I was in downtown DC with my laptop and little Panasonic compact camera in my backpack. I’d been working on a video about protests and demonstrations in DC, and I heard that a group of demonstrators advocating pot legalization and DC statehood had chained themselves to a 42-foot “Liberty Pole” on 3rd Street across from the Capitol. That sounded too good to pass up, and it was the only thing that would tear me away from blogging amongst the fading cherry blossoms at the tidal basin.
I made the trek to the Capitol area and heard the demonstration from a distance. It was typical of the small demonstrations that tend not to draw much notice here, as they pop up all the time in the areas where tourists congregate. A dozen or so people hanging out, some signs, and one guy talking non-stop over a loudspeaker. I shot a little video – not much to see, really – and prepared to move on. The tidal basin was calling. As I was putting my camera away (damn), I heard what sounded like a lawnmower approaching at high speed.
Visitors to the National Mall as a tourist or local have seen the relatively light security presence in the area, unlike some European capitols where police with automatic weapons are ubiquitous near high-value targets. I have long assumed that there is a much larger presence behind the scenes with cadres of heavily armed officers ready to converge on any disturbance or threat. To see a small, manned aircraft cruising toward me 50 feet off the ground at that location was just a little more likely than seeing President Obama riding a unicorn down Pennsylvania Avenue while wearing a Fox News t-shirt.
It was also obvious as the copter approached that it was descending. The loudspeaker guy interrupted his monologue with “Oh, shit!”. The demonstrating group may have thought they had hit the bong too many times that day. The copter zoomed overhead and across the reflecting pool and crash landed on the lawn in front of the Capitol.
I stood, gawking in astonishment, and then remembered that I’m kind of in the reporting business. I ran to the edge of the reflecting pool and shot a few seconds of video. Wailing sirens were approaching, and I realized that the police had not yet arrived. Another 200 yards of sprinting with my unwieldy backpack brought me to the wall surrounding the Capitol lawn. I shot video as the Capitol police approached the pilot and took him into custody. My apologies for the camera shake – it was a tiny camera at maximum zoom. The police began to move the crowd away incrementally – you can hear their displeasure as I lingered a couple of times. Eventually everyone was pushed back behind the reflecting pool. The video I shot has been picked up by every major US network and several overseas networks.
The details are still emerging. This was not an attack with violent intent. The pilot may have done us all a favor by exposing this vulnerability – let’s hope the appropriate lessons are learned.