Two congressional staffers who got past a security checkpoint with Halloween costumes and a toy gun in their bags accidentally threw Capitol Hill into a 90-minute panic yesterday, with police fearing that a gunman had slipped into a congressional office building.
The commotion at the Cannon House Office Building began just after 1 p.m. when a distracted security officer spotted the image of what appeared to be a snub-nosed revolver on her X-ray machine -- after the bags' owners had passed the security area.
"I will readily admit we need to sharpen some of our security procedures here," Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said. "There have been some lessons learned."
Less than two hours after the incident began, a congressman called the police to say that his staff members were the ones being sought, Chief Gainer said. Minutes later, after the police learned what happened, the SWAT team members were seen leaving the building, shaking their heads and looking disgusted.
The chief would not identify the congressman, but some House members said it was Representative John Shimkus, Republican of Illinois, whose offices are on the fifth floor of the Cannon building. Mr. Shimkus later issued a statement apologizing for the incident, saying it was the result of his staff members' effort to assemble a costume during their lunch hour.
"The staffers wish to convey their deepest regrets to all members, fellow staff, and visitors to Washington who were inconvenienced by this incident," Mr. Shimkus said.
Chief Gainer said he did not believe that the staff members would be charged.
"I don't think they had any ill intent," he said. "They had their Halloween costumes in preparation for parties tonight and tomorrow, and I just don't think were thinking clearly through this."
But he said the incident would prompt the Capitol police, who lost two members to a gunman in the Capitol in 1998, to review their security procedures. Because the gun could easily have been real, Chief Gainer said, he would order that the belts on the X-ray machines be slowed to ensure that no one could pick up a parcel until the officer had seen the scan and released it.
"It does show that we've got to re-evaluate how the X-ray machines are run," he said. "So to that extent, it's another lesson learned."
Gainer said the two staff aides were "very sorry this all happened," and the security personnel had performed "well within standardsPosted by tstubbs at October 31, 2003 08:17 AM