I Was in the Capitol on Jan. 6, and I Won't Stop Telling My Story

Haley Talbot is a Capitol Hill producer and reporter for NBC News and MSNBC.

One year ago today, we witnessed an attack that shook the very institution of American democracy. It was a day that will live forever in infamy. 

When I first wrote about what transpired on the House floor on Jan. 6, 2021, I could barely find the words. It was not yet clear to me that the next 12 months would bring such profound sadness. 

I have only been covering Congress for three years, but in that time I have seen more than some reporters do in a lifetime — Supreme Court battles, government funding fights, two impeachments, a raging pandemic, and, of course, the attack on the Capitol. My colleagues Garrett Haake, Frank Thorp, and Leigh Ann Caldwell have decades of experience covering Capitol Hill, and I often look to them in disbelief with one question: "Is this normal?"

Last year, as tens of millions of Americans were glued to their televisions, watching helplessly as rioters stormed the Capitol, while those inside were forced to hide, fearing for their lives, our nation learned just how fragile our democracy is.

We read about coups d'etat happening in faraway countries like Zimbabwe and Myanmar, not the United States. The notion that such violence could happen here, in Washington, D.C., was previously inconceivable. January 6 was a reminder of just how quickly things could change.

As Congress prepared to certify the 2020 presidential election, veteran lawmakers gathered alongside their newly sworn in colleagues for what was expected to be a mostly uneventful day. It turned into one of the longest nights of our collective lives.

The following is a personal account dedicated to everyone inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, who, like me, continues to struggle with the trauma associated with that fateful day.

What I Saw

When the tear gas was deployed inside the rotunda and rioters began entering the chamber, I remember crouching down under a wooden seat. I saw Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal nearby holding a cane (she had recently undergone knee surgery), which I immediately identified as a potential weapon I could use if we were overrun by the rioters. I thought about how I would position myself to block as many people as possible.

During the long 20 minutes before we were evacuated from the chamber, I remember lawmakers ripping off their congressional pins so they wouldn't be identified by the rioters. A friend texted me, "Pick up and wear a MAGA hat if you need to blend in." 

Once we finally found shelter in Rep. Ruben Gallego's office, I saw the images of some rioters raiding Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office on TV. It didn't feel real. Garrett reminded me not to disclose where we were located because we could become a target if rioters were still roaming the hallways searching for lawmakers and reporters. Along with a handful of other reporters and Rep. Gallego, we sheltered in place for five hours.

We were finally cleared to leave the office and safely return to the Capitol around 8 p.m. that night. What we found there was a crime scene: bloodied statues, shattered glass, and vandalized paintings. In the rotunda, a space where former presidents and senators lay in state, I saw trash littered everywhere — smashed wooden furniture, discarded flags, hats, broken glass, water bottles, cigarette butts. The Capitol had been ransacked. 

What I Heard

One year after the attack, the sounds are still haunting. In a recent interview with NBC News Correspondent Ali Vitali, Rep. Sara Jacobs said she still can't listen to videos from that day with the sound on because of the searing memories they bring back. 

"There's this buzzing that I will never forget," she told NBC News, describing the noise that came from the gas hood she wore in the chamber. "It's all consuming because you have this hood on, and it's like all you can hear."

I remember members of Congress praying as we sheltered in the chamber, begging for a resolution to the senseless violence. Other members called their spouses and loved ones. "Turn off the TV, mommy is going to be OK," one told their child. 

A few days later, my boyfriend was driving and our tire blew out. The loud bang sent me right back to the chamber the moment I heard the gunshot. Reliving that moment was painful. I'd never experienced symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) before. When I told a member of Congress — a combat veteran —  about that moment, they instantly related.

What I Felt

Days after, I remember seeing bruises all over my body — black and blue marks all along my legs from climbing over the handrails in the chamber to get to safety, trying to get to where lawmakers were huddling as chaos ensued on the House floor. 

While the bruises eventually faded away, the emotional wounds still linger.  Lawmakers, staffers, and reporters walk into the Capitol every day reminded of Jan. 6. Black and brown staffers face the trauma of images of rioters holding Confederate flags and nooses as they stormed the Capitol and into their place of work. 

Many lawmakers have been candid this past year about their mental health battles and PTSD. Congressman Dan Kildee told NBC News' Senior Washington Correspondent Hallie Jackson during an interview for NBC News that "he thought he was fine," but later, after seeing images of the day, he was diagnosed with PTSD and sought counseling. "Most people that experience trauma don't experience it in real time on every network across the world," he said. 

In the rotunda, a space where former presidents and senators lay in state, I saw trash littered everywhere — smashed wooden furniture, discarded flags, hats, broken glass, water bottles, cigarette butts. The Capitol had been ransacked.

The People

The female lawmakers and veterans that surrounded me in the chamber were so brave that day. Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger refused to go into the safe room until she knew the other journalists I was with would be OK. Congressman Gallego opened up his office to us when we had nowhere to go. We hunkered down in his Longworth office for 5 hours. He made several trips to vending machines in the complex, returning with snacks and beverages as we waited. 

We cannot let history be rewritten.

It was not a "peaceful protest" or a "normal tourist visit," as some Republicans have called it. 

Sue Kroll, the legendary NBC News producer, called me days after the attack. I hadn't stopped working until that very moment. I was sitting at home alone, only just beginning to process what had really happened. She assured me that my experience wasn't in vain, and that the work I did that day, and the work I continue to do, is a service to our country. She helped me remember that now, more than ever, our jobs were critically important — that we have to keep people informed. 

I recently rewatched some of Garrett and Leigh Ann's on-air reporting from Jan. 6. I am so proud of how they captured what I saw and heard and shared it with the world. Since then, their reporting has brought clarity to the events leading up to the attack and how it transpired. In the subsequent twelve months after the attack, we have continued to focus on accountability and truth in our work. 

My colleagues and I have sought therapy to deal with the trauma. I've had candid conversations with Capitol Police officers, staffers on both sides of the aisle, and custodial staff that were all inside the Capitol that heinous day. Staffers I respect, who have served our country for decades, have quit in droves. People are still hurting. I am still trying to find the words for what we experienced. 

The wounds are still raw. It is impossible to know what the next 365 days will bring. Accountability? Bipartisanship? Healing? 

I enter 2022 bruised but not broken, forever optimistic.

Talbot will be a part of NBC News and MSNBC's special coverage today beginning at 9 a.m. ET

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