Blinded by smoke and choking on gas and bear spray, stripped of his radio and badge, D.C. police officer Michael Fanone and his battered colleagues fought to push back rioters trying to force their way into an entrance to the U.S. Capitol.
The officers had been at it for hours, unaware that others in the mob had already breached the building through different entrances. For them, the West Terrace doors — which open into a tunnel-like hallway allowing access to an area under the Rotunda — represented the last stand before the Capitol fell.
“Dig in!” Fanone yelled, his voice cracking, as he and others were being struck with their own clubs and shields, ripped from their hands by rioters. “We got to get these doors shut.”
An officer since 9/11, the 40-year-old Fanone, who has four daughters, had been working a crime-suppression detail in another part of the District on Jan. 6. He and his partner sped to the Capitol when dispatchers broadcast an urgent citywide emergency call.
“They were overthrowing the Capitol, the seat of democracy, and I f---ing went,” Fanone said.
The officers at the West Terrace eventually pushed people away from the doors. It was only then that Fanone saw the immense, volatile crowd stretched out in front of him and realized what police were up against.
“We weren’t battling 50 or 60 rioters in this tunnel,” he said in the first public account from D.C. police officers who fought to protect the Capitol during last week’s siege. “We were battling 15,000 people. It looked like a medieval battle scene.”
Someone in the crowd grabbed Fanone’s helmet, pulled him to the ground and dragged him on his stomach down a set of steps. At around the same time, police said, the crowd pulled a second officer down the stairs. Police said that chaotic and violent scene was captured in a video that would later spread widely on the Internet.
Rioters swarmed, battering the officers with metal pipes peeled from scaffolding and a pole with an American flag attached, police said. Both were struck with stun guns. Fanone suffered a mild heart attack and drifted in and out of consciousness.
All the while, the mob was chanting “U.S.A.” over and over and over again.
“We got one! We got one!” Fanone said he heard rioters shout. “Kill him with his own gun!”
D.C. police had been worried for weeks about trouble on Jan. 6, when Congress would meet to tally the electoral votes and formalize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Supporters of President Trump who believe his false claims that he was the real winner called for a mass demonstration, with Trump tweeting, “Be there, will be wild!”
The 3,800-member D.C. police force, responsible for protecting city streets, not federal buildings, had all hands on deck that day and asked neighboring jurisdictions to line up help if needed. The mayor asked the D.C. National Guard to assist with traffic control, freeing officers for more-urgent duties.
But no such preparations were being made at the Capitol building, a prime target on social media postings calling for an armed insurrection. The Capitol has its own 2,100-member police force controlled by Congress. Its police chief at the time, Steven Sund, who resigned in the riot’s aftermath, said that he began to worry Jan. 4 and that his requests to enlist the Guard were repeatedly thwarted until the Capitol was already overrun.
Acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III has said D.C. officers “saved democracy” by coming to the rescue of Capitol Police personnel overwhelmed by the crowd. Authorities said the attack resulted in the deaths of Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick, who had been confronting the mob, as well as four rioters, including a woman fatally shot by a Capitol officer.
This account is based on interviews with Contee, in the top job just four days before the riot, along with members of his command staff and officers on the front lines.
These police leaders talked of battles using metaphors typically reserved for wars, describing fighting on three fronts, including the West Terrace, one of the few places where police prevented rioters from breaking through. Had those rioters succeeded, authorities said, thousands more people could have poured into the Capitol, with possible catastrophic consequences.
Nearly 60 D.C. police officers and an unknown number of Capitol officers were hurt in the siege, with injuries that included bruised and sprained limbs, concussions and irritated lungs. Sicknick, who police said physically engaged rioters, died the next day. Authorities said he was injured, but they did not elaborate.
A time-lapsed security-camera video police played for The Washington Post shows the crowd building along First Street, near the Capitol Reflecting Pool, around 11:15 a.m. First, a couple hundred showed. Trump started his incendiary speech outside the White House shortly before noon.
Inside the Capitol, the House convened at noon and the Senate at 12:30 p.m. in preparation for the joint session, with some Republican lawmakers preparing to contest the count.
By then, thousands of Trump supporters were starting to stream toward the Capitol. The demonstrators were mostly White people, many wearing red Make America Great Again hats or other similar regalia, and some carrying Confederate battle flags.
They began encircling an expanse of grass protected only by some makeshift metal fences and bicycle racks — and only a few Capitol Police officers.
At 12:50 p.m., protesters jumped bike racks, the first of many breaches that day, and headed en masse toward the Capitol steps and the towering scaffolding prepared for the inaugural viewing stands and media tower.
Capitol Police called D.C. police for help around 1 p.m., and the first officers quickly arrived, dressed in bright yellow jackets. Within 15 minutes, they streamed down the Capitol steps toward the surging crowd, led by Robert Glover, the D.C. police on-scene commander who this week was promoted to the rank of commander.
He declared a riot at 1:50 p.m.
By then, congressional staffers were being told to rush to secure locations. Suspected pipe bombs had been found outside the grounds.
Glover, a 26-year veteran who headed the force’s Special Events Branch, overseeing security for presidential inaugurations and large-scale demonstrations, met with a Capitol Police supervisor to coordinate a response. Glover sent in two civil-disturbance units and kept a third on standby.
The front of the Capitol is divided into terraces linked by stairs, and Glover first positioned officers on the middle terrace. Cmdr. Ramey Kyle of the D.C. police was directing officers on a lower terrace. Capitol Police turned their focus inside the building, confronting protesters who had gotten inside and securing members of Congress and Vice President Pence, there in a ceremonial role overseeing the proceedings.
Rioters who had scaled the scaffolding were on an upper terrace pelting officers with debris from above. Others were hitting them from below, armed with metal poles ripped from scaffolding, wooden 2-by-4 boards, bats, sledgehammers, table legs and 50-pound fire extinguishers. The mob erected a barricade from the debris, using bleacher and scaffolding parts to block officers from moving along the upper terrace.
Police had exhausted their chemical munitions, which Glover said had done little to slow the attackers, and rioters inside maneuvered through the many passageways, only to suddenly appear in the middle of police lines, causing further havoc.
“As we’re pushing, literally foot by foot, we were taking law enforcement injuries, serious in nature,” Glover said.
Glover ordered officers to take back the inauguration bleachers first, the “high ground,” to stop attacks from above.
Help soon arrived. Police from Virginia — from Arlington and Fairfax counties, along with state troopers — and from Maryland, from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, replaced hurt and tired D.C. officers on the front lines.
Pushing people down from the Capitol proved difficult. “We were literally taking 15 to 20 minutes to get each stair back,” Glover said.
Looking over the chaotic scene in front of him from the Capitol steps, Glover grew concerned as the battle raged. There were people caught up in the moment, he said, doing things they would not ordinarily do. But many appeared to be on a mission, and they launched what he and the police chief described as a coordinated assault.
“Everything they did was in a military fashion,” Glover said, saying he witnessed rioters apparently using hand signs and waving flags to signal positions, and using what he described as “military formations.” They took high positions and talked over wireless communications.
Authorities would later learn that some former members of the military and off-duty police officers from across the country were in the pro-Trump crowd. Glover called it disturbing that off-duty police “would knowingly and intentionally come to the United States Capitol and engage in this riotous and criminal behavior against their brothers and sisters in uniform, who are upholding their oaths of office.”
In all the commotion, Glover lost sight of Kyle.
‘Fighting for our lives’
Kyle has the rank of commander and works in the criminal investigation division, two things that on most occasions keep him out of immediate danger. He went to the Capitol to help process mass arrests and found himself battling.
At Glover’s direction, Kyle went to an area where the crowd at first did not seem overly hostile. That quickly changed. “I was fairly certain we were going to be overrun,” Kyle said. “I scouted out an area we could fall back to another fighting position.”
He ended up retreating through West Terrace doors.
It had been a public entryway before it was closed several years ago for security. The ground-floor entrance leads into a tunnel-shaped hallway that ends at a T-section. To the left are private offices for lawmakers. To the right is the basement on the House side.
Kyle got the officers inside and closed the doors. He thought they were safe, that the Capitol doors and windows were fortified to withstand blows and bullets. He found out quickly they were not. Thirty seconds later, people outside had already bashed them open and were headed inside. Officers raced forward to confront the mob in the vestibule.
The violent standoff would last hours.
Officers lined up six deep and five abreast. “We all just made a decision,” Kyle said. “We weren’t going to let these individuals in the building. No matter what.”
Rioters employed bear spray and other chemical irritants that blinded officers and threw smoke grenades that turned the tunnel pitch black. “If you didn’t have a gas mask,” Kyle said — and many officers didn’t — “it was almost impossible to breathe.”
The number of officers changed by the minute — anywhere between 30 and 60 — depending on injuries and how long it took to step aside, recover from the gas that seared their lungs, and get back into battle.
“We all believed we were fighting for our lives,” Kyle said. “We believed at the time that we were the only door in jeopardy of being breached.”
Rioters took shields and batons and used them against the officers. One person threw a ladder. Kyle wondered whether police could keep holding the door.
As rioters yelled “Heave ho” for one big push, he grabbed injured officers and told them: “I know you’re in pain. I know you’re fatigued. But you have to get up and get back in the fight.”
‘The zealotry of these people is absolutely unreal’
D.C. officer Daniel Hodges, assigned to a civil-disturbance unit, entered the Capitol grounds with the riot well underway. He was quickly separated from colleagues, and someone in the mob grabbed his radio.
The 32-year-old waded through the hostile crowd, only to be knocked down. Someone tried to gouge his eyes and others piled on top of him before a fellow officer wrested him free. He reached the Capitol and got inside. With no assignment and no way to find his supervisor, he went “looking for work.”
He found it at the West Terrace doors.
He had a gas mask and put it on, then worked his way to the front of the police line. He tried to hold the rioters back “as best I could,” he said.
Shortly after 3 p.m., Hodges got caught between the interior glass doors, sandwiched by rioters pushing forward and by police behind him pushing the other way. His arms were trapped, then his head, on the rioter’s side.
“I really couldn’t defend myself at that point,” he said.
A rioter grabbed his gas mask from the bottom and shoved upward, tearing it off his helmet. Another took his baton “and started beating me in the head with it.” He took face-fulls of bear spray with no way to shield himself, and a video captured his agonizing groans and twisted face as the assault continued before he was finally freed and pulled back.
“The zealotry of these people is absolutely unreal,” said Hodges, who suffered from a severe headache but otherwise emerged unhurt. “There were points where I thought it was possible I could either die or become seriously disfigured.”
Still, Hodges said, he did not want to turn to his gun.
“I didn’t want to be the guy who starts shooting, because I knew they had guns — we had been seizing guns all day,” he said. “And the only reason I could think of that they weren’t shooting us was they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a firefight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand demonstrators, we would have lost.”
‘Like a barbaric scene’
Fanone and his partner, Jimmy Albright, entered the Capitol through a door on the east side and rushed through the building. They ended up at the West Terrace, where they saw the backs of officers pressing against the mob.
Another officer, dressed in a white uniform worn by upper-level supervisors, an eight-point hat and a trench coat, was doubled over in a hallway, hacking from the bear and pepper spray. Fanone recognized him as Kyle, whom he first met 20 years ago when both were on the Capitol Police force.
Still coughing, Kyle stood and turned toward the officers holding the tunnel: “We got to hold this door.”
Fanone made his way to the front of the line, relieving officers who by then could stay upright only by leaning on someone else.
“It was body against body, just crushing, like a barbaric scene,” Fanone recalled.
He yelled for officers who needed a break. “Nobody was volunteering,” Fanone said, adding that they all pointed at others and said, “This guy needs help.”
Fanone and Albright had started their Wednesday tour as usual at 7:30 a.m. Assigned to a crime-suppression unit in the 1st District, which includes Capitol Hill, they usually patrol in plain clothes. But to increase visibility on a day fraught with tension, they had been ordered to wear their uniforms. Now they were in the thick of things.
Injured officers were passed back through the line, one bleeding from the mouth and nose.
As people in the mob dragged Fanone down the steps, he said he feared he would be stripped and dragged through the Capitol.
“I was being beat from every angle,” he said. “I thought, maybe, I could appeal to somebody’s humanity.”
With other officers swinging clubs, Albright pulled Fanone back inside.
Aaron Davis, Paul Kane, Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report