I was in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Here’s what I saw during the attack.
“Shots fired in the Capitol! Shots fired in the Capitol! Get down!!”
On Wednesday, Jan. 6, I got up early and went to the gym to work out with my friend, Congressman Jimmy Panetta of California. We had arrived in Washington, D.C., for our swearing-in on Sunday. Unlike in the weeks following past elections, when we could unwind and recharge, we had been working nonstop for weeks on the pandemic, the Covid relief bill, and the transition to a new president and Congress. We traveled often to and from Washington, and the holidays were a blur. I had watched the Georgia U.S. Senate runoff elections late into Wednesday morning. I was tired.
I advised my office staff to work from home because of warnings about possible violence we had received from the Capitol Police. I also decided to stay in my apartment until going to the Capitol to watch the certification debate or wait to be called to vote.
I answered emails, returned calls and kept my eye on updates in the Georgia races. My wife, Helene, had suggested that I keep notes during the day because it was an important time in history. I had done something similar when I first came to Congress, after the 2016 elections. I did not, however, anticipate anything history-making this time. I was wrong.
I did not anticipate anything history-making this time. I was wrong.
At about 12:30 p.m., I was alone on the second floor of the house that I share with some other members of Congress. The doorbell rang, and someone downstairs answered it.
I did not check my phone until around 1 p.m., when I saw a text advising everyone in the house to evacuate. The police had come to the door earlier because they had found a “suspicious device” nearby. No one had realized I was still in the house. Yikes!
I grabbed my jacket and ran outside. Yellow police tape had been wrapped around the building. The suspicious device had been found only a half-block away. Police were everywhere. They would not let me walk the one block to my office in the Cannon House Office Building. It was now about 1:10 p.m.
I covered my congressional pin and headed a different way to my office. When I approached Independence Avenue, I saw that the crowds were growing. I came upon a group of motorcycle bikers and greeted them with a cheery “Good morning, guys.” To my relief, I was greeted back with a friendly “Hi.” I looked across the street to the Capitol and saw the lawn filled with thousands of demonstrators wearing army fatigues, holding signs and waving Trump flags.
I anxiously walked the two blocks to the far side of the Cannon Building only to find it had already been closed to the public and evacuated. Capitol Police vehicles, with flashing lights and sirens, were heading up Independence Avenue toward the Capitol. Oddly, a truck festooned with Trump flags followed the Capitol Police cars. It was around 1:20 p.m. I headed across the block to the Longworth Office Building and was admitted. I then took the Rayburn subway tunnel to get to the Capitol.
Oddly, a truck festooned with Trump flags followed the Capitol Police cars.
At 1:28 p.m., I received a text that the “Capitol Building had been breached.” I still continued on to the House Chamber to watch the certification debate. I took the elevator to the third floor, where I looked out the windows and saw thousands of people. I heard them too. I walked to the other side of the Chamber, and the Capitol Police directed me into the gallery. Notwithstanding the earlier message about the breach, everything seemed normal to me. I texted my family that I was in the Chamber and everything was O.K. I texted my staff and asked them to keep me updated on what they saw on social media and on TV.
After about an hour of debate, I saw House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, escorted off the floor. The debate resumed with Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts in the speaker’s chair. He was shortly interrupted by a member of the Capitol Police, who instructed everyone to get gas masks from under our seats, remove them from their sealed cases and be prepared to put them on. The Capitol had been breached, and tear gas was being sprayed through the halls.
The doors to the Chamber were barricaded. We heard loud banging on those doors. The Chamber floor, filled with almost 100 members of Congress and staff, was being evacuated. At 2:40 p.m., those of us in the gallery were told to leave as well.
I started videotaping to record everything I could. Pop. Pop. Pop. What sounded like gunshots was actually the breaking of the glass panels on the main Chamber doors. One of my colleagues, a former Army ranger, asked me to check that the nearby doors to the gallery were securely locked. (They were.) I saw Capitol Police and a few House members barricading the main Chamber doors where the glass had been shattered. The police on the floor had their guns trained on people looking into the Chamber through the broken glass.
I saw Capitol Police and a few House members barricading the main Chamber doors where the glass had been shattered. The police had their guns trained on people looking in through the broken glass.
I started videotaping again. Three-quarters of the way to our evacuation point, I heard a gunshot, apparently the one that killed the woman trying to break into the Speaker of the House’s lobby. Radios screamed, “Shots fired in the Capitol. Shots fired in the Capitol!” The Capitol Police shouted out, “Get down! Get down!”
For a few minutes we remained trapped in the Chamber. I texted my family to let them know everything was O.K, even though I guess it really wasn’t.
No one was certain whether it was safe to exit the gallery. No one knew whether rioters were waiting outside the doors. There were about 25 of us still in the Chamber. Some were lying on the ground, some were videotaping, another was praying out loud. I am sure we were all worried about what would happen next. At 2:51 p.m., we finally exited the Chamber gallery.
As we started walking, I saw a dozen protesters spread-eagled on the floor, surrounded by Capitol Police with guns. We were led through a labyrinth of stairs and tunnels and brought to a secure location that I am not free to disclose.
I found myself in a small office with my colleague Jamie Raskin, a congressman from Maryland who had last week lost his beloved 25-year-old son, Thomas, to depression and suicide. With him was his daughter, Tabitha, and her sister’s husband, Hank. I watched as Jamie spent so much time comforting them with soft words of encouragement, all the while holding them close. I asked myself how he could possibly be so strong, so steadfast surrounded by chaos, in the midst of such unimaginable grief. I hugged him and offered my imperfect condolences to him and his daughter for his cherished son.
I called Helene. “I’m O.K.” I called my staff, too, and reached out to the dozens of others that were texting and calling with their concerns.
For the next couple of hours, I waited in the secure location, thinking about what had transpired in our precious democracy. Then I made my way back to the Capitol to survey the damage. I will never forget the sick feeling I had upon first seeing the vandalism, destruction, tear gas powder, broken glass and wreckage all around me. Offices were trashed, windows were shattered, furniture was broken and strewn everywhere.
I offered to help clean up and organize other members, but I quickly realized I was in the way and instead, returned to my office.
I was more determined than ever to make certain that my fellow legislators and I would reconvene as quickly as possible. I remember saying to myself: “We must get back into the chambers and certify the election of Joe Biden as president.”
Thankfully, we reassembled at 8 p.m. I stayed for the entire proceedings, greatly relieved that while the foundation of American democracy was shaken, it did not fall.
I was still in the House Chamber when, at exactly 3:41 a.m., Thursday morning, I heard Vice-President Mike Pence read the final tally and say: “The announcement of the state of the vote by the president of the Senate shall be deemed a sufficient declaration of the persons elected president and vice president of the United States.” It was done.
Walking back to my apartment, I rededicated myself to overcoming the extremism and partisanship that has plagued our nation for these years. It is the only way forward.
And I remembered the words of the late Congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor: “The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians and we cannot rest.”
I will not rest.
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