DC marks 40th anniversary of the Hanafi siege

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WASHINGTON, DC -- Several people involved in bringing an end to the Hanafi siege in Washington, D.C. took part in a panel discussion at the D.C. Council chambers on Thursday night to mark the 40th anniversary of the event.

"That was quite a day and the next three days were very traumatic," said former assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Touhey, who was the lead prosecutor in the aftermath of the siege.

"It was a sad time and I thought we got it done as cleanly as we could," added Maurice Cullinane, who was the chief of the Metropolitan Police Department at the time.

The Hanafi siege began on March 9, 1977 when a dozen gunmen from the Hanafi Muslim sect, led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, stormed and took control of three buildings in the city and took almost 150 hostages. First, the B'nai Brith headquarters on Rhode Island Ave. NW, then the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Ave. NW, and finally the John A. Wilson building.

"At 2:30, two people came in here, they shot up the place," added Cullinane.

Photos of the aftermath of the siege, were placed around the fifth floor hallway of the Wilson building where the shooting happened and hostages were held.

There were also photos of the three people shot in that hallway: Maurice Williams, a 24-year-old WHUR radio reporter who was killed; Mack Cantrell, a security guard who was shot and died in the hospital of a heart attack; and then council member Marion Barry.

"He was happy, always laughing, trying to teach me things and I appreciated that. You know, I just looked forward to growing up around him," said Williams' younger brother Myron Williams. He said he was 10 when the siege happened and remembered coming home from school to the news. "All I know is I asked my father, 'Is he dead?', and he said, 'Yes.'"

When the shooting began, then Ward 4 council member Arrington Dixon was wrapping up a hearing and he and his staff hid right next to what would become the hostage takers room.

"We were about maybe 20 feet from rooms that they were getting into and there was really only one door that separated them from us." said Dixon.

In the end, the siege lasted 40 hours. Cullinane credited the help of three ambassadors from Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan who helped convince the hostage takers to give up.

"All the bells in the churches rang and people were blowing their horns, but it was a trying time," added Cullinane.

For the final question of the evening, panelists were asked if something like this could happen again in the city. Cullinane said that while vast security improvements have been made since the siege, he wouldn't rule anything out.

"I'm not going to say it's probably, but it's possible," added Cullinane.