Last Friday night, a man named Omar Gonzalez leapt the north fence and made a 70-yard dash for the White House. Secret Service snipers didn’t shoot him because he didn’t seem to be armed (he did have a small knife) and because “he seemed to be mentally disturbed.” The man actually made it into the White House before being apprehended.
The next day, another guy tried to drive through a security checkpoint and right up to the White House. Though he didn’t get very far, bomb technicians were called in to make sure he wasn’t planning on blowing anything up. While ostensibly a fortress and one of the most heavily defended buildings in the world, the White House gets a lot of visitors who aren’t exactly on State Dinner guest lists. Here are a few other famous White House security breaches.
1. That guy who stole a helicopter and flew it to the White House
In 1974, an army private named Robert Preston stole a helicopter from Ft. Meade, MD. He then went on his very own tour of D.C., buzzing the South Capitol Street Bridge, zipping along the Washington-Baltimore parkway in lights-out conditions, and making a stop at the Washington Monument, where he went into a hover at seven feet. From there, it was a quick stop to the White House, where he hovered for a few minutes before zipping away. This time, State Police helicopters razzed him, but he wasn’t having any of it. He maneuvered his helicopter so as to force the police to land, and then returned to the White House, where he hovered at three feet over the South Lawn before Secret Service agents started shooting at him. At that point he went ahead and landed and surrendered.
So what was his motivation? He had just failed out of flight school and wanted to show the world that he was a good pilot.
2. How to live out a Tom Clancy nightmare
This 1994 incident could have ended in national tragedy. Frank Corder, a former soldier, truck driver, and drug dealer, had just lost his wife to cancer, and he decided to take his own life. Fueled by a dream and copious amounts of alcohol, he stole a small Cessna aircraft (eerily enough, on September 11) and flew it to the White House, into which he intended to crash. (Specifically, he targeted the president’s bedroom, and almost hit it.) He miscalculated, however, coming in a little too low, and was thwarted by Andrew Jackson. That is, the branches of a tree Jackson planted. The plane ended up cratering just outside the residence, killing Corder.
The Clintons were sleeping at Blair House that night, as the White House was undergoing updates to the ventilation system.
3. The guy who kept coming back
In 1974, Gerald Gainous was a man on a mission: to get inside the White House and have a nice chat with the president about pardoning his (i.e. Gainous’s) father, a drug smuggler convicted of trying to import $10 million in heroin from Thailand. One year earlier, the elder Gainous lost an appeal to the 10th Circuit Court to have his conviction thrown out, and his son wasn’t going to take that lying down. On the night before Thanksgiving, Gainous, Jr., dressed in all black and carrying a briefcase, leapt the White House fence. He made a mad dash for the president’s mansion—and made it! In fact, parked just outside the White House was Susan Ford, the president’s 18-year-old daughter. She was unloading items from her car. Gainous came within five feet of her.
Gainous wandered around the White House grounds for two hours. Eventually he was caught, questioned, and released of his own recognizance. Everyone, it seems, dodged a bullet in that case.
So imagine everyone’s surprise when ten days later when he did it again. Did he learn his lesson? No. The following year he jumped the White House fence twice more. By the fourth attempt, the Secret Service was literally waiting for him on the other side of the fence. According to one press account of the fourth break-in attempt: “[Secret Service spokesman Jack] Warner said guards knew Gainous from his previous attempts. ‘We saw him in front of the White House, recognized him, and monitored his activities,’ he added... ‘When he landed on the ground there was an officer there.’”
4. The time the White House was burned to the ground
When it comes to unwelcome visitors at the White House, the British Army probably ranks at the top of the list. There were several reasons for the War of 1812—to protect U.S. ships and sailors abroad from capture by the British; to stop the British from organizing a sovereign country for American Indians in the northwest; and because everyone involved was still pretty angry about the American Revolutionary War. (The British for obvious reasons, and the Americans because the British just wouldn’t get over it.) There were other reasons, but the upshot here is that once Napoleon was defeated in Europe, the British suddenly had a lot of battle-hardened troops available for a rumble across the pond.
When British forces entered Washington D.C. with torches lit, it became pretty clear that things weren’t going to end well. First they tried to burn down the Capitol Building, because everybody hates Congress. The problem was that the building was made of rock and wouldn’t catch on fire. You know what would catch on fire, though? The Library of Congress. (Thomas Jefferson would later provide his personal library to reestablish the library in Washington.) The British then moved on to the White House, where they ginned up a mighty inferno and kept tossing in wood to keep the blaze going overnight. The Treasury? Ashes. By then the Americans got into the act, setting the Washington Navy Yard on fire to keep the British from stealing weapons, powder, and ammunition. Eventually the war ended and Washington rebuilt.