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What I saw inside the House chamber as the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol closed in

An Inquirer reporter knew it would be a divisive day, but felt privileged to watch a historic debate. He ended up as a witness to carnage, fear, and fury.

Security officers point weapons at a House chamber door as a mob of rioters storms the Capitol on Wednesday.
Security officers point weapons at a House chamber door as a mob of rioters storms the Capitol on Wednesday.Read moreBill O'Leary / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Almost any reporter who works at the U.S. Capitol will tell you there’s an excitement and reverence when you enter the building, even after years of doing it.

You walk over the tile floors, through the Rotunda, past the Senate and House chambers, and you sense the history that has unfolded there. You feel lucky to have a chance to bear witness to more of it. Because of the pandemic and my 2020 election coverage, I hadn’t been there in months, but that familiar feeling hit me again when I returned Wednesday around 10 a.m.

I knew it would be a divisive day, and a very long one (I packed lunch, dinner, and snacks). But I felt privileged to watch what I knew would be a historic and important debate and vote, and bring that scene and information to our readers.

Instead, I ended up describing carnage and fear from inside the House chamber, on Twitter to the world, and in brief texts to my wife.

I entered the House press gallery a little before 1 p.m., where the staff gave me a red tag with the number 6 on it, my assigned seat for the day.

If you’ve ever watched a State of the Union address, I was sitting above and to the right of where the president would appear if you’re facing your TV. Sitting with my laptop and phone, I focused on the floor procedures, knowing that eventually Pennsylvania was one of the few states whose election results would face objections.

But I started seeing tweets about the mob outside fighting police, and entering the Capitol. I started getting texts from my wife, seeing the same scenes on TV. I couldn’t see or hear them (yet) from inside the chamber.

“I’ve never been worried about my safety here before,” I texted her back.

Soon after, I saw security personnel rush onto the House floor and whisk away Steny Hoyer, the House’s second-ranking Democrat. Below (I couldn’t see from my seat) they also took House Speaker Nancy Pelosi out of the room. Press staff for the House told us we may soon be locked inside, so to make sure we had anything we needed with us. There are tall doors all around the House chamber, and police started closing and locking them.

An officer went to the rostrum and announced that there had been a breach of the Capitol, and that the House and Senate were in lockdown. They said the rioters had made it as far as the Rotunda, a short and normally beautiful walk to the House chamber. It’s a place I’ve gone often for a moment of quiet, or thought.

Debate resumed for a couple of minutes and then quickly stopped again.

“Be prepared to get down in your chairs,” the same officer warned.

They told us they had fired tear gas in the Rotunda.

The police told lawmakers to reach under their chairs and pull out “escape hoods,” huge masks and head coverings that protect from chemical irritants. Over the years I had seen the duffel bags that contain those hoods on shelves in the Capitol but had never seen them deployed. House press staff began handing masks to reporters, too. They were in rectangular packaging a little bigger than a lunchbox, wrapped tightly in silver plastic. I ripped open the packaging and tried to read the directions while watching the floor.

A loud popping sound came — the invaders were breaking the glass in the main doors to the chamber, the same doors presidents and senators walk through during those State of the Union nights. Lawmakers would later say they heard gunshots, too.

The masks buzzed from a mechanical piece inside them, maybe a fan. I put mine on, but it was hard to hear and I felt clumsy in it, so I pulled it back off. Police told us to head for an exit. I clutched my laptop, power cord, and hood as I clambered over chairs and railings. Other press staff and reporters were all around doing the same.

Police pushed a big piece of furniture in front of the doors to barricade it, and trained their pistols at the door. That’s when it felt most frightening. I couldn’t believe I was seeing weapons drawn on the floor of the U.S. House. That image ran on the front page of many newspapers the next day (including ours). It’s a sight I’ll never forget.

Suddenly we were told to stop, and I crouched behind a chair in the corner of the gallery. Others were lying on the floor. My wife texted to ask if I had evacuated. “We are huddled inside. Police working on it,” I wrote back at 2:48.

Some minutes passed — I can’t say how many — and we started moving again. I stepped over railings to get to the door. Outside the chamber a handful of rioters were lying facedown, detained by police. Reporters, staff, and House members moved through a line of police with handguns drawn, weaving through the Capitol and its tunnels.

“Quickly! Quickly!” one officer urged.

As we walked, I texted my wife that I was out of the chamber. It was 2:59.

I ended up in a secured room with other reporters and House members and staffers. The buzzing of the escape hoods was incessant. I was in work mode. I started interviewing House members, including some from Pennsylvania, and typed up a post about the scene in the chamber. I spoke with my editor about our story plans and began turning that post into a full story about what unfolded. Texts were flying in from friends and family. I couldn’t respond then, but they helped so much.

The room was hot and stuffy. Staff passed out water, bags of Goldfish, and Skittles. One graciously helped me find a working power outlet.

Hours passed. Eventually the Capitol was cleared and we returned to the House gallery. I was back in the chamber at about 8:45 p.m.

Sometime later in the night I ate an apple and Rx bar, but mostly stayed in the House gallery watching the process continue, and reporting details of the debate on Twitter and online. The door with the broken windows was a constant backdrop.

They completed the vote on Pennsylvania’s electors around 3:10 a.m. Thursday. The final count of all the Electoral College votes finished about a half hour later, more than 14 hours after the debate began. I went back to my desk, packed my things and uneaten dinner, and left the Capitol, now walking past a National Guardsman.

When I got home sometime after 4 a.m., the newspaper was already on my doorstep. I hugged and kissed my wife. I dropped my #6 tag on the kitchen counter.

I got about two hours’ sleep and woke up to work on a follow-up story. Thursday night I looked back on everything, rereading my texts, including this one: “They’re in the rotunda. Police using tear gas in the Capitol”

It’s still hard to believe I wrote that.