WASHINGTON – Long after most other lawmakers had been rushed to safety, they lay on the hard marble floor and ducked in cover.
Trapped in the gallery in the house and occupying balcony seats banned from the public because of COVID-19, about three dozen House Democrats were the last to leave the hall on January 6 and testify as certification of a presidential election gave way to a violent uprising .
As the father approached and the troublemakers tried to break down the doors, they called their families. They fought for provisional weapons and mentally prepared to fight. Many thought they could die.
“When I looked up, I had this realization that we were trapped,” the rep said. Jason Crow, D-Colo., A former Army Ranger who served three missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They had evacuated the floor of the house first. And they forgot about us.”
The legislators were bound together by circumstances and shared a unique trauma that was their own, and they were both witnesses and victims of an unprecedented attack on American democracy. Along with a small number of employees and members of the media, they remained in the chamber while the Capitol Police made an effort to hold back the billowing, shouting crowd of supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
Lawmakers were finally brought to safety about an hour after the siege began.
Interviewed by The Associated Press before this week’s anniversary of the attack, 10 of the members of the House, who were in the gallery, spoke of being deeply shaken by their experience, viscerally recalling the sight and sounds in the midst of the chaos.
They clearly remember the loud, horn-like hum from their gas masks. The explosive crack of tear gas in the hallways outside. The screams of officers saying they should stay down. The thunderous beatings on the doors below. Glass shattered as the troublemakers slammed through a window. The buttons rustle ominously on the locked doors just a few feet behind them.
And most indelibly, the loud clap of a gunshot that echoes across the hollow chamber.
“I’ve heard a lot of shots in my time and it was very clear what it was,” Crow said. “I knew things were seriously escalating.”
The shot was fired by Officer Michael Byrd and killed Ashli Babbitt, a Trump supporter from California who tried to crawl through the broken window of a door leading to the house’s chamber. Both the Department of Justice and the Capitol Police investigated the shooting and refused to prosecute.
While the gunshot spread some of the violent mob, lawmakers popping into the gallery believed the worst had just begun.
“I think we all, including myself, had pictures of a mass shooting,” the rep said. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Who posted video updates on Twitter as the chaos unfolded. “It was scary at the moment.”
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., Said he could see that the shot had come from the back of the chamber, in the Speaker’s Lobby just outside, and not from the front doors on the opposite side, where they could see troublemakers trying to break. through. In that moment, he realized why they could not walk – they were surrounded. “It was in stages that you realized the seriousness,” he said.
Their horror was exacerbated by knowledge of what the mob was after: preventing Congress from certifying the votes of the Electoral College that would make Joe Biden the 46th President of the United States. Mike Pence had, as usual for the Vice President, chaired the ceremony in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers gathered to hear the certified results from all 50 U.S. states and territories.
Trump had other ideas.
Trump cracked lies about election fraud denied by his own Justice Department and pressured Pence to reject voters – a move that would have undermined the constitution and thrown the House and potentially the country into chaos. Pence refused to do so, but Trump held a meeting in Washington before the vote count began, telling hundreds of supporters at Ellipse to “fight like hell.”
Members of the mob shouted “Hang Mike Pence” as they forced their way into the Capitol and brutally overpowered the police who stood in their way. Dozens were injured, some seriously, and four officers who were there that day later took their own lives.
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., Was among those seeking shelter in the gallery. She tried to stay calm and drew on what she learned as the chief of the Orlando police. But she also felt powerless, missing a gun or one of the other weapons she always had on the beat.
She shuddered when police said there had been a “break-in” of the building.
“That’s probably the word I will remember about that day for the rest of my life more than anyone else,” Demings said. ‘I knew it meant the police had somehow lost the line. And I also know, after being a former police officer, that they would have done everything in their power to keep that line to protect us. ”
She says she told a colleague who housed her in the gallery: “Just remember, we are on the right side of the story. If we all die today, another group will come in and certify these ballots.”
Congress met again that night and confirmed Biden’s election victory before sunrise.
In the days after the attack, many of the lawmakers in the gallery began connecting via an SMS chain. It quickly evolved into therapeutic group sessions and even potluck gatherings where they tried to make sense of it all.
They christened themselves the “gallery group”, and the name stuck.
Democrats were socially distant on the balcony while waiting to speak on the floor at the invitation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., And interviewees said they do not remember any Republicans who had shelter with them. GOP representative Kelly Armstrong from North Dakota was in the gallery at the beginning of the uprising and told about the ordeal to a local news outlet that night. But he refused to be interviewed. A handful of other Republicans, including reps. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma and Troy Nehls of Texas, helped police barricade the door below.
Some of the Democrats who had shelter in the gallery plan to spend time together at the Capitol this week, not only to remember their own experiences and honor those who protected them, but also to reflect on the country’s narrow escape from a coup .
“We were the last people in the chamber,” the rep said. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, a former Navy helicopter pilot. “I think we saw it all unfold in a way that is very different from anyone else on the hill.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington State helped organize the first virtual session on the Sunday after the uprising. She received several texts from colleagues after she spoke up on a Democratic caucus call about what the group was going through and how they felt forgotten.
“It ended up being a three-hour Zoom,” Jayapal says. “It was deeply personal. People shared a lot of things about what they were going through. There were many tears. There was a lot of anger. There were many, you know, how could that be? How could we be in America and make it happen in our Capitol? ”
Many of the members sought further in therapy. Some were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, their struggles were exacerbated by the raw tensions on Capitol Hill and an increasing number of death threats. Others said they have become more traumatized by the growing tendency among Republican lawmakers, and some in the public, to downplay or ignore the violence than they were by the attack itself.
Lawmakers said the gallery group has been a haven throughout.
“I think it really saved my mental health,” the rep says. Norma Torres, D-Calif. “It just seemed like every time someone posted something, we were all awake, no matter what time of day or night, and we were all reacting to each other. So it was really strong.”
Rep. Annie Kuster, who sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, says the gallery group connects almost daily to the text message chain, which moved to an encrypted app after some members raised security issues. “Sometimes it’s to get a ride to a poll. Sometimes it’s: ‘Who cooks and can you bring a bottle of wine for dinner together?’ And sometimes it talks about our treatment for trauma and how we can preserve our democracy. ”
Kuster, DN.H., was one of the first to be released from the gallery on January 6, and fled through the doors along with three other members, just before the remaining lawmakers were locked inside. When Kuster’s group reached the hallway, a group of rioters rushed towards them.
“We popped into the elevator,” Kuster said. “And I said to this incredible policeman – I said, oh, my God, what if the elevator doors open and they kill us? And I will never forget this moment… he said, ‘Madam, I’m here to protect you.’ And he was there to protect our democracy. “
For those still in the gallery, the fear escalated. Crow passed Representative Susan Wild, D-Pa., Who was in distress after talking to a family member, while also communicating with Mullin on the floor below as he helped barricade the door. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., Shouted a prayer for peace and healing. Jayapal, who underwent knee replacement surgery just a few weeks earlier and used a cane, was trying to figure out how she would escape if she had to run. She held hands with some of her female colleagues crouching next to her.
Eventually, the Capitol Police determined that the area upstairs was free, though rebels kept trying to break through the doors below. Lawmakers and others were rushed out of the chamber and down a host of stairs and hallways. As they walked, they could see police officers holding five or six rioters flat on the ground with weapons pointed at their heads.
The riots were just inches from the doors to the gallery.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., Says he has tried not to dwell on what happened. But he still has burning images in his mind, including watching police pull heavy furniture in front of the front doors to the floor of the house while the rioters tried to knock them down.
As a member of Parliament’s intelligence committee, Himes says he spends a lot of time in high-security rooms – and by January 6, he had assumed the Capitol was one of them.
“It was as if you saw the water flowing uphill,” Himes said. “Something that you imagined was impossible is happening right before your eyes.”
Kuster says one of the most traumatic things for her was that she could not see what was happening outside the chamber. They could only hear “the sounds of the threat – knocking on the door, shouting in the hallways.”
When she reached home two days later, she watched hours of video from the uprising, including shocking footage from police battles outside the building. It only intensified the trauma.
“I remember my husband came in and I was just crying,” Kuster said. “And he hugged me and said, ‘I do not know if this is the best thing for you to see.'”
“But we have to – we have to acknowledge the reality of what happened that day. And what is challenging for us is that we are both victims and witnesses of the crime in our country.”