January 29, 2021

I was in the Senate print press gallery when all hell broke loose.

As the reporter for CBS News covering the Senate on Jan. 6, my job was simple. Electronics aren’t allowed in the Senate chamber, and C-SPAN cameras only point at the dais in the front of the room and whoever happens to be speaking at the moment.

My task — as it had been during the impeachment trial last year — was to sit inside the Senate chamber and take notes on what was happening.

Who was chatting, who was taking notes, who was fidgeting, who was on their phone. I like to think of it as gauging the “vibe” in the chamber, and my regular email updates to the rest of the CBS News bureau amounted to “vibe checks.” I would spend about half an hour in the room, and then return to the print press gallery to shoot a mass email to CBS about what was going on inside.

The print press gallery is a series of rooms that opens into a balcony overlooking the Senate chamber. Imagine the chamber as a fish bowl. The bottom of the fish bowl is the floor of the chamber on the second story of the Capitol; that’s where the senators meet. There are balconies around the edges of the chamber on the third floor of the building — the lip of the fish bowl. Members of the press have one side of the fish bowl all to ourselves and are able to stare over the edge of the balcony and observe the pontificating subjects below.

Even before the rioters overran the building, I could sense a disturbance within the fish bowl. Outside, there were demonstrators screaming and threatening violence. Inside, several senators were calmly arguing in favor of doing the very thing that the demonstrators wanted — seeking to overturn the election.

I usually walk to the Capitol. It’s a brisk walk, about 20 minutes from where I live, and one that I treasure. But I promised my boyfriend that I would take an Uber to the Capitol instead that day because he was concerned about protesters gathering around the building to object to President Joe Biden’s election.

I wasn’t really concerned about violence. I tend to downplay the seriousness of any potentially catastrophic event — my natural disaster planning is terrible because I always assume that things will just work out on their own. But my boyfriend was worried, and my friends were worried, so fine, I would be cautious. I took an Uber and arrived at the Dirksen Senate Office Building shortly after 9 a.m.

I was on the Senate side of the Capitol for the majority of that day. Occasionally I would leave the Senate TV/Radio press gallery, a windowless maze tucked next to the Senate chamber that served as the workspace for network reporters, and take a look outside at the protesters gathering behind barricades on the east side of the Capitol. I could hear chants of “stop the steal” from the corridor on the third floor. That’s a lot of angry people, I thought, in the understatement of the year.

I was tasked with sitting in the House chamber when the day’s proceedings began, then returning to the Senate when both houses went into session to consider objections to Arizona’s Electoral College count.

It was already a weird day. First of all, I was rolling into the Capitol sporting a KN95 mask, because, oh right, we’re still in the middle of a devastating pandemic. But also, the day’s events were anything but normal.

A large number of Republicans sought to overturn the results of the election and would object to the Electoral College counts from several states despite little to no evidence of voter fraud. Federal judges, many of them nominated by the president, had dismissed dozens of cases by the Trump campaign challenging the election results. Neither the president, his campaign, nor the lawmakers who supported him had provided legitimate evidence of any wrongdoing.

But on Jan. 6, Republican senators and representatives were nonetheless trying to overturn the election results to appease a man who wouldn’t accept that he had lost, and to satisfy that unwavering base of supporters who hung onto his every false word about the election.

I knew that I was witnessing history, that I was watching democratic institutions be challenged and maybe even strained to the breaking point. I didn’t yet know the extent.

By the afternoon, I was hanging out in the print press gallery of the Senate. I had left my backpack — filled with snacks and chargers — in the radio/TV gallery, foolishly believing I could return whenever I needed.

I was writing my email with my latest batch of observations when rioters overran the building. That email remains in my drafts, overshadowed by the events of the next few moments. By this point, I had heard murmurs that the Capitol was in lockdown and a House office building had been evacuated, but I didn’t know much.

“To put it simply, the vibe in the chamber is incredibly weird,” I wrote in my unsent email. “Protesters are overrunning the barricades outside. But inside the Senate chamber, it’s like another world, cushioned from outside interference by thick walls and C-SPAN cameras.”

“There’s an extreme dissonance between the mood outside of the building and inside the Capitol. Objecting senators are acting as if this is business as usual,” I continued.

As I finished writing these words, Paul Kane of The Washington Post emerged from the Senate chamber. “Pence has left!” he shouted. He jogged through the rest of the gallery, shouting his message, the Paul Revere of the Capitol Hill press.

I assumed that the demonstrations outside must have gotten a bit too rowdy and Secret Service had removed Vice President Mike Pence out of an abundance of caution. Instead of sending my wordier email describing the mood in the chamber, I sent an email at 2:14 p.m. with the subject line “Pence has left.”

“Pence has left Senate chamber, perhaps for security reasons. They’re locking us in the press room,” I wrote. A frazzled Capitol police officer had just told Senate gallery staff to lock the doors.

I learned several days later that the rioters almost got into the Senate chamber at just about 2:14 p.m. Igor Bobic of HuffPost filmed a video, which he tweeted at 2:16 p.m., of Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman directing shouting demonstrators up the stairs and away from the Senate chamber. If Goodman hadn’t been there, if he hadn’t instead herded the rioters into a corridor where other Capitol Police were waiting, they probably would have entered the chamber then, seriously endangering Pence, around 100 senators and the reporters on the balcony.

Shortly after I sent the email about Pence, staffers shouted to the rest of us still sitting in the gallery that we needed to get inside the chamber. I hesitated, unwilling to leave my laptop and phone while I was locked in. I impulsively grabbed my laptop and ran to the door just as they were locking it. I squeezed in through the door onto the balcony, getting bruised as it hit me.

This was around 2:16 p.m. I sent an email to my editors at 2:17 p.m. with the subject line, “We are locked in the Senate chamber.” A Senate gallery staffer shouted at me to put away my computer and phone. I pleaded with them, saying I needed to let my editors know what was going on. After a few moments of stalemate, I relocated to another part of the balcony, where I unsubtly pulled out my phone and began to shoot missives to my editors.

At this point, the texts and messages from my family, friends and vague acquaintances were streaming in. I probably should have reached out to my mom and my boyfriend immediately, letting them know I was safe. But even then, I didn’t realize how serious it was.

My boyfriend was at home, watching the rioters overrun the Capitol. I was actually in the Capitol, and I had no idea what the situation truly was.

Inside the chamber, it was barely contained chaos. Senators were standing, some clustered in nervous groups, many of them on their phones. Police surrounded the room. At one point, an officer shouted that the senators needed to step away from the doors. Senators milled around, confused or unable to process what the officer said. Sen. Amy Klobuchar angrily shouted to her colleagues to stay away from the doors.

“Shots fired,” she said. “This is serious.”

I felt tears beginning to prick the corner of my eyes. I brushed them aside and took deep breaths. Later, I told myself. You can feel this later. Right now, you have to work.

After about half an hour, the senators were suddenly evacuated. They streamed to the open doors on one side of the room like fish caught in a current. Sen. Cory Booker, who was on the tail end of this exodus, looked up at the reporters in the Senate gallery and asked how we were doing. He said it casually, with a smile on his face.

“We’re doing OK,” I said, my voice likely tinged with hysteria.

It seemed at first like the senators would be evacuated but the reporters would remain trapped in the chamber.

“What about us?” a Senate gallery staffer shouted down to the police officers, notifying them that the reporters and staffers needed to evacuate, too. Without that staffer’s quick thinking, we probably would have been trapped in the chamber when the rioters entered it just moments later.

The reporters were shuffled off of the balcony and out of the press gallery. Many of us headed for the stairs — the same stairs that had been overrun with rioters redirected by Officer Goodman. There was a police officer at the top of the stairs who told us to take the elevator.

“They’re on the stairs,” he said, referring to the rioters. I crammed into an elevator with several other reporters, including Nicholas Fandos of The New York Times, who thankfully knew to press a button to bypass all other floors until we hit the basement.

We half walked, half jogged behind the senators in the path between the Senate subways. Police officers asked us to show our badges regularly and urged us to stay calm.

On our way to the secure location where we spent the next five hours, we passed two Capitol maintenance workers.

“Are you evacuating?” I asked them. They looked confused and said no. “You need to evacuate,” I said.

“You need to get beyond a locked door, now,” said Katherine Tully-McManus of Roll Call, who was jogging alongside me. For a moment, I marveled at the fact that these workers hadn’t even been notified of the danger.

(Worth noting, perhaps, that the majority of workers in the Capitol complex — including these two that I passed — are black. Many of the rioters were white supremacists, with one photographed carrying the Confederate flag through the building.)

Reporters were initially put in the same room as the senators, but we were quickly moved to a sort of anteroom right outside. I guess the senators didn’t want to be stuck with the reporters who would undoubtedly ask uncomfortable questions.

Then I sat on the floor for, oh, around five hours, or a little less. It was alternately boring and horrifying. There was initially talk of senators getting bussed out of the Capitol, but those plans faded quickly.

Reporters huddled on the floor, sharing chargers and what little news we could glean from Twitter and overheard reports from officers’ walkie-talkies. We all gasped when we saw pictures of the rioters inside the Senate chamber just moments after we had left. We observed nervously as various law enforcement officers wearing full tactical gear came and left the room and its surrounding hallways. We chatted. We wrote emails.

I gave an interview for a special report for CBS News while sitting on the floor. It seemed surreal to me to be talking about an attack that I had just barely missed, while I sat safely, if uncomfortably, in a secure location.

It’s probably good that I felt as safe as I did at the time. With every day that passes, I learn more about how close I came to witnessing the possible assassinations of lawmakers and how reporters were targeted by rioters, and I become a bit more terrified. I had no idea at the time that rioters had hanged nooses around the building, had called for assassinating lawmakers, and even were targeting members of the press.

When I returned to the Capitol complex, I saw the words “MURDER THE MEDIA” written on a door in red.

At one point, Capitol food service workers wheeled in meals to the senators. I was pretty hungry — my backpack of snacks was still in the radio/TV gallery — but I was barely able to eat when the workers handed reporters leftover trays of chicken and beef. I texted my colleagues in the House chamber. Before they were moved to a secure location, they had been barricaded in the room while officers had a standoff with armed rioters just outside the door.

Shortly after 5 p.m., the president released his video message on Twitter calling the violent rioters “special.” I listened in disbelief as another reporter played it on his phone. How could the president say that he “loved” the people who had desecrated the Capitol, who had threatened to kill lawmakers, including his own vice president? The video was taken down, but its message stayed with me.

Senators occasionally emerged from their room to talk to reporters. At one point, Sen. Ted Cruz left the larger room and briefly walked into our domain. Jason Donner of Fox News asked Cruz, a leader of the efforts to object to the Electoral College results, if he felt any responsibility for what had happened. Cruz turned around and reentered the senators’ room without answering.

At around 7 p.m., we were told that it was safe to return to the Capitol. I and several other reporters walked behind the staffers carrying Electoral College ballots through the Senate subway. If a fast-thinking aide hadn’t quickly grabbed the ballots on her way out of the chamber, they likely would have been destroyed by the rioters.

The floor of the Capitol was chalky from spent fire extinguishers. We were told not to touch any railings, as tear gas had been employed.  But my backpack up in the radio/TV gallery was blessedly safe.

I returned to the print press gallery, waiting for the Senate to reconvene at 8 p.m. We were briefly forced out of the rooms as a bomb squad came through, with an adorable yet intimidating bomb-sniffing German Shepherd in tow.

“Why were we allowed back in the room if it hadn’t yet been swept for bombs?” a reporter asked. A Senate gallery staffer said we hadn’t actually been allowed back into the gallery, but we had all entered before we could be notified.

The mood was somber when I reentered the chamber, weighed down by everything that had occurred. In a rare show of bipartisanship, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle gave Pence a standing ovation after he made brief boilerplate remarks.

I wondered if the events of the day would have changed senators’ minds, if they would now choose to accept the Electoral College results. Some, such as Sen. James Lankford, did change their vote in light of the insurrection. But others — including Sen. Josh Hawley and Cruz — did not. A handful of Republican senators and the majority of House Republicans voted to overturn the will of the voters in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

The lawmakers went back to work as if nothing had happened, and so did I. Biden received over 270 electoral votes at 3:33 a.m., cinching his victory. I finally left the Capitol at around 4 a.m., picked up by my boyfriend because I didn’t want to get into a car with a stranger to ride home.

For several hours, I had been thinking about the moment I would enter my boyfriend’s car and finally let my guard down. I expected to break down crying. But I didn’t. It had been an exhausting day, and the events hadn’t sunk in yet. I was still functioning as if everything was normal when I knew that it wasn’t.

I slept for 11 hours on Thursday, from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. I woke up around noon and tried to get ready for work but laid down on the living room floor and cried, realizing that I needed more sleep. So I informed my very understanding editor and went back to sleep.

Every day, we learn more about what happened, what almost happened. Every day, the events of Jan. 6 become more real and terrifying to me. People keep checking in, asking how I’m doing, and I honestly don’t know. Sometimes I’m fine, sometimes I want to sob for hours, sometimes I just want to sleep.

Like I said, I tend to downplay traumatic events, so I’ve been telling myself for days that it wasn’t that bad. I was very lucky. I wasn’t hurt. I was evacuated safely.

I’ve had to repeatedly remind myself that yes, it was bad. It was horrifying. It was awful. It was one of the weirdest days of my life.

I returned to the Capitol on Jan. 13, exactly one week after the attacks on the Capitol, to report on the historic vote to impeach Trump for the second time. When I entered the building, there were thousands of National Guard troops. As I passed through the Capitol Visitor Center, an airy complex usually filled with tourists, I saw hundreds of guardsmen lying on the hard marble floor cradling their guns, napping after a long overnight shift.

The guardsmen were friendly and chatted with reporters. I heard from multiple guardsmen that this was their first time at the Capitol, and they saw their deployment there as an opportunity to tour the seat of the nation’s legislature.

At one point, a guardsman asked me what it was like to see my place of work filled with thousands of troops. I told him, honestly, that it was extremely bizarre. He asked me if I felt safer with the National Guard there.

I wanted to say “no.” I wanted to say that seeing the guardsmen there had made the events of last week more real, that I had cried in the bathroom in the House press gallery after walking past all of them in the visitor center.

But I didn’t say that. I told him that yes, I felt safer, but I was concerned about what their presence meant — that we might still be in danger.

“Don’t worry,” he said, and I realized suddenly that he and I were probably around the same age. “We’ve got this.”

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Grace Segers is a political reporter for CBS News based in Washington, D.C.
Grace Segers

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