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Air scare forces brief evacuation of U.S. Capitol

Police briefly ordered the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court and other government buildings on Wednesday after an aircraft wandered off course and entered restricted airspace.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lawmakers, dignitaries and mourners preparing for Ronald Reagan’s funeral ceremony raced from the Capitol Wednesday after police feared an airplane was headed for the building and warned: “You have one minute to impact.”

Within minutes, authorities determined the small plane was carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher to the funeral and had mistakenly entered restricted airspace around the capital. The building was quickly reopened. Two F-15 fighter jets were diverted from an air patrol to intercept the plane.

During the period of uncertainty, police had hustled House Speaker Dennis Hastert — second in line to the presidency — away in a secured motorcade.

Across the street, at the Supreme Court, police gathered several of the justices and whisked them away in cars. An alarm sounded, and officers yelled at workers: “To the basement, to the basement!”

‘Incoming plane!’
Police in the Capitol had urged people running down staircases to run faster. An officer shouted at one photographer trying to look back through a camera, “You don’t have time to look back.”

“Incoming plane!” another police officer shouted at reporters asking what was going on.

Women, many wearing formal dress for the Rotunda ceremony, kicked off high-heeled shoes to enable them to run faster.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was on the third floor of the Capitol with her staff when the fire alarms first went off and they started walking out of the building. “We were walking until we were told to run, get out of the building,” Murkowski said, as one of her staffers tried to find a lost intern. “I got a little exercise this afternoon.”

Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration told NBC News that they had made contact with the aircraft and determined it posed no threat.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., sweating from the heat and from heeding police instructions to quickly leave the building, was pressed into welcoming duty as dignitaries such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were escorted back into the Capitol.

The incident sent hundreds of people out of the Capitol, where they mingled with the large crowd waiting for the arrival of former President Reagan’s funeral procession.

The all-clear was sounded within minutes after the urgent evacuation order was given.