WASHINGTON — A morning of remembrance turned into one of flashbacks, fear and media missteps Friday when a Coast Guard exercise – unfolding near Pentagon ceremonies marking the Sept. 11, 2001, anniversary – was mistaken as an attack. The false reports of gunfire on the river briefly spooked the capital, sending FBI agents to the scene and grounding flights.
The episode left the Coast Guard promising to "take a good hard look at what we did here today" and military families sore that officials would simulate a confrontation on the Potomac River on a day of raw emotions and high security.
But the exercise, involving speeding boats and at least one helicopter, probably would have passed unnoticed except that two TV networks confused simulated chatter over a Coast Guard radio for actual events and reported that the Coast Guard had opened fire on a suspicious vessel near ceremonies attended by President Barack Obama.
A chain of errors on television and online raised fears the capital might be under assault eight years to the day – almost the moment – after the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. CNN reported 10 shots had been fired, based on information it heard over the network's police scanner.
On Twitter, the network reported: "Coast Guard confronts boat as Obama visits Pentagon, police scanner reports say shots fired."
After the Reuters news agency reported on what CNN was saying, Fox News followed suit, telling viewers: "Here is what we are learning. The U.S. Coast Guard ship of some type fired on what is considered a suspicious boat in the Potomac River."
Anchor Bill Hemmer said: "I can't recall a time or moment like this, on an American river, where the Coast Guard has opened fire."
In fact, no shots were fired and there was no trouble on the river.
The Coast Guard's chief of staff, John Currier, said participants in the exercise were given simulated instructions by radio to fire 10 rounds, and someone said "bang, bang, bang," – the routine signal of compliance in drills that don't involve live fire.
Unaware that it was an exercise, CNN opened its reporting on the incident by saying at least one boat was intruding in a security zone on the river and the Coast Guard was chasing it. As the network showed pictures of the river, a banner read: "Breaking News: Coast Guard fires 10 rounds at boat on Potomac River."
"This is pretty incredible," said the anchor, Heidi Collins. CNN played audio from the scanner, with a man saying: "Stop your vessel. ... You will be fired on."
Even the Coast Guard was confused about what the Coast Guard was doing.
After the erroneous reports surfaced and flights were grounded, at 10:12 a.m., the Coast Guard ordered one of its helicopters based at Reagan National Airport scrambled to fly over the river to investigate the reports of shots on the Potomac, Coast Guard spokesman Ron LaBrec said.
The exercise played out on the stretch of the Potomac closest to the Pentagon – between the 14th Street and Memorial bridges – as Obama joined families of the victims in remembrance of the attack that killed 184 people when hijacked American Flight 77 plowed into the building.
The Coast Guard began the drill at 9:30 a.m., five minutes after Obama arrived at the Pentagon for ceremonies keyed to 9:37 a.m. – the time of the 9/11 attack. Other agencies were not widely notified of the drill because the Coast Guard considered the exercise routine.
Currier said no apology was necessary for conducting a routine drill. Still, he said, "we're going to take a good hard look at what we did here today and ensure that if we need to modify procedures, if we need to modify notification, we will do so in the future."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asked the Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Thad Allen, "for a full account of what happened," said Sara Kuban, speaking for the secretary.
A group for military families expressed outrage over the timing and setting of the exercise.
"Absolutely inexcusable," Military Families United said in a statement. "September 11th is a day to remember the loss of 2,973 innocent victims in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon; not a day to create an unnecessary panic near a terrorist's target."
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs defended the Coast Guard's decision to train in the Potomac on the Sept. 11 anniversary.
"I tend not to question law enforcement in keeping the nation's capital safe," he said. "If they feel they need a training exercise, best not to second-guess."
As for the errors of the networks, he said: "Before we report things like this, checking would be good."
CNN said in a statement hours later that it called the Coast Guard twice and was told "its National Command Center and other command posts knew nothing about any activity in the area." But CNN said "it would have been irresponsible not to report on what we were hearing and seeing."
The Associated Press reported that the Coast Guard was conducting a drill in the area and quoted Coast Guard Chief Keith Moore as saying no shots were fired.
Departures from Reagan National, which is also along the Potomac, were halted for about 20 minutes, delaying 17 flights until the confusion cleared.
Associated Press writers Devlin Barrett and Joan Lowy contributed to this report.