Chaos in the Capitol: Screams, Weeping, Drawn Guns, Fear and Anarchy

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It's one thing to watch two-dimensional images of the U.S. Capitol being overrun by rioters. It's quite another to live it in real time, one uncertain second at a time.

Inside the building where democracy lives, hundreds of Congress members, along with staffers, journalists, janitors, cooks and Capitol Police, had no idea what was going on as their world began to spin Wednesday afternoon.

Places where people were never allowed to stand were suddenly occupied by hundreds of rabid, banner-waving Trump fans. Crackled announcements came over the public address system to stay away from the Capitol's windows. Cellphones lit up with texts saying the Madison and Cannon Capitol buildings were being evacuated.

"The Madison building, a tiny corner of the Capitol complex, was evacuated. Then the police were sprinting down the halls of Cannon, banging on doors to get staff out," wrote Politico reporter Sarah Ferris.

Capitol Police officers fires pepper spray at rioter.
Getty

Outside, Trump vigilantes were smashing windows, ramming doors with their banner poles, climbing walls and shoving their way past Capitol Police, shooting them with pepper spray and throwing them to the ground — all with only one thing in the mob's collective mind: to get inside the historic building where elected officials do the people's business and stop them from doing just that.

Rioters and Capitol Police clash outside Congress.
Getty

It didn't take long for the doors and windows to give way, and the rioters were inside, climbing statues, knocking over and destroying furniture, rampaging through the halls and ripping nameplates off doors, including that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In the Senate and House chambers, reporters watched in disbelief as Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Pelosi were whisked away by phalanxes of security guards and Secret Service personnel.

"At one point, I saw a group of officials pull House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Majority Whip Clyburn from the floor in a quick flurry," Ferris wrote.

Those left behind, including lawmakers and journalists, were ordered to don evacuation hoods, a surreal-looking protective device that filters chemicals and tear gas.

On the House floor, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, "a former combat Marine, was holding up his escape hood and explaining to other members how to use it. There were about 150 lawmakers down there, and Gallego was shouting to get their attention," wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Sarah Wise.

“'Open the first package!' he yelled. 'Then open the second! The hood then inflates over your head!'” the political reporter said.

Lawmakers and security details began moving tables and bookcases to block the main doors to the House, Wise said. 

Capitol workers shove a couch in front of their office door.
Capitol workers shove a couch in front of their office door. Getty

"Pounding on the door began. The officers drew their guns," she wrote. "One looked up and saw the reporters and about two dozen representatives and staff scrambling over railings in the upper gallery to get toward the doors. 'Crouch on the floor!' he shouted. 'Get as low as you can!'”

 

In the House and the Senate, lawmakers huddled as the pounding grew louder and security details told them to remove their lapel pins in case they had to make a run for it, so rioters wouldn't immediately know they were politicians.

Congressional staffers pray has they barricaded themselves in their Capitol offices.
Capitol staffers barricaded inside their offices. Getty

New York Times photographer Erin Schaff wrote of being attacked by rioters because she was a member of the media.

"Grabbing my press pass, they saw that my ID said The New York Times and became really angry. They threw me to the floor, trying to take my cameras. I started screaming for help as loudly as I could. No one came. People just watched," she said.

Left with a broken camera and no press credentials, Schaff said she desperately searched for a place to hide, only to be confronted by Capitol Police.

"I told them that I was a photojournalist and that my pass had been stolen, but they didn’t believe me. They drew their guns, pointed them and yelled at me to get down on my hands and knees. As I lay on the ground, two other photojournalists came into the hall and started shouting 'She’s a journalist!''' Schaff wrote.

"The two other photographers grabbed my hands and told me it would be OK, and to stay with them so they could vouch for me. I’ll never forget their kindness in that moment," she said.

In the House, some lawmakers prayed. Others wept. Wise said she crawled over to where Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat, was kneeling. The lawmaker asked after Wise's baby son. Torres, who had a phone signal, took a photo of Wise and sent it to her editors so they would know she was unharmed.

Then both women went back to work. Capitol Police came to their rescue, and herded reporters to a secure location they could tell no one about, Wise wrote.

"I slowed so I could speak with a visibly shaken Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles). He was livid. I pulled out my phone and hit record. He took a second to find his words. 'This shouldn’t happen in the United States,' he said, his eyes rimmed with tears," she wrote.

Wise filed her copy, as did the Politico staffers and other journalists. The Sargent at Arms declared the Capitol secured at 5:34 p.m. Those still inside the buildings straggled home through underground tunnels leading from the site. 

On Thursday, lawmakers and those who work with them made their way back to work. Broken furniture littered the halls. Offices were vandalized and demolished. Equipment had been looted. Nasty notes were left on the desks of Congress members. Someone scrawled "Murder the Media" on a door. 

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, told WNYC radio that a poster of civil rights icon John Lewis was missing and he could smell the stench of human urine inside the building. The Capitol, he said, had been desecrated.

"Donald Trump should be impeached, convicted and removed from office immediately," tweeted Jeffries, the House Democratic caucus chairman.

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