George Magazine

December, 1997


Fifteen years ago, one of our nation's most enduring symbols was under siege. The police moved everyone back to a safe distance, but reporter Steven Komarow dared to enter to talk with the bomber. Now he recounts those excruciating ten hours

For a long time, I couldn't throw away my ugly green down jacket even though it made me look like the Michelin Man. It's what I wore the day the Washington Monument seemed in danger of being decimated by a mad bomber.

I woke that morning, December 8, 1982, a little weak from a stomach flu and called my boss at the Associated Press to tell him I was running late. "Swing by and check out something at the monument," he told me.

For three years, I'd been AP's only full time D.C. reporter, so it didn't take long, once I got to the scene, to spot a familiar face who could get me into the temporary police command post. I learned that a wacko in a dark blue jumpsuit and full-face motorcycle helmet had driven a white-panel truck up the path to the monument doorway The truck was full of dynamite, the man claimed. There was no reason to doubt him.

The police said they needed someone to act as liaison with the terrorist, to talk to him about the hostages he was holding in the tower. He had requested a member of the media who had no wife or children. I volunteered. Single and 26, I fit the bill. A Time Magazine guy lied and said he too was single. But it was my relationship with the police forged during years of covering the city, that won me the dubious honor.

A souvenir stand just east of the monument served as our base. There, beside a police sniper, I was briefed by detectives. I felt uncomfortable about entering the arena of participatory journalism: I was getting an exclusive interview, but I was also a spy.

At 12:35 PM., I edged up the hill, waving a white handkerchief. Ten yards from my target, I was ordered by the terrorist to stop and open my coat. Of course, I was unarmed.

With pen and notepad, I took down the words of Norman D. Mayer, who until that day had been just another anti-nuclear protester picketing daily at the White House. Because of the Cold War arms race, the world was heading toward nuclear Armageddon, he said, but the government and news media weren't warning people. He wanted that message out.

What the cops wanted out were the eight people trapped inside the monument.

Mayer agreed, and a U.S. Park Police detective came to fetch them. Mayer was edgy, and I was nervous. It took nearly 25 minutes before they emerged. I remember a woman saying "Thank you" as she filed past.

As this was going on, the authorities sent home tens of thousands of federal employees in nearby offices. Inside the White House, President Reagan was kept away from the south-side windows, for fear of flying glass.

I visited Mayer five times that day under various pretexts aimed at keeping up the dialogue. He was a terrible interview. I tried to get him to relax and chat, but he stuck to his rhetoric of disarmament and Armageddon. I still remember his voice: deep, strong, and resonant. I never saw his face because of his Darth Vader-like helmet, but he had an athletic bearing. I was stunned to learn later that the El Paso, Texas, native was 66 years old.

It was twilight when I spoke to Mayer for the last time, ostensibly to get him to turn on the monument's lights. He was frustrated by the games of the police and tired of me. When I said I'd be back, he replied, "I wouldn't overdo it if I were you. I might have to ask for somebody else." Stomach flu forgotten, I was eating fried chicken in the souvenir stand when the end came.

At the sound of gunfire, I ran outside and found Mayer's truck on its side, wheels spinning. Mayer had tried to drive off, but police snipers, under orders to contain him, shot him four times. It turned out that the truck was empty.

When people ask me about the incident today, as they occasionally do, they have forgotten that Mayer died. But I haven't. Mayer seems less like a terrorist than a Don Quixote. There was nothing sneaky about his protest. He stood before the world for his cause. Compared with Tim McVeigh, who sought to kill the most people and take the least responsibility, Mayer comes out looking almost noble. Even in bluff, he avoided harm to anyone but himself. ED.