Biden's inauguration rehearsal got evacuated after fire alarm near U.S Capitol

The U.S Capitol briefly locked down on Monday, and the President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration rehearsal evacuated after a fire alarm in a homeless encampment roughly a mile away sent a plume of smoke into the air and caused security concerns.
January 20, 2021 | 10:06
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The U.S. Capitol complex temporarily locked down Monday during a rehearsal for President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration after a fire in a homeless encampment roughly a mile away sent a plume of smoke into the air and caused security concerns in an already jittery city.

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Members of a military band evacuate the U.S. Capitol on Monday during a rehearsal for Joe Biden's inauguration. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

The false alarm briefly interrupted the rehearsal for Wednesday's inauguration ceremony, a quadrennial exercise in which stand-ins take the roles of Biden and other VIPs and the U.S. Marine Corps Band goes through its paces, including practicing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Wednesday’s performance by Lady Gaga. Rehearsal resumed not long afterward, accompanied by frequent passes by a helicopter patrolling the skies over the Capitol.

According to NY Daily News, the cause of the fire was not immediately known, but security officers lifted the lockdown before noon, allowing the rehearsal to resume. The U.S. Secret Service, which is leading security operations for Biden’s Wednesday inauguration, said it ordered the fire-related evacuation “out of an abundance of caution.”

“There is no threat to the public,” the agency said in a statement.

Law enforcement officials said there was no threat to the public and the fire was not believed to be a threat to the inauguration. Local firefighters put out the blaze quickly. The evacuation of some participants and the lockdown were ordered by the acting chief of Capitol Police in an abundance of caution, officials said.

But the fast decision to lock down underscores the fear that has gripped Washington since the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters and prompted extraordinary measures ahead of the inauguration. Armed protests planned for this past weekend around the country were mostly a bust, but anxiety is still skyrocketing.

Neither Biden nor Vice President-elect Kamala Harris were at the Capitol when the fire erupted.

Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, were in Philadelphia marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day by volunteering at the headquarters for a hunger relief organization in the city.

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A view of the inauguration rehearsal outside the Capitol, Washington, D.C, U.S, January 18, 2021. /CFP

Wearing black face masks, the Bidens helped pack cans of food into boxes on a conveyor belt. Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, spent the day volunteering at another food relief organization in Washington.

“Today in America, one in six families is describing their household as being hungry,” Harris told reporters at the event. “One in five is describing an inability to pay rent, one in three is describing an inability to pay their bills. So, we are here today as part of what we collectively all of us who are volunteering see as our responsibility as part of Dr. King’s legacy. And we’re here to renew the commitment that we have to service and to serve others, especially those in need.”

U.S. Secret Service tightened security in and around the Capitol a week early in preparation, and the city center is essentially on lockdown with streets blocked, high fencing installed and tens of thousands of National Guard and other law enforcement officers stationed around the area, ABC News reported.

But U.S. defense officials, worried about a potential insider attack or other threat from service members involved in securing the event, pushed the FBI to vet all of the 25,000 National Guard troops coming into the area. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said in a statement Monday that vetting of National Guard troops continues and that the Pentagon has found no intelligence so far that would indicate an insider threat.

Meantime, the National Mall, usually a place for supporters of the new president to gather during the inauguration, has been completely sealed off at least through Thursday, and security personnel erected large steel barriers around Capitol Hill over the weekend, making Washington look like a city at war.

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191,500 U.S flags have seen covering part of the National Mall to represent the American people who are unable to travel to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration, January 18, 2021. /CFP
President Trump, who has refused to apologize or take responsibility for instigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, stayed out of public sight Monday and did not offer a statement on the federal holiday. The first time a sitting president has not attended since Andrew Johnson, though Vice President Mike Pence will be there as well as other former presidents.

Capitol police spokeswoman Eva Malecki said there were currently no fires on or within the campus. “Members and staff were advised to shelter in place while the incident is being investigated,” she said in a statement.

Firefighters were called to the homeless encampment shortly before 10:15 a.m., where a woman who lived there had a portable heater with a flammable gas tank, fire department spokesman Vito Maggiolo said. The woman, who was injured but declined medical treatment, told firefighters that the flames spread quickly and her possessions were burned. The fire was extinguished almost immediately after firefighters arrived.

Participants were ushered from the West Front of the Capitol. Those who had gathered for a walk-through, including a military band, were directed to head indoors and moved in the direction of a secure location inside the Capitol complex.

People involved in the rehearsal said security officials yelled “this is not a drill.”

The lockdown was lifted about an hour later.

Five people died in the Jan. 6 riot, including a police officer.

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