WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Peter Plocki, on furlough from his job at the Department of Transportation while the U.S. government is shut down, packed a lunch on Thursday and intended to spend time picnicking near the Capitol and visiting the Supreme Court.
Instead, Plocki witnessed the tail end of a high-speed car chase that terrified tourists and members of Congress as shots rang out across the Capitol lawn. At the end, a woman was killed and a 1-year-old child rescued from the car by Capitol Police, who helped transport an injured officer to a local hospital.
"It was like boom, boom, boom, something like that," Plocki, a 55-year-old resident of Silver Spring, Maryland, told Reuters later, still holding his bagged lunch. "Shaken is a good way to describe how I feel right now."
The incident, which played out like an action movie scene with swerving cars and squealing tires, capped a week in which tensions have mounted in Washington. The federal government shut down on Tuesday, leaving up to 1 million employees on furlough.
Attention has focused on the deadlocked action inside the U.S. Capitol, where lawmakers allowed funding to run out and seem nowhere near a compromise.
But the shutdown has left throngs of government workers with little to do except sit at home or jump onto the Metro to play tourist. That is what brought Plocki and many others to the Capitol grounds.
According to Capitol police, a woman driving a black car rammed into a barricade at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, an area that was blocked to traffic in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Police gave chase, following her down heavily traveled Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol.
Frank Swing, 57, a furloughed employee of the Department of Commerce who lives near the Capitol, said he was at the base of the Capitol steps, chatting with a security guard, when he saw a black car stopped by police about 50 feet away.
Police surrounded the car, weapons drawn, before it abruptly took off, veering toward Constitution Avenue, videos of the incident showed.
"The sedan slammed in reverse, backed up and smashed into one of the cruisers and did a 180, and took off around the south side of the Capitol," Swing said.
Swing hit the ground. Then came the gunshots.
Inside the Capitol and the surrounding buildings that house Senate and House of Representatives offices, lawmakers and their staffs went on lockdown. Outside, some members reported taking cover, while tourists ran frantically.
Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine told reporters the injured officer was "going to be fine," and the child was taken to the hospital.
Back at work after the chaos ended, members of the House gave two standing ovations for the heroic actions of Congress's special police force. Several lawmakers pointed out that while safety personnel are working during the government shutdown, Capitol police are not being paid.
(Reporting by Emily Stephenson and Margaret Chadbourn; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Jim Loney)