This Time: A Capitol Hill reporter recalls covering shootings over the years

This time I was on the elliptical at the gym.

Then there was the time last year when Congress was on recess and I was en route to an eye-doctor appointment.

I made it one block and turned around.

There was the midday call in January 2011. I was on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn heading to a wedding on Long Island.

I never made the wedding.

Back in July 1998, I was back in the newsroom at NPR where I worked at the time. It was approaching quitting time on a Friday. I had been to the Capitol for a news conference earlier and was about to head home.

I didn’t get there until after midnight.

In the 1998 instance, gunfire erupted on Capitol Hill that sweltering summer afternoon, killing two U.S. Capitol Police officers. Word came into NPR newsroom that there was a shooting on the House side of the Capitol and “gunmen” (plural, was the first report) were “heading for the speaker’s office.”

I commandeered a cab outside NPR and instructed the driver to race to Capitol Hill. The cabbie dumped me off by the Supreme Court. I flung a $20 at the cabbie and just kind of stood there, microphone in hand and a blue NPR equipment bag slung over my shoulder.

A throng of people sprinted toward me across the Capitol lawn like the world’s most chaotic Harvard flying football wedge. Fear gripped each face. They wanted to get the hell away from the Capitol. Maybe I was the stupid one. I wanted to get closer to the Capitol.

What had I gotten myself into? I wondered as I charged upstream against the pulse of tourists fleeing the gunplay in acid-washed shorts and sandals. I pushed “play” and “record” on the black Marantz cassette tape deck. The audio meters spasmed to life, flicking into the red as the mic captured screams and police sirens.

Two officers were dead — Jacob Chestnut and detective John Gibson. Then-Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and world-class heart surgeon, saved the life of the deranged gunman who opened fire on the officers.

In January 2011, a thin-coating of snow sealed the New Jersey Turnpike, slowing our journey to the wedding. We crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn.

I heard my phone vibrate somewhere between Sunset Park and Bay Ridge. I was surprised the phone wasn’t in my coat pocket. It was on the floor in the back. I fished around behind the seat for a second before finally snaring it.

On the line was Lee Ross from the assignment desk at Fox News in Washington. Ross told me a gunman had shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in the head “execution style” at a town meeting in Tucson. Did I know anything?

I immediately emailed Katie Grant, a spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. I then dialed and reached Ryan Patmintra, then a spokesman for Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.  

I figured if anyone might know something it could be someone in the congressional leadership from the congresswoman’s home state. At first, I apologized to Patmintra for bugging him on a Saturday.

“No problem, Chad,” Patmintra replied cheerfully. He probably thought I was calling about legislation or to get a comment on something. “How can I help?”

I could tell from Patmintra’s tone that he hadn’t heard. I was breaking this to him. Patmintra got very quiet as I shared the fragmentary information. Once we got to the hotel, I holed-up in the room for 12 hours, working the phones and email.

In March 2015, Congress broke for the two-week Easter and Passover recess. Things were slow on Capitol Hill during this period. I made a couple of doctor’s appointments and scheduled two vacation days to see a rock concert at Madison Square Garden. The Capitol Police often organizes evacuation, shelter-in-place and “active shooter” drills during recesses.

The department scheduled a drill on this particular morning for the Capitol itself. USCP often alerts congressional offices and the media galleries when a drill is planned. But sometimes things fall through the cracks.

I walked to my car that brisk, spring afternoon to drive to the eye doctor in Arlington, Va. I drove to the bottom of Constitution Avenue on the Senate side of the Capitol, precisely one block from where I park my car. That’s as far as I got.

My phone exploded.

A shooting at the Capitol. Something in the Capitol Visitor’s Center. Officers hit? I made three hard right turns around the perimeter of the Russell Senate Park and returned to the same parking space I abandoned a moment before. I knew of the police drill earlier. I thought for a moment there may have been one scheduled for the Capitol Visitors Center that I didn’t know about.

I didn’t respond right away to the barrage of calls and emails from the Fox assignment desk, my boss, Fox News Radio and the control room in New York. I wanted to make sure that whatever was going on was real and “not a drill.”

The stories are legion about news organizations rushing breaking news to air about an “active shooter” or “mass casualty” event — only to find out later it was a first responder exercise.

I quickly reached a senior, reliable source who would know. Was this an extension of the earlier drill?

“No. This is real,” replied the source.

I switched off the engine and called Fox’s control room while still sitting in the car with my seatbelt on. Information streamed in. It was in the visitor’s center. Someone trying to get in with a Beretta and pointed it at officers. They shot him. We learned later it was a fake gun.

I never made the eye appointment.

And so on Wednesday morning I was at the gym, in Old Town, Alexandria, near my house. An alert from the Alexandria Police popped up on my phone about a shooting. The address was familiar. I had gone for a morning run past the baseball field and had coffee at the coffee shop across the street from the diamond a few days ago.

I had also just had multiple conversations with people on Capitol Hill about GOP lawmakers practicing at that field.

I feared the worst.

I leaped off the elliptical in mid-stride and raced to my car. I called two senior sources who might know what was going on. “What do we have?” I asked in one email. No response. I phoned another source who I believed was at the practice.

Sure enough. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., hit. Multiple others injured. The shooting went on for 10 minutes. Fifty or more shots. The suspect was subdued.

We got it on the air quickly and accurately.

The ballfield wasn’t far from the gym. But I knew I would be at the scene all day. I rushed home to grab my congressional press pass, a notebook, a pen and an extra phone charger.

I asked my wife to drive me the few blocks from our house to the scene and “get me as close as you can.” We arrived so quickly that we parked right next to the yellow police tape flapping along the sidewalk by the coffee shop. I was still in a sweatshirt, a ball cap and running shorts from the gym.

I finally made it to the capitol at about 4:30 p.m. that day.

I tried to run past the baseball field early this Saturday morning, like I did last Saturday. I couldn’t. Everything was still blocked off at that hour. But they just re-opened the street after ballistics experts spent days combing the field for bullets and shells, tracing the trajectory of the shots.

This story will be with us for a while. We’ll track the recoveries of Scalise, lobbyist Matt Mika, special sgents Crystal Griner and David Bailey and congressional aide Zack Barth. What was behind the shooting. What led the gunman to Alexandria? Will Congressional officials alter how they protect lawmakers, especially outside the Capitol complex?

And I’m wondering where I’ll be if there’s a next time.

 

 

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