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Inside the Trump riots: How an ordinary Congress vote devolved into disarray

The harrowing day of NBC News' Ginger Gibson, who was reporting on the Electoral College count when protesters stormed the Capitol.
Image: Supporters of President Donald Trump protest inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Supporters of President Donald Trump protest inside the Capitol on Wednesday.Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The sound started softly, cheers and chants from supporters of President Donald Trump that could be heard from inside the U.S. Capitol, not unusual when large-scale protests are staged on the grounds.

But the noise continued to grow louder, and the chants of protesters outside turned into the shouts of a mob inside, the soundtrack to the most troubling day I've witnessed on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, I stood in the cavernous spaces of the Rotunda and I watched senators file through, leaving the House to consider an objection to the Electoral College vote count. Vice President Mike Pence ignored me as I asked him what he had told Trump at lunch the day before.

But when the senators were gone, the room grew quiet, and then the roar outside got louder. I looked up at the mural on the ceiling, depicting George Washington ascending into heaven, to try to hear which direction the sound was coming from and realized it was coming from all sides.

I moved upstairs to a third-floor office, where I could see out over the West Lawn and down the National Mall, where four years ago I had watched as Trump took the oath of office, thousands of people streaming down Pennsylvania Avenue in support. The risers that had been constructed again to host Joe Biden's swearing-in were now covered in Trump supporters.

It became apparent, quickly, that the tone was changing. I watched as protesters streamed past barricades and walked up to the building. The police, vastly outnumbered, watched.

And that's when the shouting began inside the building. First, Capitol Police officers hurried into the hallway and began yelling at reporters to move away from the windows. We complied, but we were still complacent with the sense of security that comes with being inside what I assumed was one of the safest buildings in the world. I walked down the hallway toward the noise.

It was the sound of the crowd but, this time, coming from inside, echoing against the marble instead of seeping, slightly muffled, through the windows. Another police officer appeared, telling me and another producer to take cover: The building had been breached.

I took shelter in the small fourth-floor workspace. Up a winding set of stairs, it has the feeling of being in the Capitol attic.

There was a sense of panic and concern among the dozen reporters who were there. Photos streamed in of rioters flooding the building. I watched on a television screen as protesters moved about freely in the Rotunda, where I had just stood minutes before.

We realized the mob had made it to the third floor. We decided to turn the lights off, to try to make it look as if no one was there. We barricaded the door.

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And then we watched for every piece of information we could find, both to send back to our news organizations and to know what was happening outside our room. Guns were drawn in the House; a woman was shot; random people were in the Senate; tear gas was in the ground-floor crypt. I answered an onslaught of concerned texts. I called my husband, still at home with our 8-month-old.

It would be more than 2½ hours before the police would arrive to evacuate us. Their radios continued to squawk with details of another group inside and calls for backup. It smelled of tear gas and smoke as we walked down the basement hallways, mingling with the remaining scent of lunch as we walked past the kitchens.

As dozens of armed police lined the hallways, we held our IDs up to prove we belonged there. Taken to an undisclosed location, reporters sat on the floor, eating chicken or beef dinners that were passed around in plastic containers. Senators shuffled in and out; staff members recalled sitting in dark offices while rioters banged on the doors.

Eventually, the saga ended, and we were allowed back into the Capitol.

As a line of lawmakers streamed back into the Senate chamber, I stopped Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who thinks that the nation will get through this moment and that "our democracy will be stronger for having survived Trump."

Then I asked Coons whether he thought this would be the craziest day of his political career.

"I'm not convinced it is," he said. "He still has two more weeks in office."