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Johnson Space Center Situation Updates

Aired April 20, 2007 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Thanks very much, guys.
We're watching this developing story unfolding in Houston, Texas, over at NASA, the space center -- the Johnson Space Center. It's an important story given what has happened here in the United States this week.

Police are now looking for someone who apparently has barricaded himself in a building with all sorts of threats being made.

Fredericka Whitfield has been watching this story unfold -- Fred, update our viewers on what we know right now.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Building 44, which happens to be the building were the communications and tracking development lab is located and where it is now on lockdown is where the reports originated. That building on lockdown after reports indicated that witnesses saw a man with a gun in that building there at the Johnson Space Center and, as a result, police have responded.

They have a lockdown underway. We don't know exactly who many employees this is affecting right now, be we are hearing that reports are coming into police from -- employees in other buildings on the grounds are also being told now to stay inside because they're still trying to locate the whereabouts of this alleged gunman.

BLITZER: They...

WHITFIELD: According to one of the spokespersons from...

BLITZER: I was going to say...

WHITFIELD: ... Johnson Space Center, it has also been reported that eyewitnesses say they heard at least one gunshot being fired in Building 44.

But no reports of any injuries at this point right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And this is all unfolding over at the Johnson Space Center.

One of our affiliates, KTRK, has a helicopter pilot flying over. He's narrating what he's seeing right now.

Let's listen in briefly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... push back to 1,000 feet and a mile in compliance with the SWAT situation. She was also relatively close to the building, circling, just probably a quarter mile from the building at about 800 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, were they warning you that that, perhaps, might take place?

I thought you had indicated that earlier.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that is -- that is a fact. Once it officially becomes a SWAT situation, they will notify the pilot and then we will have to talk to Ellington Tower...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... and just abide by what they tell us to do over in the tower over at Ellington Field.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now, this complex, boy, is quite large, of course. And it is -- it is just about the size of Kennedy Space Center over there in -- just off -- near Orlando.

NASA, of course, housing much of its engineering staff here at JSC. And for four decades, it has become, you know, the JSC has really led the nation and the world in -- in continuing exploration of the heavens. And, of course, this is certainly not what JSC, you know, the kind of attention that it seeks. It's also been trying to provide the good positive exploration attention, which it is long seeking after.

And, of course, certainly something like this is not something you want after the Lisa Nowak incident, which took place a number of weeks ago.

So the perimeter of the building still has been circled. And they are watching it very closely.

Tom Cook here, as well.

He's quite familiar with JSC...

TOM COOK: I am, Ray.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... and the operations there. And we've covered this for years. You know, certainly not what JSC wants at this point. But, you know, it's still quite frightening. When you have a situation like this, you have Building 44 locked down and essentially the entire complex locked down, you wonder what kind of person they're looking for inside.

COOK: Frightening any time, Mark.

But in light of the events that have happened in the past week, especially of concern for the people down near the Settener (ph).

Let me give you a wider view and explain exactly what we're talking about. For those people that live in and around this area, very familiar with the Johnson Space Center and where it's located to the southeast of Houston. And, again, I apologize, because I'm not all that familiar with this chromo keyboard behind me.

But, again, this is the City of Houston to the northwest. Oh, you see it here at the top of your screen right there.

To the southeast, here is the NASA community right here, Galveston Bay, if you will. Let's see, there it is, to the east of there.

Now, if I zoom in here, I'll show you exactly where this is located. For those people that are familiar with Space Center Houston, that is the hands-on learning center that thousands of people go to every year. And that is the point from where tours of the mission control center -- most people know about the mission control -- or the space vehicle mockup facility at JSC, those are where the tours originate, at the Johnson -- or at the Space Center Houston, and then go into the Johnson Space Center for those tours of mission control.

There are little busses that take you in there, if you go to the Space Center Houston. And as I zoom in, you'll see that the buses actually go right on this street right here, right past this building.

Now, this is the building we're talking about, as ABC producer Geena Sunseri (ph) explained to us just a few minutes ago.

This is a satellite tower building, I think she described it. But in any case, this is where it's located, right here. You see this is the perimeter of the building here. And the police cars are out in that field surrounding it.

I go to a wider shot once again, you get an idea of where NASA is.

And, again, Art, I can zoom in a couple of times here and show you that NASA Road One is up here at the top of your screen -- excuse me. NASA Road One is right here. On the bottom of your screen, this is Space Center Boulevard.

So those people from around here are very familiar with the location of the Johnson Space Center. But again, that building is right in the middle of the Johnson Space Center complex.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, thank you very much.

Tom Cook giving us a wider perspective of where this building really is, in the center there of the complex. But somewhat rural, in a way. I mean it at least appears that way, of course, but still in the center. There's just a lot of land out there that JSC has.

Cynthia Cisneros, I understand, is on the phone -- Cynthia, can you hear me?



Cynthia, what can you provide, at least from your vantage point, what you were able to see?

CISNEROS: Well, we just now arrived to the JSC campus ourselves and all traffic is being diverted toward the Rocket Park area. That, of course, is that large park in the front of NASA that has the spacecraft in the front as part of a museum. We -- that is where we are being diverted right now. We are not being allowed onto the JSC campus.

But as Tom Brook (ph) was speaking before, Building 44 is more or less in the center of the JSC campus.

We do know that Houston police are on the scene. In fact, they were passing us on the Gulf Freeway as we were heading southbound toward NASA. We saw several units passing us with their lights on -- their sirens on, that is -- speeding toward JSC.

There are several cars that are already here. We've seen an ambulance come in toward the campus. We don't know if that is as a precaution. We cannot -- there is no confirm yet as to if there are any injuries here on the campus or not. And, also, we're -- there is no confirmation on whether or not the person that they are looking for right now -- what type of weapon is involved.

This is all very much an ongoing situation out here. Information -- confirmed information coming to us is happening at a slower pace. One would assume that NASA would want to be sure of all the details before they release them. But this is very much a situation that does have people here on edge. They are taking precaution as people are entering JSC.

But as a footnote, as most of us in the media know, but many -- many in the public may not -- but to enter the NASA complex, you, of course, must show your identification. There is the possibility that your items will be searched. You cannot just walk onto the campus, if you will, without showing some sort of identification. And, also, as an employee, employees would have a badge that they would have to show. And, again, they have the possibility of their items being searched at any time.

So that is something that -- many people are wondering how a weapon, possibly a weapon, brought on campus. That is certainly questions that with a look at right now -- Art.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, Cynthia, we appreciate the report.

A quick question here as you stay online with us.

Have you seen any SWAT members in that area?

CISERNOS: Of course. This situation has been going on since about 1:30 this afternoon, when HPD first received their call. And the Houston SWAT team was called on as a precaution and to get this situation under control.

So they have been here on the campus for well over an hour, two hours, that is. So those vehicles are already in place. That situation is in place right now, as we mentioned, toward the center of the JSC campus, which is where Building 44 is located. We, of course, are on the outskirts of the campus, right off the NASA Road One at Rocket Park. So we do not have that vantage point from the ground -- that is to see those SWAT vehicles, the members of the SWAT team, those highly trained members, as they would be placed on the JSC campus.

You might have a better look at that from upstairs on Sky Eye. But where we are at, we are being kept far back from what is going on and Building 44.


CISNEROS: And, quite frankly, that would be a good thing if there is someone that is, you know, presumably armed. You would also consider them to be dangerous. And, as you know, the other surrounding buildings are being told to shelter in place.

So there's not a lot of traffic from the people that are here moving around. There's not a lot of free moving around here on campus. I can tell you that -- Art.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, Cynthia Cisneros reporting live there from the JSC complex.

We appreciate your report and please get back with us, as well, if there is any developing information.

Just to give you a scene setter now here of what we've been talking about for the past 45 minutes or so, this began about 1:45, just before 2:00, when at Building 44 -- now, Building 44 here houses communications equipment, a tracking development laboratory, as well. It's -- it's administrative offices for a lot of engineers.

All of them have been evacuated. They were evacuated soon after -- or soon -- just before 2:00, when we understand an individual with a gun was inside, a shot was heard, we understand. At least those are the reports.

The building was cleared and we don't know whether the -- the gunman inside has taken anyone hostage. We don't know whether there has anyone who has been injured. But we do know that, at least from the police report, that they have indicated that he is on the second floor and has barricaded himself there on the second floor, a white male, 50 years old, blonde hair, no facial hair, we understand. He's about 5'9." He was wearing a blue gray shirt and blue jeans, as well.

JSC houses about 3,000 employees and it also, interesting here to...

BLITZER: All right, we're going to break away from our affiliate coverage right now. A dramatic story unfolding on the campus of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Police have barricaded a building. They have a report that a gunman is inside. One report saying shot -- at least a shot has been fired, maybe more. The area has been shut down. One of the smaller office buildings on the Johnson Space Center campus near mission control.

No word on the individual, who that individual might be, what sort of motive there might be involved.

But on the phone, joining us now is Karen Permetti, director of public information for the Clear Creek Independent School District.

Karen, where are you right now?

KAREN PERMETTI, DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC INFORMATION FOR CLEAR CREEK ISD: Well, and right now Space Center Intermediate is in lockdown. Space Center Intermediate is adjacent to the NASA property.

BLITZER: And your school district is adjacent to the Johnson Space Center, is that right?

PERMETTI: One of our -- one of our schools in the school district is adjacent to the property, Space Center Intermediate is.

BLITZER: Karen, I want you to hold on for a second. I want to get your eyewitness account of what's going on.

But our own Miles O'Brien is also on the phone right now.

He's got some additional information -- Miles, you're very close to this story. You've been there numerous times.

What do you know?

MILES O'BRIEN, SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I just got off the phone with some people who are on the campus at the command post there, as a matter of fact, one of the public affairs officers there.

And here's what we know.

The alleged gunman in this case is an employee. The employee apparently had some sort of handgun. This happened inside Building 44. And once it became known that this situation was developing, the word came out from NASA administration there for employees on that sprawling campus to shelter in place.

That order has since been rescinded. There remains a lockdown for Building 44, where the situation is developing. But other employees at the Johnson Space Center have been told they are free to go home for now.

So the situation is deemed to be secure and isolated to that Building 44, which is not too far from mission control, as you've been telling people. It's sort of in the center and yet on the periphery of the campus at the Johnson Space Center.

No worried right now as to whether there are any hostages. I'm still trying to -- that's still developing.

But at this point we know there's an employee who's inside there with a handgun. And unclear what the demands or the grievance or the complaint might be. Unclear if there are any hostages.

But at this point, only Building 44 has been sequestered. The remainder of that sprawling campus -- and there's in excess of, I would say, 14,000 to 15,000 employees, contractors and NASA civil servants, have been told they are safe to go home.

BLITZER: Did you get any information, Miles, on whether any shots were fired?

O'BRIEN: We don't know that yet. I've seen a number of reports that there were some shots fired. So I don't know if that's how it began. No indication there were any injuries at this point.

BLITZER: I've been at the Johnson Space Center -- not as many times as you have -- but to get onto that campus, you get some sort of check. You just can't simply -- any random person -- just walk onto the campus, certainly not carrying a weapon.

O'BRIEN: Well, here's the thing at the Johnson Space Center.

First of all, if this was, in fact, an employee, that's a whole different layer of security. But basically an employee, when they arrive at work there, flashes a badge from inside their car and they get waved through onto the campus. It's not as if they're going through metal detectors on a daily basis, particularly if they're employees.

Now, there are certain parts of the compound that are a lot more secure, for instance, mission control is a more secure location than others. But typically an employee driving in in their vehicle would have plenty of opportunity to conceal a weapon and there would be no way to check that.

You and I, when we go in, we go through an extra layer of security and vetting. But typically for most buildings, you don't pass through a metal detector.

BLITZER: This building, Building 44, it's an engineering building. It's described as a communications and tracking development laboratory.

What, if anything, should we draw from that?

O'BRIEN: I don't know if there's much to be drawn from that except that, you know, it's a reminder that what Johnson Space Center is all about. This is the home of the NASA astronauts. It's where all their offices are. And this is the home of the manned space program. It's sort of the capital of the manned space program for NASA. And so there's a lot of work that goes on there related to keeping astronauts in space and safe and communicating with them and designing spacecraft that do just that.

So I don't know that we can draw any other conclusions on that, except to say that apparently this employee worked in that building.

BLITZER: It's one of the smaller office buildings that's on the campus. And as we've been pointing out, not very far away from mission control.

I guess it's fair to say, Miles, that we're all watching this very, very closely given the horrible events that unfolded earlier this week on Monday at Virginia Tech, the campus of that university there.

There's a report now of a man with a weapon barricaded into a second story of this office building, this engineering building, on the campus of the Johnson Space Center.

And so that makes all of us very, very jittery.

O'BRIEN: Well, you know, we're all forgiven, at this point, to be, quite literally, a little bit gun shy, certainly, Wolf.

One thing that the folks at the command post were quick to point out, too, was how quickly they got a notification out to their employees.

NASA is a very -- it's interesting, Wolf, you know, the NASA Johnson Space Center campus was designed specifically to be like a campus because the land was originally owned by Rice University. And, at the time, they thought if they ever -- for whatever reason -- wanted to take it back, they could use it as a college campus. So there is a connection there.

But what you have to remember about people at the Johnson Space Center is they live and breathe and communicate on e-mail. And so it's very easy to communicate with them very quickly and effectively with e-mail, very different from an undergraduate college population.

And so the word -- I've gotten some e-mails in and out and gotten quick responses from employees who are inside there who are fully apprised of what's going on.

BLITZER: Miles, hold on a second.

I want to update you and our viewers on what one of our affiliates, KTRK in Houston, is now reporting. And they're quoting James Hartsfield with NASA as saying that shots were fired in Building 44. At this time, there are no reports of any injuries. Ambulances, though, have been brought to the scene. And according to Houston police on the scene -- this, again, according to our affiliate, KTRK in Houston -- the suspect is described as a white male, 50 to 52 years old, blonde hair, no facial hair, glasses, slim build, 5'9," bluish gray color shirt, gray or blue jeans. They also said he was barricaded on the second floor northwest corner near the stairwell. No word of any motive as of this point.

So, clearly, there's a lot of concern as to what's going on on the campus, Miles, right now.

O'BRIEN: Absolutely. And, Wolf, you know, this is -- NASA has its own contract security force there which would be involved. But, clearly, this is a matter that will involve other authorities, especially trained authorities, people who can deal with negotiations, people who can deal with special weapons and tactics. And it could be one of those scenarios that might not end up being, you know, kind of a long stand-off.

But what is absent from all of those reports and which, to this point should be heartening word at this point, that there is a hostage -- no hostages. And let's hope that that early report bears true.

BLITZER: Certainly we're hoping for that. And we're watching this all very closely.

Miles, I want you to stand by, because still on the phone with us is Karen Permetti, the director of public information for the Clear Creek Independent School District.

Karen, what can you tell us about what you're seeing, what you're hearing?

You're adjacent to where this -- all of this is unfolding.

PERMETTI: Yes. As a precaution, we implemented our lockdown procedure at Space Center Intermediate. And about five minutes ago we just released lockdown, which means that school is resuming as scheduled and students will be dismissed at their regular time, at 4:00 p.m.

BLITZER: And you did that, you went down to this lower level, back to normal, if you will, as a result of what, local law enforcement saying they've got this situation under control at that one building, Building 44, on the campus of the Johnson Space Center?

PERMETTI: Correct.

Well, we work very closely with our policing agencies and, obviously, NASA authorities. And they had called us and let us know that we could give an all clear and that they have the situation under control.

BLITZER: Miles, is there a question that you'd like to ask Karen?

O'BRIEN: Well, yes, Karen.

I'm curious as to how you became aware of all of this.

How did the word get out to you? Was it through local media? Was it a specific call or an e-mail that was sent in your direction?

PERMETTI: A specific phone call was made to Clear Creek ISC to inform us that a possible man had entered the NASA property with a weapon. And so as a precaution, we immediately implemented lockdown at our campus, since we are so close to that property.

O'BRIEN: And I'm curious, do you have a fairly close relationship with NASA and do you drill for scenarios, one way or another?

I mean the possibility of something going awry at NASA might be something you have considered.

PERMETTI: We have an extremely close working relationship with NASA and we do work together quite well. We do practice, as a district, practice our emergency plans routinely with all of the appropriate agencies in our community.

BLITZER: All right, I just want to update our viewers, also.

Houston police, Miles and Karen, they have dispatched a SWAT team to the area, as well, to this specific building. We don't know if that SWAT team has yet arrived.

Karen Permetti, thank you very much for helping us better understand what's happening right next to the Johnson Space Center, the public information director for the Clear Creek Independent Public School System.

A lot of history, Miles, on this campus of the Johnson Space Center. A lot of very good history, some not so good, given the history of the space program over the years.

When you first heard about this, Miles, as someone who's covered this space story so closely over these many years, what went through your mind?

O'BRIEN: Well, of course, I thought of all my friends and acquaintances that I've gotten to know there over the years and was just worried about them personally, to make sure they were out of harm's way.

I've heard from most everybody with whom I have an ongoing relationship that things are pretty well contained there.

But it's -- it is a great and storied place. It's -- if you're interested in the space world, it's -- a lot of amazing and wonderful things go on there. But it is also a place that employs 15,000 people and that is a big operation with a lot of people who have issues that they bring to work, or, perhaps, bring to work in ways that become real negative, like we're seeing now.

BLITZER: And there's been an enormous amount of fear since Monday and the tragic incident at Virginia Tech, of what the experts are calling copycats. You saw that situation unfold after Columbine out in Colorado and there's fear that there could be copycats around the country, something that all law enforcement, all authorities at schools and other campuses around the country are watching very closely.

Let me update our viewers on what we know right now, based on this latest information that we're following right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just a little while ago, Houston police and NASA security responded to the Johnson Space Center after getting a report of a person with a gun in one of the center's office buildings. This coming from a NASA spokesman.

Houston police saying the police also received a report of gunfire inside that building. It's called Building 44. It's near the center of the space complex. It's been evacuated, according to the Space Center spokesman, James Hartsfield. And I'm quoting Hartsfield now as saying this: "It's one of our smaller office buildings on site. I don't have an exact number of the people in that building, but they evacuated the building." Hartsfield said that NASA security rules do not allow -- do not allow weapons on the property.

"The situation remains in progress and beyond that, the details are developing," he said. The school that was in a lockdown adjacent to the Johnson Space Center has about 1,100 students. But as we just heard Karen Permetti, a spokesperson for the Clear Creek Independent School District say they are no longer in that lockdown and school will end on schedule today. They've got an all clear as far as the adjacent school district is concerned.

But at this point, Miles, there is by no means any all clear at this one engineering building on the campus of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. We're watching these aerial photographs. These pictures coming in thanks to our affiliate in Houston, KHOU.

Miles, how big -- give our viewers a sense of how big the Johnson Space Center really is.

O'BRIEN: Well, you're going to stump me on acreage. But it's definitely thousands of acres. Much of it is -- remains unused. As a matter of fact, they have a huge swath of land where they actually have longhorns there, believe it or not.

One -- the criterion when they first selected what was then called the manned spacecraft center, because, at that point, of course, Johnson was the vice president when they selected this site. There were two criteria -- the land had to be plentiful and relatively inexpensive and it had to be fairly near an existing Air Force base. And that was why this location, along with probably a little bit of politics at the time -- to have an important place in Texas was good politically, of course, for the Kennedy administration. And, of course, Vice President Johnson having something to do with that.

In any case, Ellington Air Force being nearby and this land owned by Rice University became the sweet spot and the place where the manned spacecraft center was born. And this all occurring in the early to mid '60s, when this all kind of came together. And, as I say, they built it deliberately like a campus because Rice University, at the time, wasn't certain if they would be taking the property back at some point and would want to use it as a college campus.

And so that's why you had this sprawling facility. And as time has gone on, of course, more and more stay the course have been built, and as the mission has expanded there, and as the astronaut office has grown.

BLITZER: The whole purpose of the Johnson Space Center, it's really the hub, it's really the brains of the entire space program. And it's where everything, all the mission control, all that originates.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Well, certainly for all the piloted missions. Any time you have people involved, that is -- it is the heart and soul. It is the nerve center.

You know, a lot of people would ask, well, why isn't it in Florida, where they launch the rockets?

And that takes me back to that political question and that question of why things are based where they are for, perhaps, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Congress. And that's how it ended up south of Houston at a time when that part of the world was pretty thinly populated, about 25 miles south of the center of Houston.

So it is where missions are coordinated. It is the Houston of "Houston, we have a problem" is mission control right there. And that's just across a parking lot and a street from where all this is unfolding right now.

BLITZER: It's -- and I'm looking at a map, Miles, of the complex. It looks like this Building 44 is almost right in the middle of this campus, not all that close to any of the main entrances, certainly not close to the main entrance that you're very familiar with, off NASA Road and I-45.

You've really got to drive away to get inside the campus to get to this engineering building.

O'BRIEN: Yes, it's -- it is a sprawling campus and you really have to know your way around. And it's easy to get lost amid all those numbers, trying to find your way. It's, you know, that is -- the beauty of having all that space is that they can, you know, build these structures as they need them and continue on. And they certainly have space to expand, should their mission require it.

BLITZER: This is a federal property, if you will. But Houston police and NASA security are deeply involved right now, according to all the reports that we're getting.

When we hear the words NASA security, Houston police, a SWAT team, we can certainly understand. NASA security, what does that mean?

O'BRIEN: Well, like much of NASA -- you know, one of the things about NASA that most people don't fully understand is that the number of actual NASA employees is dwarfed -- dwarfed by the contractor employees. Even the majority of employees there, I'm going to guess, the civilian employees -- which would include the administrators, the high level employees, all the astronauts or civil servants, all of those people would probably number 3,000 to 4,000.

The remainder, probably 10,000, 12,000 in all, are contractors. They work for Boeing or United Space Alliance or Lockheed Martin. And on the list goes. That's just the nature of aerospace. They don't hire them as government employees. It ultimately gives NASA the agency flexibility in dealing with contractions and expansions in its workforce by using a contractor workforce.

And among the contractors are the security force. The security force, while the head of security may or may not be a civilian -- or a civil servant, I should say, a government employee -- the actual people responsible for guarding the perimeter there are contractors. And that's the way NASA operates.

BLITZER: And just to recap at the bottom of the hour for our viewers what we know, Houston police and NASA security, they responded earlier, just about two hours or so ago, an hour-and-a-half or so go, to the Johnson Space Center after getting a report that a person with a gun was inside the building.

We're getting this report from one of our affiliates out there, Miles.

Officials say there were reports that between five to nine shots were fired. No reports of injuries as of now. Authorities say the suspect, the man in this particular case is barricaded in a second floor office, identity not known -- at least it hasn't been disclosed. And there is no indication that there are any hostages or others are barricaded with him inside. We did get a description earlier of the suspect who is inside that building.

But if this report is true, that five to nine shots were fired, that's obviously very, very disturbing.

O'BRIEN: Yes, it is.

You know, as you say, we have no indication there are hostages or injuries at this point, but that is a troubling thing.

And I'm certain that was quite a start -- and, you know, going back to what you were saying about what we have all been enduring collectively this past week or so out of Blacksburg, Virginia, it -- I'm sure there will be some psychologists who will ask questions about whether this is a triggering, if you will excuse that term, a triggering point for people who, psychologically, might have a vent this way. BLITZER: I also want to point out, once again, according to the Houston police on the scene, and this according to our affiliate KTRK, the suspect described as a white male, 50 to 52 years old, blond hair, no facial hair, glasses, slim build, 5'9''-ish, bluish-gray color shirt, gray or blue jeans.

They also -- they also said that he was barricaded on the second floor in the northwest corner of that building.

Kylie Clem is a NASA spokesperson. And Kylie Clem is joining us on the phone.

What can you tell us about this very disturbing situation?


BLITZER: Yes, Kylie, can you hear us?

CLEM: Yes, I can hear you.

BLITZER: Could you give us an update on what we know?

CLEM: Really, as the situation is developing here, the Houston Police Department will have the latest.

What we know is that, of course, that building was evacuated, and other employees were advised to stay inside their buildings.

BLITZER: Do we know, Kylie, if everyone inside that building successfully has been evacuated? In other words, does the gunman in this particular case have hostages?

CLEM: I don't know. Actually, we get the call when security is dispatched. And what they told us was that there was a person identified with a weapon and that building was being evacuated.

So, at that point, that was the extent and the detail we know of what has happened so far.

BLITZER: Do you know anything about this individual, this gunman?

CLEM: No, we don't.

BLITZER: What goes on in the building, Kylie, building 44? Tell us a little bit about this structure.

CLEM: That is a building for some of our engineering personnel. They focus on the communications and tracking systems of our spacecraft. It's not real-time operations, but the engineering of those systems.

BLITZER: Kylie, Miles O'Brien, our space correspondent, is also joining us.

Miles, I'm sure you have some questions you would like to ask Kylie.

O'BRIEN: Kylie, first of all, can you rule out that there were any hostages? Is that definite at this point?

CLEM: I don't have any information either way, Miles.


And, as far as the number of shots fired, have they told you about that?




BLITZER: Can you confirm -- can you confirm, Kylie, that shots were, in fact, fired?

CLEM: Not officially. We haven't been told that from security.


And give us a sense of how you notified employees there. How did that all occur?

CLEM: I know at least an e-mail notification was sent out.

O'BRIEN: What time did that happen?

CLEM: I don't know, honestly -- sorry -- at this point.

BLITZER: The whole incident began around 1:40 Central time; is that right, Kylie?

CLEM: That's correct. That's when we received a call from security dispatch.

BLITZER: So, that would be 2:40 Eastern. It's now approaching 4:40. So, it's about two hours or so that this situation has unfolded. The Houston police, the SWAT team, the NASA security, are they all in place already? Is everyone there?

CLEM: As far as I can tell -- we're watching the helicopter views, as many people are, I'm sure -- that we have seen the police cars on site there.

BLITZER: How long have you worked there at the NASA Johnson Space Center, Kylie? Because I'm trying to get a sense of how extraordinary, how unusual this situation might be.

CLEM: I have worked here almost about 10 years.

BLITZER: And have you ever had an experience like this before?

CLEM: I would say no, not -- not something unique like this.

BLITZER: Miles, do you recall anything like this happening at the Johnson Space Center?

CLEM: Well, you know, it's interesting, because, at the Johnson Space Center, when you -- first of all, the answer is no, Wolf.

But what's interesting about that is how much they drill safety and how much they drill the need to know where you are supposed to go wherever there is an emergency.

O'BRIEN: Kylie, you can address that for a little bit, because there are hazardous materials there. There are concerns that things might require rapid evacuation. Why don't you explain to people how you prepare for emergencies?

CLEM: Sure.

This situation, I guess, could be similar to a fire drill or a fire alarm going off in a building. The whole building would be evacuated. I'm not sure how the employees would have been notified in this case, but they would go a far -- a certain distance away from the building. We all know where our section to go to is outside each of our buildings. So, that's probably what happened in this case.

O'BRIEN: And do we know, have they done an accurate head count of the number of people in that building yet?

CLEM: No. No. But I would say it's one of our smaller buildings. But I don't know for sure.

BLITZER: We are getting...

O'BRIEN: So, we don't know...


BLITZER: Miles, I'm going to interrupt you for a second.

Kylie, one of our affiliates now reporting that, apparently, law enforcement has identified the suspect as a contract worker with a firm that is involved over at NASA.

Talk a little bit, Kylie, about contract workers, the notion of who they are, how many they are, what their roles are at the Johnson Space Center.

CLEM: Oh. Well, really, we work side by side with civil servants and contractors here. It takes many folks to keep the space business going.

And, as far as numbers, here, at the Johnson Space Center, within our on-site area and the Clear Lake area, we have about 15,000 employees, all included. And only about 3,000 of them are civil servants. So, it's quite a big contractor work force that supports the space program. BLITZER: I'm going to read what a former astronaut, Dr. Bill Fisher, is saying about how to get on to the Johnson Space Center. It echoes what Miles O'Brien told us just a little while ago.

Dr. Bill Fisher says, if you are an employee and have the correct badge and the correct sticker on your car, you can generally drive right in. If this were a contractor or a NASA employee, that person would have almost unlimited access to the Space Center once you are through the gate. For someone who is not a NASA employee, they have to go through a number of security checks and they would have to get a special badge.

Kylie, is that about accurate?

CLEM: Well, actually, Wolf, I am not too comfortable talking about what our security measures are here, being a government facility and an operational facility, such as we are. And I couldn't really personally go into a lot of the detail there.

BLITZER: All right. So, that's totally understandable, Kylie.

But, Miles, is there anything you want to add to what Dr. Bill Fisher says?

O'BRIEN: No, I think that's exactly -- I'm not encumbered, the way Kylie is -- that's exactly the way the security operation works there.

If you have a badge, if you have a sticker, you flash it in the windshield as you go through, and you get a wave and a pass and you are on the campus. And that's the way it works there. I mean, with that many people, you can imagine the rush hour in the morning as people are trying to come in. That's the only practical way to get people to work.

BLITZER: Is there any indication, Kylie, that authorities are negotiating or talking to this gunman inside holed up in that building, barricaded on the second floor, building 44 at the Johnson Space Center?

CLEM: Not that I have seen, no.

BLITZER: So -- but, basically, what you are saying is that the situation is unfolding. It's been going on now for about two hours. Authorities are on the scene, including SWAT teams and Houston police, NASA security, and they are doing what they would do in a situation like this.

But, as of right now, Kylie, we don't know if there have been any injuries at all, right?

CLEM: That's right. I don't have that information. It really is still all developing, even two hours after the first report.

BLITZER: Two hours is a long time.

Miles, any other questions you want to ask Kylie before we let her go?

O'BRIEN: Well, Kylie, just a word on -- I know you are around some of your co-workers here. How -- especially in the wake of what's happened at Blacksburg, how are people reacting?

CLEM: Honestly, Miles, I'm sure you know our newsroom here. We're responding to calls and trying to get the information out there. We are focused on the job at hand. Of course, you know...

BLITZER: I think we may have lost Kylie.

Are you still there, Kylie?

CLEM: Hello?

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead. You were making a point.

CLEM: I don't know where you lost me there.

BLITZER: You were saying that you are focused on your job at hand.

CLEM: Yes.

BLITZER: But you were about to say that people, understandably, I assume you were going to say, are nervous?

CLEM: Well, of course, we're concerned about the safety of our employees and our friends and family that work here at NASA.

BLITZER: All right.

We will let you get back to work, Kylie. Thanks very much for helping us. We will check back with you and your colleagues very, very shortly.

Kylie Clem is a spokesperson over at NASA.

And let me spend a moment, Miles, once again, because I'm sure people are continuing to tune in at various points the breaking news that we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM on CNN right now. Let me just update our viewers on what we know.

About two hours or so ago, 1:40 p.m. Central time, 2:40 Eastern, Houston police, NASA security, responded, after getting a report that a person with a gun was barricaded inside one of the buildings on the Johnson Space Center campus -- Houston police saying that the police had received a report of gunfire -- one of our affiliates saying five or six or seven shots were fired. We do not have independent confirmation of that. There is no report, no word yet of any injuries at all.

Building 44 is near the space -- the center of the space complex. It has been evacuated. We just heard that from Kylie Clem, the NASA spokesperson. It's one of the smaller office buildings on the site -- no word on how many people work inside, but NASA security does not allow weapons on the property.

This is still an unfolding drama right now, Miles.


I'm sorry. I missed that last question, Wolf.


BLITZER: I said, this is still very much of an unfolding drama. Two hours into this tense situation over at building 44 at the Johnson Space Center, there's no word it's been resolved.


And I think, you know, one of the key things here is that head count, which I have been having a difficult tough time getting anybody to confirm. I don't think anybody knows for certain if everybody is accounted for. As you can imagine, in the course of any given day, who knows who is in a building at any given moment or went out to get a snack or whatever the case may be?

So, it will take some time to put that together. And the related question is, is there anybody inside there who could be a potential hostage or is a hostage? And that will have a tremendous amount to say about how the SWAT teams and the authorities deal with this situation, and how any sort of negotiation, if there would be one, might be opened up.

BLITZER: The -- one of our affiliates, KHOU, is now reporting this chilling information, Miles.

And let me read it to you as it comes in to THE SITUATION ROOM here at CNN.

A source inside that building has told KHOU that a meeting was under way in a conference room in building 44 when the gunman walked in, pointed a gun at one person, and he ordered everyone else out. This report has not been confirmed by NASA officials.

But you hear those words, Miles, and it sends it sends -- it sends some shivers down your spine.

O'BRIEN: Yes, that's a chilling one. If that proves to be true, that does raise the prospect that there might be somebody, an innocent, in harm's way here. Let's hope that that turns out to be a false lead.

But -- and, you know, Wolf, as we always do -- and I know you do it all the time -- we have to caution our viewers that, in these situations, we -- there are a lot of cul-de-sacs we end up going down, because it's very difficult to get accurate information as it's happening.

BLITZER: It's always true that preliminary information turns out to be misleading, sometimes very, very wrong. But we're watching this story unfold, a dramatic story unfolding on the campus of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

And the story, as we have been pointing out to our viewers, Miles, coming only a few days after the horrible tragedy that unfolded at Virginia Tech, the campus of Virginia Tech, early Monday morning.

Miles, you and I have covered a lot of these stories over the years. And, when we hear law enforcement -- and, immediately after Virginia Tech, they came out, former FBI agents, others who are deeply knowledgeable about these kinds of matters, they immediately came out and expressed fears of copycats.

And I know that is a real fear all across the country right now.


And, you know, as you know, Wolf -- and you have reported on this -- there have been reports of schools that have actually shut their doors because of what happened, not only at Virginia Tech, but also the Columbine anniversary.

And, so, yes, that -- you know, psychologically, a lot of the people who are expert at this will tell you that these events have a way of creating, unfortunately, other events -- and, you know, obviously way too early to say what is on -- in the mind of this employee with a handgun there, but, certainly, that's something that will be looked at.

BLITZER: All right, Miles, I'm going to have you stand by.

And I'm going to keep a picture of what's happening, a live picture from the building 44 at the Johnson Space Center up on our screen, so our viewers can follow that. And we will, of course, get back to this story as we get more information.

But there's other important news that we're following. And I want to just make sure we don't neglect that, even as we watch this drama unfold at the Johnson Space Center. We will get back there shortly.

But, meanwhile, here in Washington, more Republicans now seem angry to show Alberto Gonzales the door over at the Justice Department, CNN is now learning, a fresh GOP anxiety about the attorney general on this, the day after his widely panned Senate testimony.

Let's go straight to our congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

Dana, what are you hearing, not from Democrats so much, but from Republicans, right now?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we're hearing, Wolf, is that the attorney general essentially failed his test, which was to come here to Congress yesterday and restore his credibility. And, in fact, we talked to two influential Republicans today who said they think it may be time for the attorney general to leave.


BASH (voice-over): The third-ranking Republican in the House tells CNN he now thinks it's time for the attorney general to step down.

"I think that they would be well served by fresh leadership," GOP Congressman Adam Putnam told CNN. "He did not distinguish himself in the hearing. There remains a cloud over the department."

In the Senate, an influential conservative on judicial matters said he's wrestling with whether Alberto Gonzales should keep his job. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama tells CNN: "The attorney general should take time this weekend to think about it, ask himself whether he can effectively reconstitute the attorney general's office. And I will be thinking about the same thing," said Sessions. "If he feels like he cannot, then it would be best, for the president and the country, to resign."

Sessions is usually a reliable Bush ally, but he's a former U.S. attorney, who has become increasingly concerned the Justice Department is damaged by the fired prosecutors controversy, and was openly frustrated Thursday when the attorney general couldn't remember if he was at a key November meeting 10 days before the attorneys were fired.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Well, I guess I'm concerned about your recollection, really, because it's not that long ago it was an important issue. And that's troubling to me.

BASH: GOP support for Gonzales is so limited, some Republicans who want him to stay say it's because the alternative, a confirmation hearing for a new attorney general, could be worse.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: If, for some reason, Alberto Gonzales is thrown overboard, it's not going to end the problem that the president has from a political standpoint, a newly emboldened majority, Democrat majority, who is going to continue to conduct investigations and try to gain political advantage the best they can.


BASH: Now, this weekend is going to be very important for Alberto Gonzales' fate. Not only did Senator Jeff Sessions tell us he's going to take the time, look at the transcripts, talk to his staff about whether or not he does think the attorney general should step down.

Other senators, Republicans, who have been critical of the attorney general are as well, like Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, for example. He says he's going to do the exact same thing.

So, just because, Wolf, there isn't a massive drumbeat for the attorney general to step down from Republicans right now doesn't mean it's still not coming.

BLITZER: So, just the bottom line, behind the scenes, Dana, is there a drumbeat among Republicans to encourage the attorney general to step down?

BASH: Well, here's what's going on, Wolf.

There is sort of a hold-your-breath feeling right now. They are essentially trying to maybe, with some of these public statements, nudge him along a little bit, to say, you know, you really have to think about this.

But, in private, what I'm hearing from Republicans is that they didn't think that the attorney general came across as somebody who wanted to fight for his job, especially in this political environment. Many Republicans I have talked to said that he wasn't necessarily combative enough, if you will, with Democrats. He looked a little bit beleaguered.

So, there was a feeling that perhaps, although the public statements from the Justice Department and from the White House is very supportive, that they think perhaps -- perhaps -- by, you know, perhaps next week, maybe even a couple days after that, maybe they won't have to be so loud, that, in private, they are making pretty clear that he doesn't -- he may not be long for this world.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks for that. We will continue to stay on top of this story.

There's another important story we're watching right now. That's in Iraq, and the uproar over the Senate majority leader's statement that the war is lost. Harry Reid is revisiting his comments today, after some Republicans said he's flat wrong.

First, listen to what Senator Reid said yesterday.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: As long as we follow the president's path in Iraq, the war is lost. But there is still a chance to change course. And we must change course.


BLITZER: Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired back at Reid today during his trip to Iraq. Listen to this.


ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I would say that I have a great respect for Senator Reid. And, on this -- on the matter of whether the war is lost, I respectfully disagree.


BLITZER: Today, Senator Reid went to the Senate floor to repeat his comments, but without the controversial words, the war is lost.


REID: I think it's important for me to repeat what I said yesterday afternoon in this chamber.

The longer we continue down the president's path, the further we will be from responsibly ending this war.


BLITZER: Let's go to our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux.

Suzanne, what is President Bush saying about the arguments being made that his plan simply won't work?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president did not address directly Reid's comments today.

But the White House is taking kind of this "I dare you" tone. We heard from the press secretary, deputy press secretary, Dana Perino, who said, well, if Reid is serious about his comments, then why doesn't he have the courage of convictions to basically de-fund this war and then, she said, to face the consequences?

What the White House is counting on and hoping on is that perhaps Democrats will pay some sort of consequences. Perhaps Americans will turn on them for not funding the war.

We heard the president earlier today. He was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And, again, he pleaded for patience from the American people, saying there was some progress that was being made, the surge just two months old, that 50 percent of the decrease in stockpiles, that the murder rate has gone down in half in Baghdad.

And, at the same time, Wolf, he tried to recognize Americans' concerns, but he also dismissed the polls that reflect those concerns.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I go home and look in the mirror in Crawford, Texas, after my time, I will be able to have said, he didn't change his principles to be the popular guy.


MALVEAUX: So, Wolf, obviously, the president talking about the fact that he is taking an unpopular position here, and that he believes it will be, in part, what forms his legacy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, as we're talking about what's happening in Iraq, there's drama unfolding at the Johnson Space Center, Suzanne, as you know. We have been covering it extensively this hour. A gunman is apparently barricaded on the second floor in this building, building 44, on the Johnson Space Center complex. We don't have specific information. There are reports shots were fired.

The president has been informed about what's going on, I take it, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Wolf, we are just getting this information here, a pool report. I want to read it to you off my BlackBerry here. This is from the deputy press secretary, Dana Perino.

We understand that she came back towards the end of the flight aboard the plane to tell journalists the following who are traveling with the president, that Dan Bartlett informed the president during the flight about the situation at the Johnson Space Center, that the White House is in touch with NASA and Fran Townsend, who, of course, in charge of security matters, is the designated official who will keep the White House appraised of what is going on.

So, clearly, the president is aware of the situation that is taking place there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the president, no doubt, Suzanne, as you well know, has a very personal interest in this story, given the fact he's from Texas and a former governor of the state of Texas. So, I assume he's watching this a lot more closely than a lot of other people.

MALVEAUX: Absolutely, Wolf.

And the president is due back here at the White House very shortly. So, we will be working on more details as well.

BLITZER: Suzanne, thanks very much -- Suzanne Malveaux reporting from the White House.

On the campus of Virginia Tech, a new step toward closure today in the mourning process and in the investigation.

Our Brian Todd is joining us once again from Blacksburg, Virginia.

What's happening today, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have some news just in, what appears to be the first public comment of Cho Seung-Hui's family.

We have this from the Associated Press that the family is quoted as saying they -- quote -- "never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence" -- that from the Associated Press. They don't make it quite clear, right -- through that I'm getting, which member of the Cho family said this comment.

But the comment, again, from Cho Seung-Hui's family to the Associated Press, they "never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence." We also know from the medical examiner's office that all the bodies of the dead, including Cho, have been released to their families. The examiner's office declined to say whether Cho's family has actually collected his remains, Wolf. We're getting other details on the investigation as well.

BLITZER: What else do we know about the status of Cho's family here in the United States, Brian?

TODD: Well, Wolf, since Monday, at least, they have been in seclusion. They have gone underground completely.

They have contacted law enforcement. They have been in contact with the FBI, we are told, for law enforcement purposes only. For the most part, they have gone under ground. This comment from them attributed to the Associated Press is the first public comment that we know of since the shootings.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, reporting for us on this Friday over at Virginia Tech.

We're going to be getting back to Brian, more information coming out of Virginia Tech. That's coming up.

But let's get back to the breaking news we're following right now, the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Building 44 there is now surrounded. Local law enforcement, SWAT teams are on the scene, NASA security. A man apparently walked into one building and had a gun. There are reports that shots were fired.

Fredricka Whitfield is monitoring this story for us.

Fred, what else are we picking up right now?

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are hearing from those eyewitness accounts that from one shot to several shots being heard by many witnesses in that building.

We understand that this person who is the alleged gunman is a contractor and may work for the company Jacobs Engineering. And we don't know anything more about him, except that we have gotten a brief description of him, a man in his 50s, a description about what he has been wearing, that he has no facial hair, blond hair, slim build, about 5'9'', et cetera.

And, while nearly the entire campus is on lockdown, there is also a school -- you talked to an administrator earlier -- that is nearby, adjacent to the facility there at the Johnson Space Center, that is also on lockdown. That means that none of the parents are allowed to come by the school and remove any of their children.

NASA is assuring folks that they have accounted for all the student visitors. Anyone who is deemed a tourist at the Johnson Space Center, they have accounted for all of them. They are in a safe place, for any folks who may be worried about their loved ones who may be visiting the Johnson Space Center. But, as it goes right now, building 44, which is known to be the communication and tracking development lab -- this is a place where they do test communication equipment for the space shuttle and for the International Space Center -- that is on lockdown.

We understand that anywhere between one to two police officers or SWAT team members is at the corner of each side of that building to get a close eye on any kind of activity that may be happening on the immediate periphery of that building -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I just want to stress that we don't know for sure whether or not some shots were fired, although there are several reports now saying at least one shot was fired...


BLITZER: ... and maybe four -- maybe more.

But, Fred, we have no information anyone has been injured.

WHITFIELD: That's right. It's still unclear whether anyone has been injured. We only know about those eyewitness accounts of the shots fired.

But, again, police are trying to gather that kind of information, because initial reports from people who worked at the Johnson Space Center have been coming in. Police, as well as NASA security authorities, responded immediately.

And, so, they are still trying to piece together those initial reports. Their primary concern right now is securing the area. And we also understand that this alleged gunman is -- I guess has himself holed up on the second floor of this building.

And, so, they really just want to make sure that they can get to him before anyone is injured.

BLITZER: So, we will stay on top of this story very, very closely.

I think Miles O'Brien is ready to join us once again, Miles O'Brien, our longtime space correspondent, who is very, very familiar with the Johnson Space Center, all things over at that very, very huge complex right in Houston, the Johnson Space Center.

As Miles reported and reminded us earlier, it was established back in 1961 as the Manned Spacecraft Center. In 1973, it was renamed in honor of the late President and Texas native Lyndon Johnson.

Have you had a chance, Miles, to get some more information on what may be happening at the Johnson Space Center?

O'BRIEN: Well, I have talked to a few people since I last spoke with you, Wolf, and confirmed everything we have said thus far, that, you know, initially, shots were fired, and -- at least that's the reports that have trickled down to workers there in the compound. I haven't talked to anybody at the command post. I have had a hard time getting through there.

There are indications that SWAT is -- SWAT teams are moving in on the location where this man is barricaded -- once again, no (INAUDIBLE) confirmation one way or the other as to whether there were or are or any potential hostages inside that building.

And that, obviously, will have a lot to do with how this quickly or slowly this situation resolves itself, if it does.

BLITZER: And we are getting reports that the -- the gunman in this particular case, the suspect, is a contractor who works at the Johnson Space Center.

We have done some checking, Miles. There are about 3,000 employees, NASA employees, who work at the Johnson Space Center. Most of them are engineers and scientists. But get this. There are 12,000 contractors from about 50 companies who work on site or in nearby office buildings or other facilities. And, at any one point, there are about 110 astronauts based at the Johnson Space Center for training.

But you mentioned that huge number, 12,000 contractors. That sounds like a lot of people.

O'BRIEN: Well, yes.

And it's really -- it's kind of a seamless thing, Wolf. That's always the way NASA has operated. And that 4-1 ratio is pretty much across the board at all of the NASA institute -- the NASA locations, particularly the manned space operation.

The Johnson Space Center and the Kennedy Space Center in particular are built this way, primarily because, once you hire civil servants, government employees, it's a lot more difficult to handle the natural ebbs and flows of this business,. As they ramp up and build spacecraft and have a lot of missions, they need more people. And, then, of course, as -- as programs and missions go away, so do the employees.

And, so, that's typically been the way things have worked there, that contractors are hired en masse by NASA. They bid out to build the spacecraft. It was -- years ago, it was Rockwell that built -- was the prime contractor on the space shuttle orbiters themselves. That has led to a couple of iterations to now a group called the United Space Alliance.

But there are many other smaller contractors that are involved there. And that's generally the way they do business. NASA civil servants, government employees in more of the supervisory, overseeing roles, the roles where you have a lot of public contact, are NASA civil servant jobs, like the public affairs


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