The Morning Call (Sunday)
‘It was pandemonium’
Inside Rep. Susan Wild’s experience of the U.S. Capitol invasion
Susan Wild woke up around 7 Wednesday morning in her Washington, D.C., apartment. The Democratic congresswoman representing Pennsylvania’s 7th District had a busy day ahead of her — Congress was set to certify the results of the 2020 election.
The final step in the election process is usually a swift formality. Not this time. More than 100 of her Republican colleagues planned to mount a quixotic effort to prevent Joe Biden from replacing Donald Trump, mostly based on debunked election fraud allegations.
Wild had a Zoom meeting with other Pennsylvania House Democrats at 9 a.m. For two hours, they discussed how each would respond to the likely objections of eight Pennsylvania House Republicans. That protests outside the U.S. Capitol might escalate into a violent insurrection, she said, was not discussed.
The second-term Lehigh Valley congresswoman anticipated deliberations would continue well into the evening, so
she put a portable phone battery charger into her backpack. She’d meant to make a sandwich, but only had sliced Gouda cheese in her refrigerator. Before leaving around noon, she grabbed a water bottle and her favorite rollerball pen, and slipped into her most comfortable flats.
Onher five-minute drive, Wild passed pop-up vendors selling “Make America Great Again” and “Stop the Steal” paraphernalia to Trump supporters marching toward the Capitol. On the advice of U.S. Capitol Police, she parked in an underground garage and took interior walkways to get to her office.
At 1 p.m., when the joint session of Congress got underway, Wild took a seat in the gallery above the House floor. She’d been directed to sit on the far-right side of the gallery, above and behind the House Speaker’s dais. Democratic colleagues such as Jimmy Gomez and Raul Ruiz of California and Tom Suozzi of New York sat nearby. So did Madeleine Dean, representing suburban Philadelphia. There wasn’t much time for conversation.
About 15 minutes in, after Alabama and Alaska delegates certified their states’ election results, some Arizona Republicans objected to Biden’s victory in the traditionally red-leaning state. Senate members left for their own chambers so each legislative body could separately debate the objections.
Over the next hour, a dozen House members (seven Republicans, five Democrats) debated the objections of Republican representatives from Arizona and other battleground states where Biden defeated Trump. During that time, Wild and her colleagues received three texts from the Capitol Police.
The first was an alert about protesters converging outside the building. The second said the Capitol’s external perimeter had been breached. The third warned of protesters in the building.
Wild remembers Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, was speaking shortly before 2 p.m. when “things really started getting hectic.” She was unsettled by the ambiguous language of the second text. What exactly did an “exterior breach” mean? She decided to move forward and take a seat by a ledge where members of the press typically work on laptops. If it came to it, she thought, she could hide underneath it.
When the third text arrived, Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, was comparing a forensic audit of the presidential election to NFL referees reviewing a controversial call. Wild saw police running through the hallway outside the gallery doors. Then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer were led off the floor.
Representatives were told to locate the gas masks under their seats because tear gas had been deployed outside. Wild had trouble removing the mask from a tightly sealed bag; Gomez helped her. In a moment she described as “nothing short of ludicrous,” the sergeant at arms called for business to resume on the floor.
In another minute, Capitol Police came into the gallery from multiple entrances, closed the doors and barricaded them with metal poles through the door handles. House members on the floor ran out of the chambers. Wild said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., shouted to floor staff, “What about us up here?”
Floor staff directed politicians and press in the gallery to make their way to the last remaining open door — on the opposite side from Wild.
“There was a lot of directions shouted, and you didn’t know if it was to your group or another,” she said. “It was pandemonium at that point, though nothing compared to what would happen later.”
Wild started making her away across the cramped gallery rows. She crawled along the carpeted rows and underneath the metal handle bars on the aisle stairs between seating sections. When she got halfway across, with a direct view of the dais below, floor staff shouted to get down. Below, rioters shattered glass on the barricaded chambers’ with doors, shelves. which Officers were pulled their guns.
Wild abandoned her backpack so she could crawl quicker, but Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colorado, offered to carry it for her. A few minutes later, she lost one of her flats, and turned back for it. Crow, a decorated Army Ranger and veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told her to keep going.
Just as Wild was approaching the last exit, officers told the roughly two dozen people remaining that they wouldn’t be able to evacuate. There was a disturbance in the hallway, and the final doors were barricaded. They were told to shelter in place and get down.
Somewhere, she heard either gunshots or flash grenades. Rioters pounded on the doors below. In front of her, Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, called her mother and husband and told them she loved them. Behind her, Crow called his wife and said the same.
After hesitating — she didn’t want to worry them — Wild Face
Timed her 27-year-old son, Clay, and her 24-year-old daughter, Adrienne.
“They’re trying to evacuate us,” she told them. “I think I’m OK.”
“We can hear glass shattering and shots behind you,” her son responded .“How . can you be OK?”
The call left Wild shaken. A state of agitation gave way to what she believes in retrospect was a panic attack. Her heart started pounding “really, really hard.”
She only realized her distress was visible when Crow reached out to hold her hand. In a soft, calm voice, he told her, “We are going to be OK.” The moment was captured in a photo widely seen and shared in the days since.
In fact, Crow was not so sure. Later, he told CNN that the situation caused him to go into “Ranger mode” for the first time since he returned from war 15 years ago.
“I thought there was a possibility I would have to fight my way out,” Crow told CNN. “I had a pen in my pocket that I could use as a weapon, and I was looking for other weapons as well.”
After another 15-20 minutes, police said it was time to evacuate. Crow told Wild and Sewell to remove pins identifying who they were. While Crow hung back to help police, Wild was led down hallways and stairwells she’d never seen before. She removed her remaining shoe and walked barefoot.
Their destination was a secured room with high ceilings and few chairs. Though the room was large, Wild estimated more than 300 people were packed in so tightly it was difficult to walk around. It wasn’t the greatest place to be, she noted, during a resurgent pandemic.
For a while, Wild sat alone in a corner and tried to decompress. Near her, hostility flared between Democratic and Republican men. Eventually, she called back her children to let them know that she was, at least for the moment, safe
Wild remained in the room for six hours. Everyone shared a single bathroom, and the only available food were Goldfish crackers and Skittles. She doesn’t particularly care for either.
One bright spot: Crow recovered her missing shoe.
Once the initial shock wore off and the monotony kicked in, she started to feel angry. How could this happen? she wondered. It’s not like they came out of nowhere. What a colossal failure in security.
“I was also furious that people felt emboldened enough to do this,” she said. “How dare they?”
She knew the answer. Sitting in her corner, she watched on Twitter a video of Trump rallying protesters earlier that morning. He called the outcome of the election an “egregious assault on our democracy,” and encouraged supporters to protest outside the Capitol. He told them, “You will never take back our country with weakness.”
Before the House reconvened shortly after 9 p.m., Wild had enough time to go back to her office, lock the door behind her, brush her teeth and talk to family again. She returned to the House gallery with Pennsylvania colleague Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District.
Despite the day’s violence, eight Pennsylvania Republicans pressed forward with their objections to certifying the state’s election results. Because Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, also objected, the joint session broke up shortly after midnight so each legislative body could again debate. It wasn’t until almost 4 a.m. Thursday that Biden was officially certified as the next president of the United States.
Wild found herself craving pizza, but Washington was shut down. When she got back to her apartment around 4:15 a.m., she had to settle for a few slices of the Gouda cheese in her fridge.
She lay down but never really slept. And at 7 a.m., she was up.
Throughout Thursday, soreness in her arms and legs from crawling across the gallery intensified. She compared it to the stiffness that follows your first hard workout in awhile. The pain worsened Friday to the point where she visited the House physician’s office to make sure it wasn’t something serious. He attributed her pain and exhaustion to the traumatic experience.
On Friday afternoon, Wild joined a growing number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers calling for Trump’s resignation or ouster from office. If the president’s Cabinet won’t invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him, Wild said, Congress should again proceed with impeachment.
She realizes the Senate may not vote to remove Trump days before he’s set to leave (Biden’s inauguration is Jan. 20). But she said Saturday that it’s important for the House to take a stand “against the behavior that incited this violence.”
“Unfortunately, the last four years have unleashed a new kind of governance, and there are still a whole lot of people in office who don’t seem to be troubled by the manner in which this president has governed,” she said. “I think it’s really important that we make it crystal clear this kind of behavior will not be tolerated from future presidents or other elected officials.”