of downtown, get someplace safe,” said Tracey Nicholas, who had collected her son, third-grader Marcus, from his downtown elementary school but was stranded with no way to get home.
In line at the White House, Elmar Torenga of Holland and a friend heard about the World Trade Center attacks on a radio. Then they heard a big explosion. “We were quite scared. … A policeman who seemed quite panicked told us to get … out of here.” Inside the Capitol, guards ran through the hallways shouting at people to leave. “There”s a plane coming,” one anxious guard hollered. “Get out!”
Outside, Senate President Pro Tem Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) talked to reporters until a loud boom sounded behind the Capitol. An aide grabbed his arm and tried to drag him away. “Some people in the world are bent on destruction,” Byrd said. Despite the evacuation, some lawmakers stayed put.
“They tried to throw me out three times, but they didn”t succeed,” said Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.) chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “I figured I was safer in the building than out on the street.”
Some Congress members insisted on more symbolic acts, singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. Congressional leaders kept the Capitol Dome bathed in floodlights all night to reinforce the message that the light of democracy shines on. Downtown, George Washington University student Aaron Costello, 20, ran to his dorm roof to see the Pentagon smoking across the Potomac River.
“It”s still just unreal to me right now,” said Costello, of Richmond, Va.
John Croom, a 69-year-old retired Army staff sergeant was dumbfounded as he watched the Pentagon burn from his home. “I thought Washington was protected.”
But tourist Bill Powell of Leesburg, Ga., who has been traveling with his wife Betty, said the attacks didn”t surprise him since he had just read a book in which “a guy was planning to put a very toxic chemical into the World Trade Center.”
“I thought to myself, this kind of thing could happen anytime.”