US police evacuated the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday after deeming a harmless plane attending a sporting event a threat, a mess that angered powerful Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.
“Evacuate the United States Capitol”: The worrying warning of a possible aerial threat issued around 6:30 p.m. was lifted less than twenty minutes later.
The police, who justified the evacuation with a “precautionary thought”, promised “further information will follow”. More than two hours after the first warning, they still hadn’t given an official reason.
But a simple and embarrassing communication problem appears to be the cause of the false alarm.
In fact, the reported threat was actually just U.S. Army paratroopers being dropped from a plane to attend a pre-game show at the ballpark less than 1 mile from the Capitol.
“The fact that the US Federal Aviation Administration appears to have failed to notify Capitol Police of the planned overflight of Nationals Stadium is outrageous and inexcusable,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
“The needless panic caused by this apparent negligence has left elected officials, staff and institutional workers still reeling from the trauma of the attack on their workplace on April 6, 2021 by supporters of Donald Trump.
Though brief, the warning was immediately shared by the American media, in a country still haunted by the memory of the September 11, 2001 attacks – during which planes piloted by al-Qaeda pilots crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in New York and the Pentagon building in Washington.
The number of people on the Capitol grounds was likely limited Wednesday as the Senate and House of Representatives were not in session.
“We’ve just had a very stressful fifteen minutes but we’re glad everyone is safe and sound,” tweeted Officer-Elect Teresa Leger Fernandez.
According to CNN reporter Ryan Nobles, who says he was among the evacuees, “It was pretty crazy for a good 15 minutes.”
“The alarms were loud and intense, and Capitol Police were working hard to get everyone out,” he tweeted.
Two Swiss tourists visiting the area around the Capitol explained that they “faced police officers who said we had to leave the building”.
“They closed the security barriers behind us,” one of them told AFP, adding that the agents had not provided an explanation.
The Capitol, a symbol of American democracy, has been heavily guarded since the forced entry by Donald Trump supporters on January 6, 2021, who came to denounce the outcome of the presidential election that put Democrat Joe Biden in power.