WASHINGTON – It’s one of the ironies of the digital age that it can be harder to find out what happened from the scene of a crime, than from the other side of the world, if plugged into the information hub that is the internet.
Through sheer happenstance, I was one of the first reporters, if not the first reporter, to arrive on the scene of a big breaking news story. Yet, I would learn more about what happened that day once I got back to the office, some 25 miles away and five hours later. It wasn’t for a lack of trying.
I happened to be about a block away from the police line, and four blocks from where a police chase ended, on Capitol Hill Thursday. I had just finished up a story at the U.S. District Court, when it looked like every squad car in Washington, D.C. went flying by the window.
The flashing lights all converged on a spot about a block up Constitution Ave, near the Capitol.
A quick internet search for “Capitol Hill” turned up a one-sentence story that shots had been fired. Local media had most likely picked that up from police scanners, and it appeared no one was yet reporting from the scene.
As I approached the scene, I took a few quick pictures and sent them to my editors. Having no idea what had happened, the situation looked rather ominous. Police had traffic on Constitution blocked off at Louisiana, all the way up to the Capitol.
One ambulance was in the middle of the intersection and another was just leaving with siren blaring.
An open-air truck full of soldiers armed to the teeth drove by. This did not look good.
I asked an officer if he knew what was happening but he could not say.
It was obvious I would not learn anything by staring at the scene, so I headed toward the Capitol West Lawn and immediately found an eyewitness describing to someone what he had just seen.
I got out my audio recorder and politely asked him to start over.
A crowd of reporters gathered around us and another witness approached us, so we recorded him, too.
Both witnesses had heard rapid-fire gun shots and seen the chase go from a nearby circle in the Capitol Hill lawn to Constitution Ave. They both ducked for cover and feared for their lives.
One of them was a furloughed government worker who had been at the Washington Navy Yard mass shootings that killed 12 people just two weeks earlier. He said, “It felt like the Navy Yard all over again.”
I called WND’s assignment editor and played the audio to him over the phone so he could take notes and publish the eyewitness accounts as soon as possible.
By that time, information had begun to circulate online and over the airwaves, so I actually learned more from the assignment editor than he learned from me. He filled me in on how the chase had begun at the White House, and that someone had tried to breach security.
A variety of local and federal officers then began clearing the Capitol west lawn. I asked one of them if the suspect had been captured and he said the suspect was “down.”
“Dead?” Just down, was all he knew, so I phoned that in.
As we were shepherded to the other side of Constitution Ave., I asked an officer if a PIO (Public Information Officer) would be speaking to the press? He said “yes” and pointed to the area they were herding us.
It was probably close to an hour before the press conference was held, so I took more pictures and sent them in.
Meanwhile, I did what every reporter was doing: Asking each other if anybody knew anything more? No one did.
Shots were fired, but by who? Police? The driver? Was anyone hurt? Was anyone dead? Was it terrorism?
After a while, a rumor emerged that the driver was a woman. And there may have been a baby involved.
The press conference looked like 100 lions surrounding a zebra.
I managed to get close enough to get a good picture. But, because Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine was not amplified and because I did not have a boom microphone, I could hear next to nothing said by what appeared to be an extraordinarily soft-spoken spokesman.
I did manage to hear they did not suspect terrorism, but precious little else.
As I’d assumed, our assignment editor was able to watch it live, so I actually found out more from him on what was said.
A few more pictures and my phone battery expired, so there was little more to be done.
With a dead phone, I couldn’t read the news, so it wasn’t until I got back to the office that I learned most of the details.
Eventually I learned a woman reportedly had tried to breach security at the White House, led police on a chase, rammed barricades and cruisers, hit an officer with her car, and had been shot to death by police. Her one-year-old child was safe.
The one thing we have still yet to learn, is why police shot to death an unarmed woman, 34-year-old Miriam Carey.
A CNN legal analyst said police would have been justified if they shot her as she was threatening them with her car, but unconfirmed reports suggested she was shot while getting out of her car.
A CNN law-enforcement analyst said the police had no choice but to shoot.
“You don’t know if she has a bomb,” he said. “You don’t know if it’s a terrorist attack. The officers just don’t know.
So, did she have to die? That information is still hard to come by.
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth