Wednesday, June 9
By Carl Weiser | GNS
WASHINGTON - A plane officials thought might be heading for the Capitol as part of a possible terrorist attack forced a brief panicked evacuation but turned out to be bringing Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher to former President Reagan's funeral Wednesday.
``It was a Kentucky state police aircraft,'' FAA spokesman Diane Spitaliere said.
The scare forced the diversion of two F-15 aircraft from their normal patrols, according to Air Force Master Sgt. Gary Carpenter, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
``NORAD takes every reported incident seriously,'' he said. It has scrambled or diverted aircraft more than 1,800 times since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Fletcher's seven-passenger King Air was on its way to, of all places, Reagan Washington National Airport.
Only commercial planes are allowed to land at Reagan. General aviation planes, like Fletcher's, are allowed only if they get a waiver from the Transportation Security Administration.
The plane had permission to be in the area. But a transponder, which sends an identifying signal, failed. So what local officials saw was a unidentified general aviation plane headed toward Washington.
``There was a transponder problem,'' said Fletcher's spokesman, Doug Hogan. ``Fortunately, the plane landed safely.''
But with Washington on high alert for a possible attack during Reagan's funeral, the Capitol building and Supreme Court were quickly evacuated.
Sirens went off at the Capitol as Fletcher's plane approached and Capitol Police officers yelled, ``This is not a drill!'' as the building was evacuated.
Officers told women in high heels to take their shoes off and run. Police piled senators into SUVs waiting outside and peeled out of the parking lot. Officers first said the people in the building had 10 minutes to evacuate but then started yelling that only two minutes remained, urging people to move faster.
A crowd of hundreds of lawmakers, aides and reporters ran up Constitution Avenue and around the corner from the Capitol. Few people seemed to have much idea what was going on.
``They said it was an air threat,'' said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. But even he wasn't sure what that meant.
A former GOP House member elected governor last year, Fletcher was coming to Washington where he plans to attend Friday's invitation-only ceremony for Reagan at Washington National Cathedral.
Ohio Gov. Bob Taft will also be there.
(Contributing: Mike Madden, GNS.)
© 2004, Gannett News Service