The Senate Chamber at the point when the Capitol had been breached and rioters were attempting to enter the Senate Chamber. A plain clothes Capitol Police officer is in the presiding officer’s chair directing senators how to exit to safety. At the bottom of the frame, Senator Dick Durbin is listening to instruction as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer glances at Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The printed State Electoral Ballots in their elaborate leather carriers are on the table forward of the dais. In a few moments they will be removed to safety. FedNet Screen Grab photo
By Keith Carney
Over the course of nearly thirty years on Capitol Hill broadcasting Congress I have seen history unfold in front of me, mostly behind the lens of a video camera. The overtaking of the U.S. Capitol building last week was another chapter in that history.
On that historic day last week I recall driving to Capitol Hill early and noting large crowds of people walking from Union Station on Capitol Hill towards the National Mall to attend the planned rally.
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As I arrived at my offices on the Senate side, and finished my daily planning meeting with my staff, I proceeded to the Capitol to meet with congressional staff as the rally by the White House was taking place.
My company, FedNet (a broadcast news organization on the Hill) was providing our normal daily live feeds of the House and Senate floors as well as additional live camera feeds from Statuary Hall in the Capitol to show the historic ballot cases being carried from the Senate to the House through the Capitol’s second floor.
Out of the Senate Chambers doors, past Majority Leader McConnell’s office, into the grand Rotunda and into the majestic Statuary Hall, through the Will Rogers corridor and into the House Chamber to proceed with the perfunctory counting of the electoral votes from the States of the Union before a Joint Session of Congress.
The House convened and the Joint Session began a little past 1 p.m. As anticipated, objections were heard on the House Floor that demanded the Joint Session dissolve to their respective chambers on each side of the Capitol building to debate the certification of the electoral votes. Senators and the electoral ballots streamed past the broadcast cameras we were broadcasting. Meanwhile, the Trump rally in front of the White House was completed at approximately 1.10 p.m. and the protest headed for Capitol Hill.
Within an hour the break-in began. Capitol Police, who had set up small crowd control barriers around the Capitol and had only a shift of 500 officers to cover a dozen office buildings and the entire Capitol, were quickly overrun.
As the debate raged in both the House and Senate Chambers our cameras were broadcasting it live to the world and recording history as it occurred.
The House side of the Capitol was breached and the infiltrators were attempting to break into the House Chamber. House members could be seen directing their attention to the East Chamber entrances as police moved to push desks against the doors being smashed in anger. Leaders with police details, like Speaker Pelosi and Majority Whip Clyburn, were swiftly removed from the floor to safety. The video continued with some microphones inside the chamber still open as the chaos ensued.
On the north side of the Capitol, senators were debating the merits of their objections, each member allotted five minutes to make their case for or against.
We watched our live monitors as the unsuspecting senators and staff were directed by plain clothes Capitol Police who were now taking over the proceedings and directing the Upper Body to safe rooms in the Capitol just outside the chamber.
Astute Senate Floor staff smartly recognized the need to grab the elaborate leather cases carrying the hotly contested electoral vote documents and bring them to safety.
A campus wide radio alert system was calling attention to the need to shelter in place and stay locked down until further notice.
That same message began ringing through loudspeakers in the office building hallways. All exterior doors were secured and no one would be allowed in or out of the buildings.
Still in broadcast operations, I had my staff lock our office suite door as we heard police radios and fast paced steps coming down the hall. I urged my staff to phone and text their families to let them know that we were secure and safe.
My evening staff was calling from outside letting us know that they were not being allowed in. We instructed them to head home as soon as possible and stay away from the crowds outside.
We heard shots fired on one of our feeds and quickly paid close attention to replay the videos to see if we could determine the source.
Camera feeds continued into our operation center from multiple cameras placed in Statuary Hall.
Long abandoned by the crews that were seeking safe ground, we observed the infiltrators streaming through the Capitol with their flags and signs shouting “USA! USA!” and taking selfies with the majestic marble and bronze life-sized statues of important historic figures including Junipero Serra, Rosa Parks, Thomas Edison and many Founding Fathers.
Police rushed past these seemingly average Americans turned anarchist to deal with violent marauders in multiple locations.
Alert emails from the Capitol warned of suspicious packages at numerous locations around the Hill. And Twitter lit up with photos taken by still photographers who were left unscathed as broadcast TV crews trying to capture the rioting faced personal threats by the unhinged mobs – their cameras and equipment smashed to pieces. We waited on lockdown waiting for Congress to make a decision on re-convening.
By 8 p.m. my exhausted staff discussed with the Capitol Police the possibility of leaving the building and if it were safe. Leave yes, but no returning to the building, was the response.
I found a few glasses, grabbed a bottle of Tullamore from a secure cabinet and poured a wee drop in each glass. Raising a toast to my staff and referencing the day’s events I said, “Our job is covering history every day, some days history is ugly – today was one of them.”
The floors returned shortly after most of the crew had departed. I stayed with a skeleton crew as the Senate and House reconvened to finish their Electoral College vote debates and to show the world that democracy will not yield.
The tone had changed. The debate continued late into the night and we finished our coverage and departed around 4 a.m., physically and emotionally drained.
I drove home and passed the continuing protests outside the Capitol that continued until dawn.