WASHINGTON — We always knew Wednesday, Jan. 6, was going to be wild. Republicans in the House and Senate planned to object to the counting of the Electoral College vote, a process we anticipated would take more than 24 non-stop hours.
I made the rounds to our various camera positions on the Hill and met up with Kasie Hunt as she prepared for the NBC News network special, the appearances on MSNBC and Nightly News, and the other zillion demands she would have that day. Minutes before the joint session convened I told her I was heading over to the House side to prepare for pool duty inside the chamber.
When I walked into the chamber a few minutes before 2 p.m., I felt so prepared. Our team had all been reading in and studying the dynamics of the event for weeks, ever since we realized what a saga the largely procedural process was going to be.
I started my pool note, intended to add color and context to everyone’s reporting, and made up of moments that are not captured by C-Span's cameras. Typically it’s a combination of who was refusing to put on their mask, who’s participating in a standing ovation, which members are huddled in the back chatting, maybe even a quick reference to a member caught snoozing during the extended proceedings.
“Hey from a frigid House chamber I’m your pooler for the 2-4 p.m. portion of the joint session…” I started. I didn’t get too much further when I began to sense something was off.
There were murmurs from members on the floor as Arizona representatives who were objecting to the state's certified election win for President-elect Joe Biden continued with their speeches. I think we were all getting texts and tweet notifications about what was transpiring on the steps just outside the building.
And yet, I felt so safe. I kept thinking I was in the safest place possible.
I told my bureau chief, Ken Strickland, “Ken, I am NOT the one you need to worry about." I said I was scared for my colleagues in the building's offices. "I am the one in the CHAMBER. This is the safest spot in D.C.”
I looked back on a text I sent at this point to a concerned House staffer checking in on me. “Are you staying safe??” he asked.
“Wow. This is nuts. Yes thank you! I’m in chamber as pooler so feel v safe- I hope you aren’t here!!” I replied, totally naïve as to what was going on outside the building.
“Thank you. I am not thank god,” he wrote.
The session was interrupted and recessed for a few minutes. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., yelled “This is because of you!” towards the Republican side of the chamber.
The joint session resumed but at this point people were agitated and nervous. It was clear parts of the complex were not safe and the mob outside was more threatening than the police had anticipated.
These moments felt painfully long amid so much uncertainty. I was sure we would proceed with the floor debate and continue with the certification until an announcement was made that rioters had breached the Capitol.
I was texting our Capitol Hill coverage text chain every update, every small detail I noticed. I was focused on making sure our correspondents, Kasie, Garrett Haake and Leigh Ann Caldwell, knew exactly what was happening. I broke the rules by taking photos and videos inside the chamber but I needed to show my team what was ensuing in front of my eyes.
Ken called several more times over the next 15 minutes to check as the situation all over the complex escalated. I remember being frustrated when his calls would break up and cut off the videos I was taking inside. I didn’t yet understand the seriousness of the situation.
Tear gas in the Rotunda
That quickly changed when an announcement was made that there was tear gas in the Rotunda. “Grab the gas masks under your seats and be ready to put them on.”
That is when the panic was really palpable. Everyone was shuffling, yelling, no one knew what to do or where to go.
There wasn’t a gas mask under my seat in the gallery. I remember scanning the seats around me but couldn’t locate the large black sack I’d seen other members furiously grab and rip open. I yelled to a nearby Capitol police officer. Nothing happened.
I turned back towards the House floor, watching as members started fitting their masks on their heads. I continued to text the group what I saw. I yelled again for a gas mask and the officer threw one down. Amidst the texting and answering calls I didn’t start putting it on until I saw everyone around me had filled their hoods with air and had their faces covered by the contraption.
I was the only person on the television side of the gallery since I was the assigned TV pooler and all of my colleagues working for print publications were nearby in their designated section. They started climbing over railings to get to where I was and we all moved down to where other members had already scurried under their chairs. We huddled as close as we would to one another.
I kept thinking that even though we were all sheltering under our chairs, we weren’t under any real threat.
And then the glass shattered.
A pane in the glass of the intricate doors to the Speaker's Lobby were smashed through by rioters as they tried to make it onto the House floor and attack the very center of democracy in America.
I caught glimpses of the standoff below as officers barricaded the door and drew their guns to defend the dozens of people inside.
I started to hear the quiet whispering of prayer. A congresswoman I often see but didn’t recognize was holding the hands of other members as she crouched down and was praying over the group.
I started to think about what I would use defend our group if the mob were to smash through the third-floor glass and enter the gallery. The congresswoman next to me had a cane. That’s what I’d use. I thought about how I’d position myself to block as many people as possible.
As I was filming with my phone in one hand and texting furiously with the other, I noticed a representative next to me had fallen uncomfortably. I reached down to pull her closer. The members around me were almost all women and some of the bravest people I’ve seen. No one panicked, we held hands, we told each other it was going to be OK.
We were told the hallway was almost clear and we would be evacuating as soon as we could. “Where are we going, where are they taking us?” a member asked me repeatedly.
When we left the House chamber and walked onto the third-floor landing, we passed by dozens of people laying down face first on the ground with their hands behind their backs. Lawmakers asked police if they were protesters. They were.
Members and reporters still had their gas masks on and kept them on throughout the evacuation. Members were calling their husbands, wives, sons, daughters, chiefs of staff and parents. “I’m OK. Don’t worry” and “mommy is safe, turn off the news” filled the echoey stairwell as we made our way through the belly of the Capitol.
We didn’t know exactly where we were headed and we didn’t know if we would encounter more rioters along the way. We were vigilant and stayed together. I kept scanning our group making sure all the members I was huddled with behind the chairs earlier were still with us. No one could be left behind.
Members were helping reporters. Reporters were consoling members. Some were conducting interviews but everyone was helping each other as we fled the worst of what we would hopefully ever experience in the building.
One freshman member jokingly asked if every day in Congress is like this. And a more senior member quipped, “You said you wanted a front row seat!” I appreciated the levity in that moment and remember texting our team about it so they knew the tone was lifting. I also realized that some of these people escaping alongside me had only been on the job for five days. What a welcome.
When we finally made it to our secure location, members started filing through the large wooden doors of the largest hearing room I know of. When I tried to walk in I was told “members only” by an officer guarding the entrance.
I was stunned. The five other reporters with me couldn’t believe it either. “Where are we supposed to go?!” we begged.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., fought for us. When those doors were slammed in our faces she told the guards we needed refuge, we needed somewhere to hide. She told them that we were in the chamber too and we had been attacked.
At the same time, I was also asking Spanberger if she would please go on MSNBC to talk about what just happened. She later did and recounted the events calmly and accurately.
Spanberger refused to go in the hearing room until she knew we were safe. It meant so much to me that she fought for us. As the confrontation with the guard ensued, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., offered to take us down the hall to his office.
I felt better once we were inside the congressman’s office. He did not need to help us like that, especially amid a raging pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands.
Gallego entertained us with war stories, raided the cafeteria and vending machines for us and made us feel calm amidst the chaos that was still ensuing just outside the door.
We had few resources, and had left our laptops, snacks, coffees, and phone chargers behind in the chamber. For several hours we shared a single phone charger. I joked after the fact it only worked out because we were all women.
Gallego and dozens of others made it very clear there was only one option: they had to return to work. He told us they couldn’t be intimidated and he was firm in that the American people must know the insurrectionists did not win that day.
I saw a tweet notification for Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., pop up on my rapidly dying phone. “We have stopped the coup attempt and will be returning to the Capitol today to finish the business of the people. We will never back down, we will return.”
Back to work
When I finally returned to the chamber just before 9 p.m. to cover what was supposed to be the story — the counting of the electoral college votes — I found my laptop where I’d left it in the chaos.
My pool note, never sent, was still open on the screen. Where I’d pre-written a general top of the note, I just started writing over it words I could barely string together in actual sentences, like chaos, confusion and alarm.
Of course there is a lot I didn’t see happening outside the Capitol on Wednesday. It was once I watched the coverage on NBC's "TODAY" show the next morning that I understood the full picture. That was the first time I cried.
The Capitol is our home. This happened in the People’s House. This was an attack that not only harmed the members, staffers and reporters, but every custodial and food service worker in that building Wednesday afternoon. People died, including a Capitol Police officer.
What a dark, dark day.