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‘I’m running for my life. I cannot talk to you right now’: 23 women in Congress recall the Capitol riot


As the events of the deadly riot are examined in the impeachment trial, here is what almost two dozen lawmakers told The 19th about January 6, in their own words.

Mariel Padilla

Originally published by The 19th

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Estimated reading time: 25 minutes

On January 6, a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and temporarily halted the certification of the legitimate results of the 2020 election. The president, at a rally that day, had encouraged thousands of his supporters to “take back our country.” In the Capitol, rioters fought with police, smashed windows and ransacked offices. The insurrection left 140 police officers injured and at least five people dead

empty brown canvas
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This week, the story is being told again at the impeachment trial in the Senate, Trump’s second. House impeachment managers are using videos — including footage of rioters roaming the halls in search of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Mike Pence and a police officer screaming as he is crushed by a door — as evidence in their case against the former president. 

The 19th reached out to all 143 women in the 117th Congress to ask about their experiences January 6. Twenty-three, all Democrats, shared their points of view, many remembering new details after a month of processing. We have also collected statements and outside interviews with other women lawmakers.

Some of the lawmakers recalled texting their loved ones goodbye while crouching behind chairs in the House chamber. Others remembered barricading themselves in offices, while several described running through the hallways toward safety, terrified that they’d be killed at every turn. Here are their stories, as told to The 19th.

‘I was concerned about violence, but I always thought that would stay outside’

There were protests planned for January 6 by people who wrongly believed the election was stolen from Trump. Lawmakers had been told to get to the Capitol by 9 a.m.

Rep. Sara Jacobs of California: I got to the office early that morning, around 7:30 a.m or 8 a.m. I was excited to see the proceedings and planned to celebrate the previous day’s Senate election wins in Georgia with Rep. Nikema Williams. Well, I had seen what was going on in social media, so I was concerned about safety. I was concerned about violence at protests, but I always thought that would stay outside. 

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico: It was my third day on the job, and I was pretty darn excited because we had just found out that two Democratic senators would be joining us from Georgia and we were going to certify the new president. My 20-year-old son — the youngest of three boys — came with me to the office that day. He knew it was going to be a long day, but he was excited so he brought a pillow and wore his suit.  

Rep. Barbara Lee of California: I decided to wear tennis shoes that day, because I knew that something was going to go down. I remembered on September 11, I was in the Capitol and we had to evacuate early that morning, too. I had high heels on then and had to run up Pennsylvania Avenue. I’ve been listening to Trump’s rhetoric for four years and his reaction to the white supremacists at Charlottesville, and as a Black woman, I knew what was happening. 

Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida: I was terrified that day, because I knew something bad was going to happen. I had even called the Capitol Police before I came to D.C. and told her they needed more precautions, taller barriers and reinforcements. I was scared to come to the Capitol, because I’ve had Trump supporters call my home saying they were going to kill me and others have sent me a noose. My driver brought me to the Capitol around 10:30 a.m., just in time for me to vote before the certification, and I went back to the car around 11 a.m. The crowd had more than doubled in that time.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher of Texas: That day, I think I had a heightened awareness going in. My husband had come to D.C. with me over the weekend and said he’d stay through Wednesday because it could be a dangerous day. I don’t think anyone had a sense of exactly what would happen, but we all got notice to be there by 9 a.m. and to use the tunnels. I expected to be there until noon the next day, bringing food and a blanket and ready for whatever was going to happen. My husband came with me because my staff was working remotely. 

Shortly after 1 p.m., Vice President Mike Pence and senators joined House members in the House chamber to start a joint session to confirm the election’s results. Then the House and Senate went to their separate chambers to debate challenges to the results. 

Rep. Lois Frankel of Florida: I was one of the first members in the gallery. As I was watching, other members started to come into the gallery, and it got quite crowded. I said to myself, “There’s too many people here for COVID,” so I decided to leave the gallery, which I’m glad I did. [Rep. Abigail] Spanberger, a friend and former CIA official, told me to take off my member pin and tell people I’m a secretary. I thought: really? I went up to a Capitol Police officer on my way out, and she looked at me and said: “You’re safe. We have you covered.”

Rep. Norma Torres of California: I started to think, “What’s my plan here? Maybe I should go to the bathroom now, because it might be a long time before I can leave.” I took the elevator one floor down. I was feeling a bit anxious and wanted to calm down. When I went back to the gallery, I saw sergeants in suits running back and forth. I could hear radio traffic. I was a 911 dispatcher for 17 years and am trained to listen for keywords, but I couldn’t make anything out — just very, very loud screaming. I could hear the shouting from outside getting louder, and I was ushered quickly back into the gallery.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan: I was in the gallery because I’m from Michigan, one of the contested states, and wanted to be prepared when it was our turn to debate. I decided to go to the bathroom, and my daughter called me as I left the chamber. She asked where I was and if I knew what was going on. I told her I was at the Capitol and I didn’t. “Mom,” she said, “you need to get out of there. You need to leave right now. Mom, promise me.” When I was in the stall, I heard a man screaming, asking “Who’s in there?” I didn’t know who it was, so I stayed in the stall and kept quiet. Later, another man came in, identified him as Capitol Police and said I had to get out now. I tried to wash my hands, but he practically pushed me out and onto the House floor. 

‘Clearly something was wrong’ 

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire: At about 1:30 p.m., as the joint session was dissolved and the vice president and senators left the chamber, I realized “Wow, we’re going to be here a long time.” I decided to take a break, find a ladies room, and I was directed to a place I’d never been. I walked down a hallway, and there were reporters sitting on the floor typing stories and photographers. I made a phone call around 1:55 p.m., and then a female reporter told me that the crowd was really growing outside. We looked out a window, but I couldn’t see down the Mall. Then a man came through the press gallery and said, “This is not for attribution, but we are in a lockdown.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia: Those of us in the gallery were seated multiple seats apart from each other, but it’s not a huge space, so we were still chit-chatting. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in the speaker’s chair. Her security detail came in and took her out around 2:10 p.m., but it looked like she wasn’t inclined to leave. All of a sudden, there was a rumble of tenseness in the room because clearly there was something wrong. 

Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota: I was in my office with my legislative director and a new fellow. We were watching things get more raucous on the television, as the large crowd began pushing against the hip-high police barriers. I told my fellow to grab her laptop so I could walk her through the tunnel to leave. I didn’t want her near that crowd. We were just a minute away from the exit when a police officer stopped us and closed the door. The Capitol was moments from being breached. We were told we couldn’t go back to my office building, so we went to the 7th floor, found an office with a staffer and locked the door behind us. 

Rep. Marie Newman of Illinois: I was with about five or six of my staff members that day in my office. We kept our door locked and the news playing on the TV, but I had no idea how serious the situation was until I started seeing rioters scale a wall around 1 or 2 p.m. It looked like a practiced military exercise; I saw some even had maps in their hands. I kept thinking the National Guard would show up in a jiffy, but they didn’t. 

Frankel: About 10 minutes after I had left the gallery due to COVID-19 concerns, I walked into a lounge room about 15 yards from the chamber to wait for my turn to vote. A couple minutes later, I heard a loud alarm: “Alert, alert, alert! Take cover, lock doors, get gas masks.” It was alarming. I made eye contact with [Rep.] Grace Meng, a colleague and the only other person in the room. We started barricading the doors, piling chairs. Then we found an inner room, locked the door and moved more chairs against the door. My son called me at this time and tried to explain how to barricade the door. We could hear noises but didn’t know what was going on.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York: I watched the proceedings on the television in my office. I became alarmed when a security detail surrounded Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, and whisked him out of the room very quickly. If I remember correctly, the screen just went sort of blank at this point. I couldn’t see what was happening on the House floor, but I could see the west front of the building. I noticed a large group of people walking through an entrance that isn’t open to the public. 

The rioters broke into the Capitol about 2:15 p.m., and both chambers adjourned a few minutes later.

Lawrence: An officer with a walkie-talkie interrupted the proceedings, went to the mic and told us: “The Capitol has been breached.” A few minutes later, another police officer told everyone to take cover. Soon after, we heard banging on the door. It was vibrating, and I thought “Oh my God. Am I going to die today? Is this it? Am I going to die today?” I thought of my daughter telling me to get out. I stood, I knelt and then stood back up again because I didn’t know what to do. Then some officers came in and ushered those of us on the House floor out. As I was leaving, I turned around, looked up at the gallery and asked a nearby officer: “What about them?”

Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York: I was barricaded in an office with a colleague just one floor below where the rioters broke in on the west side. For about an hour, it sounded like there was a herd of elephants smashing through windows and making all this noise. 

Rep. Judy Chu of California: I decided to watch the debate from my office. I was all alone because my staff was working from home. I was watching the news and C-SPAN, keeping an eye on the inside and outside of the building. I was shocked out of my mind when I saw the rioters smashing the windows and attacking the Capitol police. I saw the Confederate and Trump flags and locked my door, turned the lights off and refused to come out for at least six to seven hours — two hours longer than I needed to.

Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois: I was on the House floor, along with 25 other Democrats and 24 Republicans. I was sitting in a row with the other two co-chairs of the Steering and Policy Committee, a leadership position that allows us to sit alongside the speaker, the majority leader and the majority whip. When we were told the Capitol had been breached, Rep. Dean Phillips — a Democrat in the gallery — started yelling at the Republicans that this was their fault and several yelled back in response. At this point, what’s going through my mind is how I’m going to fit under these chairs given my height. What was I going to do if someone came storming in with automatic weapons firing? 

Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas: When Phillips stood up and started yelling at the Republicans for their role in this violence, I stood up and yelled, “I’m with you, buddy.” I remember hearing the pounding. I began to feel rage more than fear. I was feeling anxious, nervous, deeply unsettled and rage. I could not believe that these people had made it all the way up the Capitol steps and that our constitutional duty was being obstructed. It had not really clicked in a meaningful way just how much danger we were in. 

Members of Congress were instructed to put on these gas masks. Photo by Rep. Barbara Lee

Lee: I was next to Cheri Bustos and Eric Swalwell on the House floor when they told us to wear gas masks. We were trained on how to use them right after September 11, but we hadn’t been trained in the last 10 years. I was trying to figure out how to open it and put it on — I think I put it on the wrong way. [Rep.] Ruben Gallego, who is a former Marine, got up on a table and started instructing people in the gallery and on the House floor on how to use the gas masks. I just kept thinking: “I have to be clear about what I’m doing. Don’t panic. Keep your mind on what to do.” I’m also very aware of the possibility of getting COVID-19 in the largely unmasked crowd. I was dodging the virus and trying not to get killed at the same time. 

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon: The squawk box in my office started making a very, very loud siren-like sound, and I got scared. It had never gone off before. I was glad my staff was here with me. Once we heard that, we received text and email alerts from Capitol police. There was an external threat. That means curtains closed, doors locked, lights down and be quiet.

Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan: I was watching the television in my office. It was alarming and unusual that people were entering the building. “Had some deal been struck?” I thought. Then I saw the broken windows and realized they were storming the building. Right around 2:30 p.m., we started getting a lot of text messages — including from my fiancé back home in Michigan — as people watched the news. “Are you alright? Are you alright?”

Wilson: I watched the siege from my apartment, five blocks away, after having left the Capitol hours before. I thought I was going to have a heart attack, because none of my colleagues could see what I was seeing. I kept texting them: “There’s thousands of people outside; they are breaking into the Capitol; and they are taking a woman out on a gurney and she has a gaping hole in her neck.”

‘I couldn’t believe this was happening in my own country’

Jacobs: They told us in the gallery to be ready to take the gas masks from under our seats and prepare to evacuate, even while it seemed the debate was still going on. There was tear gas in the rotunda, the police said. I had a really hard time opening the packaging for the escape hood. I texted my parents and told them I was in the safest place I could be.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey: The last time I had a gas mask on was when I was in the military, but these looked very different. I turned to other members who looked a little shell shocked and made sure they were following instructions. I’ve been trained in the military on how to evacuate people in situations like this — so I wanted to help, but I didn’t want to be in the way. I focused on helping other members get across the gallery, particularly [Rep.] Pramila Jayapal, who had just had surgery and was struggling with a cane. At one point, I was on the ground and thought to call my husband to let him know I was OK. 

Spanberger: It was a chaotic situation, the gas masks were making this buzzing noise, and my husband texted me that it doesn’t look good. Attempting to maintain some level of humor, I had told him, “Don’t worry, my hair’s back in a ponytail,” which to me, means I’m ready to fight. I had my pen in hand, I told him I wasn’t going to go down without stabbing it in someone’s neck — a bit of dark humor. We joked that surely I would gain some Twitter followers if I took down some would-be Nazis. I’m a former CIA officer, trained for a whole host of uncomfortable situations. 

A composite photo of the members in the house and the national guard resting the Capitol halls).
Pence in the chamber before the attack, left. National Guard troops after the attack. (Photos courtesy of Congresswoman Jackie Speier)

Rep. Jackie Speier of California: There was this loud pounding — the rioters wanted to break through. The officers put a large piece of furniture in front of the door and pulled their guns. I was lying on the floor in the second row of the gallery. And then I heard a gunshot ring out. I placed my cheek on the marble floor and thought, “Oh my God, I have survived the jungles of Guyana and here I am, in my own country, in this tabernacle of democracy, and I may be losing my life.” I flashed back to that primitive airstrip in 1978: Congressman Leo Ryan was shot 45 times and died; I was shot five times and lay there, waiting for the shooting to stop and preparing to die. I couldn’t believe this was happening in my own country.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut: I had my gas mask and was grabbing my stuff when the chaplain went to the podium and said a prayer of peace. We started making our way across the gallery, but there are railings every few seats, so we had to keep ducking under. Someone said it felt like we were doing the limbo. The glass was being smashed by the rioters, so our security told us to get down and someone shouted to take off our congressional pins. I was lying on the floor, and I had very little juice left in my phone, but I called my husband. I was afraid to say “I love you,” because it harkened back to 9/11. 

Kuster: When a group of men pushed couches in front of the door and drew their guns, this was the scariest moment for me. What if the first people through that door have automatic weapons and they’re looking for members of Congress? I grabbed Rep. Sara Jacobs and said, “We’ve got to get around this corner and duck down behind the railing of the gallery to make sure we are out of the line of fire.” Shortly after that, a policeman finally said, “Go, go, go, we’ve got to get you out of here.” He told us to put the gas masks on and then run, but keep down to go underneath these railings all along the full length of the Capitol. We got to an elevator, and I was having kind of a panic attack and couldn’t breathe. I said, “What if the elevator doors open and we got shot?” An officer stood in front of the doors and assured me, “Ma’am, I am here to protect you.”

Escobar: I made my way from one side of the gallery to the other amid the “Get down! Take cover!” screams, and when we got there, we were again instructed to get down. I was watching the police officers with their guns pointed at the terrorists. I could see their faces through the broken glass on the door, and I remember feeling very afraid for the police because I thought they were going to get shot in the head. 

Torres: When the officer yelled, “Get up! Go! Go! Go!” I stayed behind to make sure the older members, those recovering from surgeries and others who needed assistance were not left behind. I didn’t realize that I would miss my short window to leave and be pinned down on the floor again. It happened so quickly. The officer closed the door, told us to get on the ground and then said we had to get and move in the opposite direction because the officers couldn’t hold the line. About 15 to 20 minutes later, after crawling to the other side of the balcony, an officer opened a door and told us to run. 

‘The officer told me to take my shoes off, because we had to run faster’

Jacobs: When the elevator doors opened, we started running through hallways. We could hear the mob behind us and Capitol police running, and that’s when I was really scared. I really thought that we were going to be killed. So I was thinking about what messages we needed to send to my team to make sure they would use this situation to at least create some good. I remember thinking to myself over and over again: I don’t even know how to get out in normal times. It’s my fourth day. I don’t know how to get out.

Torres: When we ran out of the gallery, there was a group of men — not in uniform — running toward us. Some of my colleagues started screaming, some started praying harder. We were shocked. We thought it was the mob coming after us. But then they started yelling, “We are your security. We’re here to protect you.” They surrounded us and we kept running down the stairwells. During this time, my son, who is a police officer, called me. I answered the phone and said, “Sweetheart, I’m fine, and I’m running for my life. I cannot talk to you right now.” 

Rice: My colleague and I were still in the office watching the TV; the sounds of the rioters had quieted as they moved toward the chambers. An officer eventually came to get us. The Capitol Police had set up a water eye rinsing station nearby to flush the rioters’ pepper spray out. We ran for nearly 15 minutes through the basement tunnels. We didn’t see any rioters, but at one point, the officer told me to take my shoes off, because we had to run faster. It was just horrifying. 

Escobar: I was in the last group to leave the gallery, along with Mikie Sherrill, because Pramila Jayapal was using a cane and we stayed behind to make sure she got out safe. I don’t remember there being a police officer there to escort us out. As we descended the stairs, going from the third floor to the second, I turned and saw men with long guns facedown on the floor and officers surrounding them with drawn guns. The men on the ground were looking right at us. It was just awful. 

Sherrill: We ended up sort of leading the group to a secure location. It felt like it took forever to get to the safe room because as we got to the bottom of each stairway or went to turn a corner, we didn’t know if we would encounter a mob. I kept eyeing the elevators because that would have been so much more convenient, but I don’t think any of us wanted to get on and have the doors open up to a mob.

Bustos: While in the crowded safe room, we were sent Skittles and water; we hadn’t eaten lunch. Some people were angry that certain members were not wearing face masks. At one point, the chaplain came in and said a prayer. After several hours, Speaker Pelosi finally came and told us that we weren’t going to let the mob win. We didn’t leave the room until about 8 p.m.

‘I was in shock, not feeling emotions’

Lawrence: When we finally walked back to the Capitol, we passed broken glass and tear gas canisters. It was eerie, the most eerie feeling. The bathroom I had been in earlier was right by where the woman was shot. I was in shock, not feeling emotions and just going through the motions.

Torres: Those who had been in the gallery decided to stay together when we went back on the House floor, because our constituents needed to see us finish our job. Walking back through halls that I had just been running for my life in brought a lot of trauma. I was terrified to even open my office door. I ran and grabbed my ceremonial bat and checked the three rooms in my office. Then I went to the bathroom, washed my face and arms and then sat down and cried. Then I finally made a call to my husband, which up until that point, I had avoided. 

Bonamici: In between the Arizona and Pennsylvania vote around midnight, I tried to take a little nap in my office. I was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted, but I couldn’t even close my eyes. What if someone tries to knock on the door? What if someone got in my hallway? I didn’t rest. 

Fernandez: When my son and I finally got home and were in a safe place, he looked at me and said, “I just need to be by myself,” and I thought, “My God, this kid just went through a traumatic event.” That’s when I cried, and I thought of my colleagues. All the trauma just keeps building.

Bustos: I couldn’t get out of Washington fast enough, so I flew home early the next morning. It was the worst flight of my life. The plane was filled with people who had hours earlier stormed the Capitol. In the middle of the flight, 30,000 feet in the air, the woman in front of me stood up, ripped off her mask and started yelling: “Patriots! When you get home, you need to storm your capitols. This can’t end.” There were loud chants in the back. I kept my coat on and didn’t wear my congressional pin, because I didn’t want them to know I was a member of Congress, someone they wanted to kill or maim the previous day. 

Rep. Susie Lee of Nevada: I definitely underreacted on January 6. It wasn’t until I flew home to Las Vegas the next day when it caught up to me. I started to see all of the videos that people had taken from their own cameras: the police officer getting crushed in the door, the officers getting overrun without helmets and the hand-to-hand combat. By Saturday, I had to turn the TV off because it was triggering to hear that noise and hear how much danger we were really in. That’s when I broke down. And now I have to ask myself, “Am I even safe in my own district? In my own home?”

Fletcher: The idea that we should just “move on” remains the most terrifying to me. Many, many years ago, I volunteered at a domestic abuse shelter, and it felt like people kept saying, “don’t impeach the president or it might happen again.” That’s just the language of abuse.

More lawmakers, in their own words

A number of other women lawmakers released statements or documented their experiences. Find them here:

Alexa Mikhail contributed to this report.

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