Two years ago, rioters stormed the US Capitol in a bid to overturn election results after Donald Trump lost. This is the story of the people who protected it. (Excerpted From the book Siege: An American Tragedy)
Officer Daniel Hodges ducked into the relative safety of a hallway just inside the US Capitol Building to collect himself. Since arriving with his unit at 2:01 p.m. that 6 January 2021, he’d been cursed at and punched by angry rioters trying to gain entry. One had even tried to gouge out his right eye. Still, he didn’t rest long. Hodges, 32, of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., took a deep breath, then answered a call for reinforcements.
He made his way down a corridor. Cries and shouts of combat coming from behind the double doors at the end, which led to the lower west terrace tunnel, guided him to where he was needed. On the other side of the doors, smoke and chemical residue fogged the air, but the full gas mask he’d donned moments earlier protected his lungs and his eyes.
Fellow officers were at the arched opening to the tunnel, through which president-elect Joe Biden would walk on to the lower west terrace in two weeks’ time at his inauguration—provided police could hold the Capitol Building against those determined to thwart the transfer of power. Law-enforcement officers there were trying to defend it and the lawmakers inside.
Officers were stacked about five across and six deep, shields up, somehow holding back the insurgents who had already smashed the glass of the first set of double doors within the tunnel. The immediate goal: Clear the mob from the tunnel and secure those doors, which led into the Capitol.
It wouldn’t be easy. The officers were up against thousands of angry rioters. (Some estimates later put the number of rioters at as many as 10,000, while it’s thought that, by day’s end, roughly 2,000 law enforcement officers answered the call to defend the seat of government.) Though they were attacking the seat of American power, most in the crowd had an abiding love for the nation and the Constitution, even if many had only a vague understanding of what was in that document.
One of them was Danny Rodriguez of California. He had learnt much of what he believed from YouTube personalities who claimed to reveal the hidden ‘truths’ that traditional media didn’t want their audiences to know. He didn’t consider himself a QAnon member, but Rodriguez, 38, believed some of the movement’s conspiracy theories: Not only was the election stolen, the ‘theft’ was perpetrated by a cabal of elite paedophiles who trafficked children.
The insurgents doused the officers with bear spray and other chemicals, and battered them with sticks, bats, feet and fists. Hodges and other new arrivals filled gaps in the back of the line. His radio had been lost in the earlier battle, and with radio communications sparse to non-existent anyway, Hodges didn’t realize that parts of the mob had gained entry into the Capitol through other doors and windows.
As far as the cops guarding the tunnel knew, this was the last line of defence. If the officers failed to hold back the hordes, thousands more would surge through the building. If they made it through, it was anyone’s guess what they would do to trapped Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers.
“We’ve got to hold this door!” shouted the police commander. Hodges moved up to the front, adding his shield to those of fellow officers with whom he stood shoulder to shoulder. They fought to control just a small portion of the tunnel, sometimes mere centimetres. But every bit counted.
Hodges felt sure that if they could just hold the line a little longer, reinforcements would arrive. Some were already trickling in from the FBI and nearby police jurisdictions, but the D.C. National Guard had not yet been authorized.
Hodges held on tightly to his shield, since insurgents had been yanking shields from cops and passing them back to other rioters. A heavyset, bald, 60-ish man who had already stolen at least one shield grabbed for another. A cop at the front line warned him: Release it or be sprayed. The man refused, then collapsed, complaining of asthma, as a stream of chemical gas forced him to loosen his grip. Some officers pulled the stricken man inside and administered first aid. The officers moved forward, gaining a bit of ground against the mob. Hodges, now face to face with the insurrectionists, braced himself against a metal door frame halfway down the tunnel entrance to help him hold his position.
Without warning, the momentum shifted. The cops were pushed back, losing the ground they’d just gained. Insurrectionists, at least 50 deep, moved against them as one. “Heave ho! Heave ho!”Hodges, still wedged between the door and its metal frame, got caught in this wave and found himself unable to move. “Heave ho!”
To his left, a rioter took advantage of Hodges’s vulnerability and slammed a shield against him. With the weight of all the bodies behind him, pushing from the mouth of the tunnel, he had Hodges trapped between the shield on his left and the door frame to his right. Arms pinned, Hodges cried for help.
Another insurgent, seeing Hodges immobilized, grabbed his gas mask and used it to bash his head against the door, blow after dizzying blow. The trapped officer thought these might be his last moments. He struggled to free his arms as his attacker wordlessly screamed in rage or glee—Hodges couldn’t tell which.
The insurgent ripped the mask off his face, and Hodges gulped in a rush of chemical spray.
The mob pressed forward, forcing the air from his lungs.
Someone grabbed the baton from Hodges’s immobilized hand and began pummelling him with it—smashing it against his skull, his shoulders, his face. His lip split open. All he could do was scream until another officer was finally able to dislodge him and help him move to the rear.
Sgt. Aquilino Gonell was unable to help Hodges. Only a few feet away, he found himself in hand-to-hand combat with flag-draped rioters wielding bear spray, hammers, rebars, knives and flagpoles thrown like spears.
Gonell, 43, a US Capitol Police sergeant, had fought in Iraq. This was more terrifying than anything he’d encountered there: a medieval battle that pitted a handful of men and women in uniform against an anarchic mob, surging toward them in waves, fresh fighters on both sides taking up the attack at the mouth of the tunnel as earlier combatants, spent, fell back.
Gonell was realistic about his chances—not good—but for as long as he was able, he was going to keep the mob from crossing the line. Rioters grabbed an officer near him, attempting to yank him out of the tunnel. Gonell grasped the back of his collar and pulled him back to the police line. A moment later, the insurgents almost got another officer.
As Gonell reached out to help him, he stepped on a pile of riot shields slick with pepper spray and bear spray. He slipped, lost his footing, and fell hard. The mob descended, taking advantage of Gonell’s sudden vulnerability. Hostile hands grabbed his leg, tugged his riot shield, dragged him forward by his shoulder strap. His shoulder felt as if it was being wrenched out of its socket.
Gonell fought back with equal ferocity—punching, kicking, clawing. He looked to nearby officers for aid, but they were also under attack. If anyone was going to save him, it would be himself. The blows piled injury on injury, but somehow he bested his attackers, using his baton to thwart an insurgent who was bent on dragging him into the mob. Finally able to right himself, Gonell fell back in line, his body racked with pain.
With no relief in sight, he fought on.
If central casting were to choose someone to play the quintessential Irish beat cop of a bygone era, that person would look very much like Jimmy Albright—red haired, earnest, reassuringly solid. At the other end of the cop spectrum would be his friend Michael Fanone. Wiry, intense, tattooed from wrists to neck and exuding a daredevil vibe, he’d spent much of his police career undercover, rubbing elbows with criminals. After working together in D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department for about five years, the two were best buddies.
Distress calls had been coming from the Capitol Police while Fanone was on his way to an undercover drugs operation. Through radio transmissions, he’d learned that officers were calling for volunteers. The undercover operation would have to wait. Fanone turned around and headed for the station, where he met up with Albright.
The two arrived at the Capitol Building at 3:04 p.m., their radios crackling with distress calls: “Officer down … Officer needs assistance.” Albright noticed a trail of blood on the ground. They entered the building’s south entrance into a corridor lined with massive fluted white pillars that, in better times, evinced dignified serenity. From there, they moved down toward the lower west terrace, from which the most urgent calls for help arose.
Outside a pair of double doors that led to the tunnel, they encountered a number of officers who had been at the front line. Their eyes, which had been drenched with tear gas and pepper spray, were little more than swollen red slits.
Those officers passed bottled water to each other and washed as much of the toxic residue from their faces as they could before heading back into the fray. Fanone and Albright fell in line behind them. A chemical fog wafted around their ankles as they made their way forward across a floor slimed by what other cops, overcome by chemical sprays, had vomited up. Exhausted officers—40 or 50 of them—had been battling for control of this entrance for the better part of an hour.
“We need to get fresh bodies up there!” called Fanone.
On the other side of the tunnel, a new chant rose from the mob: “Pull the cops out. Pull the cops out. Pull the cops out.”
One of those near the front was Danny Rodriguez, a Taser in his hand.
Sergeant Gonell was having trouble breathing. He’d inhaled and swallowed more chemical spray than seemed possible. Then he heard a voice shout, “Come on, guys, I just got here! Back up if you need a break!”
He didn’t know the voice, but he knew he needed that break if he was going to be any good to anyone ever again. Gonell backed up. Fanone took his place at the front line. Albright, to his left and inches behind him, held Fanone’s vest so they wouldn’t be separated. They looked out at the hordes of insurgents and realized, for the first time, what they were up against. Just one small point was in their favour: Despite the officers’ being insanely outnumbered, only so many of the mob could push into the narrow space of the tunnel at any one time. It didn’t make it a fair fight, but it might be winnable if they could shove them back far enough and close the double doors inside the tunnel. If they failed to hold the line, the mob wouldn’t just overrun the building, free to attack whomever they encountered—every cop in that tunnel would be trampled.
“Back it up!” Fanone yelled, pushing at the rioters.
An insurgent with a stolen police shield thrust it forward, and countless others added their weight to his in a rush to get deeper inside.
“Heave ho. Heave ho.”
“Come on, push ’em back,” Fanone implored his fellow cops. “Dig in!”
The time was about 3:15 p.m., and chaos reigned. The rioters at the front had tasted blood and wanted more. The battering of fists, feet, flagpoles and other improvised weapons against police flesh had a powerful effect on this contingent of otherwise ordinary people. Some were clearly ready to fight to the death, if it came to that.
But against the odds, the police managed to gain ground. First a couple of metres, then farther still. Invigorated by their momentum, they kept pushing, all the way to the threshold.
Then one of the cops hollered, “Knife!”
Albright saw it too: black, with a blade 15-centimetres long. He quickly slapped it out of the rioter’s hand, grabbed it from the ground and passed it back over his shoulder to the officers behind him. In the seconds it took to do that, Fanone was gone.
“I got one!” yelled a voice in the mob.
They got one, Danny Rodriguez saw. They dragged the police officer on his stomach down the steps, away from the tunnel and into the mob. Rodriguez held his Taser in his hand. Like others in the crowd, he considered himself a loyal ally of the police. But this officer was on the wrong side. Rodriguez reached out with his Taser, pressed it to the cop’s neck, and pulled the trigger. The cop screamed in agony.
It all happened so quickly, Fanone couldn’t say who dragged him from the tunnel or how. The single-minded mob came at him from every direction, a mad, raging monster with dozens of limbs. That monster meant to kill him.
Fanone struggled mightily, but too many hands held him. He couldn’t escape. One hand hit him with a crutch, another with a baton. A third bludgeoned him with a flagpole.
“Get his gun!”
“Kill him with his gun!”
Hands grasped his radio, stripped away his ammunition belt, tore the badge from his vest. He struggled to escape, powerless against them or the weapons they used to beat his torso, his arms, his legs.Someone lunged for his gun. Fanone managed to keep it, thinking he could shoot his way out. Bad idea, he realized. He might get a couple of them, but then they’d kill him for sure.
Then came a jolt of electricity to his neck. Someone had used a Taser on him. Waves of liquid lightning charged through his body, lighting up every nerve ending, screeching through his veins, his muscles, his viscera.
He was going to die here. He thought of his four daughters. He would never see them again. What would they do without their dad?
Close to losing consciousness, he had one hope left: If he could reach just a couple of them, appeal to their humanity ...:“I got kids!” he cried out.
Jimmy Albright looked down into the mob and saw an insurrectionist dragging Fanone back up toward him at the tunnel entrance. Albright reached out, grabbed his partner, and pulled him back inside in the corridor, where he cradled the limp, unconscious Fanone. He wasn’t sure at first that his friend was even alive.
“Mike, stay in there, buddy. Mike, it’s Jimmy. I’m here.”
He was alive. Albright could see that now. But he wasn’t responding, and he was having trouble breathing. Albright kept talking, kept trying to reach Fanone in those deep recesses of the unconscious that his friend had disappeared into, telling him he needed him to wake up. They had plans. They were going to go duck hunting together—remember?
Could Fanone hear him?
Minutes ticked by. Finally, Fanone stirred, coming back to the world of the living. Weakly, he looked up at Albright. “Did you take that door back?”
At 4:32 p.m., acting Defence Secretary Christopher Miller approved deployment of the D.C. National Guard, and National Guardsmen began arriving at the Capitol around 5:30 p.m. By 6:30 p.m., law enforcement had cleared the remaining members of the mob from the Capitol and its grounds. At 3:42 a.m. on 7 January, Vice President Mike Pence, in his capacity as president of the Senate, declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election.
Soon after Michael Fanone was attacked, Jimmy Albright drove him to a hospital emergency room, which was crowded with fellow wounded officers as well as demonstrators. There it was determined that Fanone had suffered a concussion and a heart attack. Officer Daniel Hodges also appeared to have suffered a concussion. They were among the 140 officers injured that day, some suffering grievous injuries.
Many hours later, at 4 a.m., Sgt. Aquilino Gonell finally arrived home. Longing for the comfort of his wife’s touch, he was unable to hug her because his uniform was saturated with chemicals that could harm her—bear spray, tear gas, pepper spray. The residue burnt his skin even after he showered. It was impossible to sleep.
Still, even after all he’d endured, he got up again a couple of hours later and headed back to the Capitol by 8 a.m. His country needed him.
Editor’s note: Since 6 January 2021, more than 900 protesters have been arrested and some 400 have been convicted. At press time, Danny Rodriguez’s trial was scheduled for February. He has filed a plea of not guilty.
From Siege: An American Tragedy (June 2022), Copyright© 2022 by Bartholomew & Co., Inc.