Reporter’s notebook: Surviving the Capitol lockdown
WASHINGTON—My first indication that something was really wrong came when an aide passed through the press gallery and told me to make sure I had everything I needed at my side and ready for a lockdown. Perhaps for hours.
I had arrived at my reserved seat in the upper balcony of the U.S. House of Representatives chamber in the U.S. Capitol earlier on Wednesday, ready to cover the political machinations of Congress debating and certifying the Electoral College votes. The chamber does not allow bags or backpacks, so when the aide gave the warning, I scurried to grab my phone and laptop charger from the press room, then settled back in my seat.
A few minutes later, Capitol Police officers began running to every door in the House chamber. They shuttered the glass doors with heavy wooden doors. About 100 lawmakers were on the House floor, with another 25 or so in the upstairs gallery.
As a babble of questions broke out, a police officer began to brief legislators on the situation: Protesters had “breached” the Capitol building and had gotten as close as the rotunda. Later, we would learn that police in the rotunda had fired tear gas.
The officer told lawmakers to ready themselves to crouch beneath their seats but also be prepared to evacuate if necessary. Another burst of frightened chatter broke out, and one representative yelled from the upstairs gallery that someone should call the president and ask him to tell protesters to stand down.
After minutes of confusion, the officer told lawmakers to grab gas masks secured under their seats.
At this point, press aides began running around and handing everyone in the upstairs gallery CBRN escape hoods—essentially gas masks that pull over your head to your shoulders.
I ripped the heavy grey packaging off mine but kept my eye on the situation on the floor. Soon, everyone could hear banging on the doors of the chamber. As the noise grew outside, the chaplain for the day began praying aloud.
One lawmaker, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., told members how to operate their gas masks.
Capitol Police began to evacuate members through a side door. Upstairs, press aides told photographers to stop taking photos. Some snapped away anyway. Then police told the upstairs gallery to evacuate. I grabbed my laptop, chargers, gas hood, and my reporter's notebook. Almost as soon as I started to move toward the door, which was halfway across the room, police changed their directions. “Get down!” someone yelled from behind me.
I crouched down behind the seats. There were maybe three reporters behind me, and the rest in a crowd ahead of me. I heard a bang and thought someone had shot into the chamber. My heart was pounding. My hands, clutching my gear and an uninflated gas hood, started to shake. I peered around the edge of the chairs I was hiding behind. I had the morbid thought that maybe someone would shoot if they saw exposed faces, but I wanted to see what was happening.
I could see that a small group of lawmakers and Capitol Police with drawn guns had barricaded the door with a piece of furniture. Above the furniture, protesters had broken holes in the glass of the door.
I heard the sound of several other pops and could smell smoke. Another reporter said he heard an officer say, “Shots fired,” though I did not hear that directly.
Police and lawmakers tried to talk to the protesters through the glass. “This is un-American!” someone yelled. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. … This is not the way to do it.”
The commotion continued downstairs, but the gallery was told to continue the evacuation. “We can’t leave until you leave,” one exasperated aide told us. To get out, I had to duck below several banisters because I was too short to hop over.
Aides led us through the Capitol’s maze of basement tunnels to an undisclosed location in the nearby Longworth House Office Building. On the way, I stuffed my reporter’s notebook into my right boot. The time was 2:57 p.m. Once I got to the room, I placed my unused escape hood on a table near the door. As quiet fell, one aide cried quietly while another comforted her. Around the room, a few staffers began to pass out water bottles.
Security initially told reporters we couldn’t be in the room, then said instead that if we tweeted about our location, our phones would be taken.
Right in front of me, Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff of California and Joe Neguse of Colorado huddled, discussing the situation quietly enough not to be heard. About an hour later, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., told the room that members planned to carry on with certification. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle clapped and cheered.
Security forces still wouldn’t secure the Capitol for several hours.
In the interim, COVID-19 social distancing protocols fell by the wayside as the room filled. Staff rubbed shoulders with lawmakers from both parties.
I tweeted everything (except our location) and monitored texts throughout the afternoon from Hill staffers who had to evacuate their offices, White House staffers who said security forces were on their way, and concerned friends and family members watching the news and wondering if we were okay.
At about 5:30 p.m., the sergeant-at-arms said law enforcement had secured the building. It wasn’t until after 7 p.m. that Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican in the House, told the room that members hoped to get back to the chamber within the next hour.
Shortly after 8 p.m.—with press members back at their stations—both chambers of Congress gaveled back into session.
In a statement to senators, Vice President Mike Pence called on lawmakers to “get back to work,” and addressed protesters: “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the people’s house.”