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Web posted Sunday, February 29, 2004

photo: feature

Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebron is led away by police officers following her arrest after a shooting attack on Capitol Hill, in this March 1, 1954 black-and-white file photo. While shouting "Free Puerto Rico," a commando group of four, under the leadership of Lebron, opened fire from the visitor's gallery onto the floor of the House of Representatives, wounding five congressmen.
(AP Photo, Files)

No one expected attack on Congress in 1954

WASHINGTON (AP) -- There's a penny-sized bullet hole in the desk used by Republicans when they speak on the floor of the House, a memento of the worst terrorist attack ever on Congress.

On March 1, 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire from the visitors' gallery above the chamber. They sprayed some 30 shots around the hall and wounded five lawmakers, one seriously.

Amazingly, no one was killed even though some 240 members were on the floor at the time of the shooting, which happened 50 years ago Monday. Bullets penetrating the Republican desk barely missed Majority Leader Charles Halleck, R-Ind., who was hit by flying splinters.

It was a stunning act of violence in a body that, despite its openness to the public, had been relatively violence-free in its first century and a half.

There had been isolated incidents of lawmakers assaulting each other. President Andrew Jackson narrowly escaped an assassin outside the Capitol Rotunda in 1835. In 1915, a Harvard professor protesting U.S. policy toward Germany destroyed two Senate rooms with a bomb. A Vietnam War protester set off a bomb in a Senate restroom in 1971.

The first metal detectors at the Capitol did not appear until 1976. It was not until 1998, when a man with a history of mental illness shot and killed two Capitol Police officers, that the need to deal with security threats took on a real sense of urgency.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001, when many believe that the real destination of the fourth hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was the Capitol. Since then, the police force has grown substantially, streets around the Capitol are barricaded and visitors are closely monitored.

For the first time, lawmakers are considering legislation on how to reorganize Congress in the event of a catastrophic attack that would kill or incapacitate hundreds of lawmakers.

The 1954 attack was "extraordinarily unexpected," said Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., who at the time was 16 years old and a House page.

Kanjorski recalled that he thought someone was shooting off firecrackers until one of the shots hit a marble column and he was sprayed with a sandy material. Kanjorski hit the floor. When the shooting ended, he and other pages, included the late Bill Emerson, a future Republican congressman from Missouri, were among the first to respond.

Kanjorski helped carry three wounded lawmakers off the floor and rode in the ambulance with Rep. Alvin Bentley, R-Mich., who was hit in the chest and was given only a 50-50 chance of surviving.

One lawmaker used his tie as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding of a colleague shot in the leg. Navy veteran James Van Zandt, a Pennsylvania Republican, ran up stairs and helped capture one of the four assailants.

The attackers were led by Lolita Lebron, a 34-year-old nationalist angered by Puerto Rico's new commonwealth status with the United States. Shouting "Vive Puerto Rico Libre" -- long live free Puerto Rico -- she unfurled a Puerto Rican flag and joined her comrades in firing off shots with Lugers and automatic pistols.

In a profile of Lebron, The Washington Post Magazine said she is now a deeply religious person but remains unrepentant about the 1954 attack. One of two surviving members of her group, she continues to enjoy prominence among Puerto Rican nationalists.

President Carter freed the Puerto Ricans in 1979 after they had served 25 years in prison. Although the Carter White House denied any connection, their release coincided with Fidel Castro's release of several Americans being held in Cuba on espionage charges.

Kanjorski said that after the attack the House considered erecting bulletproof glass around the visitors' gallery overlooking the chamber. A believer in openness, he said he is glad that did not happen.