Evacuation at the Capitol

When the airliner headed up the Mall toward the Capitol, Curtis F. Nicholas ’92 knew something was terribly wrong.

This was right after the dull boom and the clouds of smoke across the river, where the Pentagon sits, said Nicholas, 31, a sergeant in the U.S. Capitol Police, who was on duty the morning of September 11.

A member of the Capitol’s security force since 1993, Nicholas was in the Russell Senate Office Building getting ready for a 9:30 a.m. press conference with First Lady Laura Bush and Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. She was about to testify before his education subcommittee.

“I was standing with a friend who works in the Senate recording studio, setting up for C-Span and the networks, and he went around the corner to check the TV in the reception room and [C-Span] had the cameras right on it,” he said of the airliner that slammed into World Trade Center II. Someone on Mrs. Bush’s staff also saw the explosion on the television, and she was whisked away by her Secret Service detail.

While everyone grappled with what was happening in New York, American Airlines 77 struck the Pentagon at 9:45. And over the Capitol police radio came the command: “We are now in Dome II,” the name of the enhanced security plan for the Capitol complex: the building itself and the four House and two Senate office buildings adjacent to it.

“Then we got an announcement that another plane was headed up the Mall toward the Capitol,” Nicholas said.

It turned out to be an airliner that had been told by the control tower not to land at Reagan National Airport. The pilot was forced to bank its turn in the narrow airspace above the Potomac River, which left him little choice but to use the relatively open expanse of the Mall.

For a few minutes, “things were pretty hairy,” said Nicholas. Then the House sergeant-at-arms gave the order to evacuate the Capitol. Ten minutes later the Senate sergeant-at-arms followed suit.

The House sergeant-at-arms is best known as the ceremonial figure who announces “Mr. Speaker: the President of the United States!” whenever the chief executive addresses a joint session of Congress. But in fact, Nicholas says, he and his Senate counterpart are full members of the U.S. Capitol Police board, which also includes the Architect of the Capitol. The Senate sergeant-at-arms, Alfonso Lenhardt, who is also the chief of the Capitol police force, had just taken over the unit. “His first day was September 9,” Nicholas said wryly.

The 1,500-person Capitol police force already was on heightened security, as it has been since the July 1998 shooting of two Capitol police officers. So Nicholas, in the Russell Building, said he was able to evacuate all six floors within 45 minutes. Most of the Senators and their staffs could do nothing except regroup in a nearby park because the Washington Metro subway system had been stopped as a security precaution. Some were not able to get home until late in the afternoon, when the Metro again began running. Nicholas himself did not leave the Capitol until after midnight.

The Capitol police have many functions, including order and general security at the public entrances, the loading docks and the tiny subway system that shuttles between the buildings of the Capitol complex. The police guard against dangers ranging from lone shooters to truck bombs. The Capitol, an open public space, has a long safety record unbroken between 1954, when a group of Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire from the gallery of the House, and the 1998 shooting.

Now, Nicholas says, the police’s responsibilities have grown enormously, and include such precautions as X-raying all delivery vehicles and screening tourists—the Capitol reopened to the public the Saturday after the terrorist events—with airport security-style equipment. Other security measures now in effect include the recent Mylar coating of all windows in the buildings, to make them shatter-resistant.

Since September 11, Nicholas said he and all other members of the Capitol police detail have been working 12-hour shifts six days a week. This has cut into his time with his wife, Kimberleigh, and their three children. Still, he found time to accompany his father, Moravian pastor Stephen O. Nicholas ’63, to one of Cal Ripken Jr.’s last games with the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.

“It’s indefinite,” he says of his long hours and six-day weeks. “We fully expect [security measures] only to increase, not decrease, especially with a military operation in the works. We won’t be able to be in a stand-down mode for a while.”

Curtis Nicholas '92