It was going to be a great Spring Break for Switzerland County Elementary School teachers Steff and Trent Whaley.
The couple shares not only a love of teaching, but also a love of history; so when Spring Break arrived, they made plans to travel to the East Coast. First, there was the Easter holiday at Steff’s cousin’s home in Philadelphia suburb, along with some site seeing there; and then it was on to Washington, D.C. on Easter night, where the couple had plans to take in all of the sites and sounds of the nation’s capital.
Kicking off the vacation was a tour of the U.S. Capitol Building on Monday, March 28th – and that turned into an adventure that the couple will tell their great-grandchildren about.
With about 10 other Indiana visitors, the Whaleys were the guests of Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly for a tour of the Capitol Building; and just after arriving at the Capitol’s Visitor Center they were just yards away from Larry Russell Dawson when he pulled a gun and pointed it at officers who were conducting security screenings on people attempting to enter the Capitol. Officers fired and struck Dawson, who is from Tennessee. He has been charged with assault with a deadly weapon and assault on a police officer while armed.
Quite a memorable way for the Whaleys to kick off their week in Washington.
“Going to D.C. has been one of the things we’ve been wanting to do,” Steff Whaley said. “In December we put in for the White House and the Capitol, but the only one we got approved for was the Capitol.”
Steff said that the couple had begun their Monday with a tour of Ford’s Theater in the morning, and then had plans to be at Senator Donnelly’s office in the Hart Office Building at 2 p.m. to be part of a tour group of other Indiana residents.
“It’s a little bit different than going through what the normal public does,” Steff said. “We had to start at the Senator’s office, so we actually walked past the Capitol to the Hart Building. We met an intern there named Lauren, who is a college student; and she welcomed us and told us she was going to be our guide for the tour.”
The group took a tour of the Senator’s office building, and then were guided through an underground tunnel that connects the Hart Office Building as well as two others to the Capitol itself.
“You walk through the basement that connects them all, and she was showing us the barber shop they have and the doctor’s office and other things,” Steff continued. “The mood was like super happy, super excited. We get to the end of these office buildings, and there’s this little scooter, Amtrack type of thing that takes you under the ground over to the Capitol Building, so we got on that and rode across.”
From there the Whaleys and the others walked up the steps and into the Visitor Center of the Capitol Building.
“Lauren said that she needed to get two more tickets for some extra people who had joined our group, so she told us all to wait there and she was going to walk over the ticket desk,” Steff continued. “She told us there was a bathroom right down the hallway in case anyone needed to use it, so I went to the bathroom.”
Steff said that from where the entrance to the bathrooms are, a person can see the metal detectors where people are coming through security.
“I go into the bathroom and I come out, and about 30 seconds later I get back to the group in the corner, and our tour guide comes over and says, ‘We’re going to crouch down in this corner’. We’re all looking at her and she was very calm and she said, ‘There’s been a shooting right over there.'”
Steff said that there were so many people that they didn’t hear the gunshot, but that suddenly there were just all sorts of people scurrying in all different directions seeking protection and cover.
“I’m not very good at judging distance,” Steff said. “But you could see it, but we were in the corner, backed away. We weren’t part of that big crowd. I’m very grateful that we were with the Senator and not with that big crowd, because I keep telling Trent, if we were in that mess of people, it would have been utter chaos. We were lucky enough to be over to the side.
“When she first walked over, I don’t think the big groups of people had realized what had just happened, because they were all still kind of doing their thing,” Steff continued. “She walked over to tell us and you could tel the people who worked there were on high alert. They were running and moving fast, but all of the tourists were kind of just standing there; and then about 20 seconds later, the mood drastically changed. It went from everyone’s happy to her telling us and we turn into panic, and then everyone else is still kind of calm, and then we see and hear running and screaming.”
In the corner, things then got even more interesting.
“All of a sudden the doors that we just came through to my left come bursting open, and about 20 men in full SWAT gear come running in, and they’re screaming, ‘Get out of the way! Move! Move! Move to shelter!’,” Steff said. “I remember grabbing Trent’s hand. It was very scary for about the first 45 seconds of it, and then they start coming over. All of those people over by the metal detector who had just walked in, they start running our way. Our girl, Lauren, said, ‘Let’s go back through these doors and go back underground where we were. That’s going to be our safest spot’.”
The group followed those directions and went back underground. The Amtrack tram had been shut down for security reasons.
“At this point they were paging over the Capitol Building and the other three buildings: ‘Lock down. Shooter. Safe Zone,” Steff said. “They’re saying these things over and over again. So we walked very briskly back to his (Senator Donnelly’s) office, and our tour guide was saying that we were in the safest spot now, because we were walking away from the building.”
Arriving back at Senator Donnelly’s office, the group was surprised by how empty and silent the building was. Locked out of the office, intern Lauren worked to get the group back inside the actual office; where they remained for about two more hours until the ‘all clear’ was given – allowing them to leave the building.
Once they were allowed to go, the Whaleys walked back out onto the streets, where hordes of media members were now assembled, trying to get the story on what had just happened.
The Whaleys didn’t have any other incidents while touring the capital the following two days, but noted that ever-present security was even more heightened as people went in and out of other federal buildings and other attractions in the city.
“It was my first time in D.C.,” Steff said. “Trent’s been three or four times, but this was my first – what an experience.”