Sixty-five years ago, four members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party opened fire on the House Chamber from the visitors’ gallery, wounding five Members, and causing mayhem across the Capitol. Their violent surprise attack on Congress sought to draw attention to the political status of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory and to their larger call for Puerto Rican independence.
Once the gunshots stopped, the House turned chaotic as police, Members, and onlookers frantically sought to apprehend the assailants. In the midst of the terror, others on the floor responded by assisting those wounded in the attack. Photographs snapped in the aftermath captured these efforts, including an iconic image of three young House Pages carrying a wounded Member down the steps of the Capitol. Perhaps more than any other image, that photo came to embody both the violence and the solemnity of the day.
On March 1, 1954, Bill Goodwin, Bill Emerson, and Paul Kanjorski—teenage Pages who ran errands, took messages, and helped Members of Congress with their everyday work—reported to their posts in the House Chamber for what began as a routine legislative session. At 2:30 in the afternoon, however, that normalcy gave way to terror as gunshots rang out from the galleries above the floor. After the shooting ceased and the shock wore off, the Pages sprang into action to help the five Members who had been hit by the spray of bullets.
Years later, Goodwin, Emerson, and Kanjorski, as well as other eyewitnesses interviewed about the event, expressed dismay that the House could be a target of political terrorists. Emerson and Kanjorski, who both returned to the U.S. House as Members, recalled how the Pages took the lead in assisting the injured. “A group of maybe a half dozen of us really started getting the people put in the stretchers, identifying who they were, and by the time that the ambulances arrived, we were taking them out,” Kanjorski explained. Emerson remembered the difficulty House staff had convincing emergency dispatchers that Congress had been attacked. “They only sent drivers with the ambulances, no stretcher bearers or anything,” he recalled on the 40th anniversary of the shooting.
With no trained emergency technicians to bring wounded Members to the waiting ambulances, Emerson, Kanjorski, and Goodwin carried the injured Representatives out of the chamber on stretchers and into a throng of photographers who had gathered outside to document the breaking news. An untold number of images were taken that day, but one photo of the three Pages carrying Representative Kenneth Roberts of Alabama down the Capitol steps captured the shock and aftermath of the violence like few other pictures from that day.
More than 50 years after the attack, Bill Goodwin described the now-iconic image of the three of them trying to clear a way through the crowd: “And I remember Bill Emerson—in fact, in that famous photo there, that’s what Bill’s doing there. He’s got his mouth wide open, and he’s pointing, and he’s yelling at the photographer, ‘No photos!’ ”
On the 35th and 40th anniversaries of the shooting, Representatives Emerson and Kanjorski shared their memories of the attack, as well as of the acclaimed photograph. In both cases the Congressmen brought a copy of the image to the House Floor as a visual reminder of the day’s horror. In the picture, which Kanjorski noted LIFE magazine pronounced the “Photo of the Year,” Goodwin (on the left) shouldered most of the weight of the stretcher—a fact, he said, Emerson routinely pointed out when discussing the image. “ ‘Leave it up to Bill to carry the full load.’ And Bill Emerson, he was talking about me. See, I got both my arms on it, I was carrying most of the load of it.”
Behind Emerson, Kanjorski (on the right wearing glasses) looked calm but stunned. Behind Kanjorski was Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio who was not holding the stretcher but who had clearly been caught in the confusion of the day.
The work of the Pages continued long after the photographer captured them helping save lives. Emerson and Kanjorski both recalled how their efforts extended beyond the Capitol. Emerson remembered riding with injured Congressmen to a local hospital, which Kanjorski confirmed. “My best recollection is that you and I carried three of the five Members down, but we did get in an ambulance with two,” Kanjorski remarked to Emerson in 1994.
More than three decades after the shooting, Paul Kanjorski hung a framed copy of the 1954 photo in his congressional office. And 65 years after the attack, the image is still displayed in the Democratic and Republican Cloakrooms. The raw emotion, cooperative spirit, and resolve depicted in the photograph endure, and hold a unique place in an institution that continues to evolve and change.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 101st Cong., 1st sess. (1 March 1989): 3079–3080; Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong., 2nd sess. (1 March 1994): 3318–3319, 3327–3328; Bill Goodwin Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 2 November 2009; The Honorable Paul Kanjorski Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 26 October 2011; New York Times, 2 March 1954; Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA), 28 July 1998; Roll Call, 26 January 2004; Washington Post, 22 February 2004.Follow @USHouseHistory