Inside the Harrowing Day When the Capitol Went Into Lockdown

WASHINGTON — Something was not right inside the Senate chamber.

Below the press balcony where I stood, looking down on the room like a fishbowl, Vice President Mike Pence had just been rushed out without explanation.

“We do have an emergency,” bellowed a police officer with a neon sash who had appeared in the middle of the chamber. Officers and doorkeepers raced around, slamming and locking the immense wooden doors. There were panicked cries for senators to move further into the room.

Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, threw up his hands in exasperation.

“This is what you’ve gotten, guys,” he yelled, referring to a dozen or so Republican colleagues who were challenging President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory, which Congress was meeting to affirm.

Now everything had ground to a halt and I had about 10 seconds to decide whether to run out or get locked in myself. I stayed, deciding I should keep my eyes on the senators I was there to cover, no matter what came next.

“Senate being locked down,” I texted my editor.

One minute later: “This is frightening.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, an avid amateur photographer, snapped a few frames. Senator Amy Klobuchar blurted out that shots might have been fired. A hush fell over the room and sirens wailed outside.

In an instant, Capitol Police officers began herding the lawmakers down into the well of the Senate and moving them out a back door.

“What about us?” someone near me yelled from the balcony. The police shouted for us to get to the basement.

I dashed to grab my laptop and plunged with a handful of reporters down three floors, where a lone officer held back a pair of doors leading to the Capitol Visitor Center, built after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as an underground fortress of sorts. It, too, had been breached.

Looking left, we saw a stream of senators snaking out ahead into the narrow subterranean tunnels that connect the sprawling Capitol campus.

There was Senator Mitch McConnell, 78, the majority leader and a polio survivor, practically being carried by his security detail, their hands beneath his arms to steady him as they hustled along. The body man for Senator Chuck Schumer of New York had a firm grasp on his suit behind his neck. Trying to keep the mood light, Senator Roy Blunt from my home state of Missouri teased that perhaps the interruption would speed up the debate.

When we came up above ground, we were in a space I knew well from years of work on Capitol Hill, but officers implored us not to share details of our location. We would be there for about four hours. Later, after the Capitol had been cleared and secured, we retraced our steps, along with staff aides who carried two mahogany boxes containing the Electoral College certificates.

As Congress resumed its count and night turned to early morning, I found myself wandering alone through an eerily silent Capitol, studying the remains of an abandoned occupation. The ornate tiled floors, one of the building’s treasures, were coated in a powdery residue of fire extinguishers and pepper spray.

The window entering the Speaker’s Lobby, where I’ve spent hours cornering lawmakers was shattered. Benches were upturned. Soft drinks littered the halls. On the first floor, I found a handful of syringes and a defibrillator spent on someone — I wondered who — and left behind. —Nicholas Fandos, congressional reporter

I could hear protesters on the first floor of the Senate side of the Capitol, so I went downstairs, following the noise. They came up to the Ohio Clock Corridor just outside the chamber where senators were meeting, and were yelling that they wanted to get in. I was shocked they’d made it inside, and thought this would be the big moment of the day: a small group of protesters having breached the Capitol building.

I was wrong.

I looked down the hall to the Rotunda and saw what looked like a hundred people running around, yelling and pulling around a podium. I took a bunch of photos and then went to the ceremonial doors to the Rotunda, where a single police officer guarded the door against a throng of hundreds outside.

The mob massed together and rushed the officer, forcing open the door, and people flooded in. I ran upstairs to be out of the way of the crowd, and to get a better vantage point to document what was happening. Suddenly, two or three men in black surrounded me and demanded to know who I worked for.

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. At this point, I thought I could be killed and no one would stop them. They ripped one of my cameras away from me, broke a lens on the other and ran away.

After that I was hyperventilating, unsure of what to do. I knew I needed to get away from the mob and hide my broken camera so I wouldn’t be targeted again. I ran into Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s suite, but people were vandalizing her office, so I kept moving. Walking out to her balcony facing west toward the National Mall, I saw a mass of people covering the inaugural stage. I found a spot to hide my camera in there, then stood watching the crowd from the balcony and filming from my phone, which was all I had left.

“This will be the start of a civil war revolution,” a man next to me said.

At that point, the Capitol Police had started deploying pepper spray or tear gas, and I knew I needed to find a place to hide. I didn’t know where I could go since I no longer had my congressional credentials. I ran to the third floor, opened the first door I saw and hid in a hallway. I called my husband, who told me to stay calm and find a safer spot.

But then the police found me. 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!”

The officers told us it wasn’t safe to leave, and helped us find a room to barricade ourselves in. 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. —Erin Schaff, staff photographer

A little after 2:15 p.m., aides in the House chamber began quietly warning us to prepare to take shelter. I thought about how stupid I was to have left my bag at my desk on the opposite of the Capitol, and asked to borrow someone’s computer charger just in case.

I watched as a security detail rushed Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, off the floor along with other members of leadership. Police officers began to shut the gallery doors.

“We now have individuals that have breached the Capitol building,” said a Capitol Police officer who had stepped up to the rostrum. Remain inside and calm, he instructed.

I just kept updating my story, needing something to keep me distracted. Lawmakers were yelling. It didn’t feel real.

Tear gas had been deployed in the Rotunda, an officer said, and everyone needed to grab an emergency hood from under his or her chair and prepare to put it on.

Suddenly, it seemed as if every lawmaker had a duffel bag in hand, pulling out aluminum bags and emergency hoods, and staff members were distributing them out to reporters.

You could hear banging outside, so I crouched behind a desk, the reality of the chamber being breached sinking in. I ripped at the bag, struggling to pull out the hood, a sort of hybrid gas mask with a tarp, which made a loud whirring noise and had a flashing red light. I peeked over the desk and could see Representative Ruben Gallego, Democrat of Arizona and a veteran, jacketless, standing on a chair and yelling instructions on how to use the masks.

Officers hauled a huge wooden chest as a makeshift barricade in front of the main doors to the House chamber — the ones Vice President Mike Pence had just walked through, the ones through which they had carried the chests with the elector certificates. The floor was empty, except for staff aides yelling at everyone in the gallery to get out.

I grabbed my laptop, my phone and this whirring hood, clutched it all to my chest, and clambered up to the back of the gallery where a line was forming to leave the chamber. There was a banister separating the area into sections and we struggled to climb over. What’s faster? Ducking under? Climbing over? As I plotted my escape, I heard shouts of “Get down!” Everyone dropped to the floor.

Face down behind an auditorium chair, I could see a few officers with guns drawn at the barricaded chamber doors. Representative Markwayne Mullin, Republican of Oklahoma, was trying to reason with whomever was banging on the door. I started thinking about how I really wasn’t shielded behind this chair. Was it worth scuttling down a few steps to see if the TV equipment provided more cover? But then would I be more exposed if people started shooting? I stayed put.

I sent a few “I love you” texts, otherwise frozen on the ground. I didn’t know what might happen. I just wanted them to know. —Emily Cochrane, congressional reporter