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In mid-interview, a "situation" in the Discovery lobby below

Large buildings have their share of floor-clearing incidents: false fire alarms, bogus bomb scares, and the occasional nutter in the lobby.

So, as I interviewed Patricia Kollappallil by phone as she sat in her office on the eighth floor of the Discovery Communications building Wednesday afternoon, neither of us was particularly alarmed when a voice came on the public address system, telling employees not to leave their desks.

"Can you hold on?" She said. She stopped talking, started listening and caught the second half of the announcement. Then she came back on the phone: "They're telling us to stay in our offices. There's a 'situation' in the lobby."

Our talk briefly turned from the topic of the interview -- a local professor and his book on environmentalism -- to the various scenarios that might be playing out below. Downtown Silver Spring is full of colorful characters. Might one of them have wandered into the lobby and commenced ranting?

Should Kollappallil heed the advice? Should she bolt for the stairwell? Or should we simply carry on with the interview, considering the near-certainty that the 'situation' would come to nothing? We talked about the lessons of the Sept. 11 attacks. She had been in Manhattan that day.

She politely resumed answering my questions. We spoke for a few more minutes. Then, the telephone line went dead. Was the glitch at her end or mine? I sent her an e-mail, asking if she was all right.

Her reply came a few minutes later: "Yes. There is supposedly a armed gunman in the lobby. We've been moved to a closet that is locked. We hear noises now someone is going through the building."

After her phone went dead, Kollappallil said, "I walked out of the office to see what was going on, and I found one person who was still there." He told her what was happening.

She went back to her desk. "I got my BlackBerry and my purse. Then I got a message from somebody saying, 'We're in the closet."

Kollappallil's co-workers had gathered in a windowless closet that locks from the inside, a sort of safe room. She joined them.

Later, security escorted everyone out of the building down a back stairwell.

Three hours later, Kollappallil was on her cellphone, working on "getting my team accounted for and back to their homes." Four people report to her. Two were at lunch when the hostage situation began.

The incident didn't particularly remind her of Sept. 11. That experience, however, had taught her a useful lesson. Many of her colleagues were now locked out of the building without cash or keys.

"I knew enough," she said, "to go get my purse."

By Daniel de Vise  |  September 1, 2010; 4:21 PM ET
Categories:  Crime  | Tags: Discovery Channel hostages, Discovery hostage crisis, Silver Spring hostages  
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