About one month after pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, The 19th reached out to all 143 women in the 117th Congress to ask about their experiences on January 6. Twenty-three shared their points of view from that day. We are also publishing each lawmaker’s full account of that day. Here is what Rep. Norma Torres of California told The 19th. The transcript has been lightly edited:
Well, you know I guess I’m going to have to start with the night before. I had broken my glasses before going to bed and the next day was going to be the ceremony. Before going to bed, I found an old spare that I could wear. So I got up really early. I wasn’t sure what time I wanted to be at the Capitol. I knew there would be demonstrators but wanted to beat the crowd. It was not a good night’s sleep, so I got up at 5 a.m. and started making my way to the office around 8 a.m., arriving at 8:20 a.m.
I walked over to the Cannon building and participated in three interviews with the media. There was excitement for this final step to certify this election, and I was looking forward to working with President Biden and Vice President Harris. It started as an exciting day.
I stopped by a donut shop in Longworth. I grabbed coffee and a donut and went back to my office. I got busy with work and then around 12:30 p.m., I decided it was time for me to start walking to the Capitol. Because of COVID and social distancing, the speaker cautioned us that we shouldn’t be on the floor and anyone who wanted to be in the gallery should send in their names. They would be accommodated for an hour at a time to sit in the gallery, the balcony.
I went to the balcony, and there were already a couple of people there. I have vertigo, and I’ve had it for over 30 years. The height of the balcony was very, very scary for me. I decided to sit at the second to top row so that I don’t have to walk down and be scared of the height or even fall down. My colleagues — there were 12 of us there — started coming. Then, I received an alert that the Madison building had been breached. I looked at that alert, and I just started looking around.
We could hear the crowd outside a bit, but that’s not unusual. Some people want to be heard, and we can often hear them from the inside. The next alert was almost within five minutes: the Cannon building had been breached. At that point, I told my coworkers next to me that there are two buildings that seemed to have been breached. Most of my colleagues were not aware but later found out in an email.
I started to think, “What’s my plan here? Maybe I should go to the bathroom now, because it might be a long time before I can leave.” I took the elevator one floor down. I was feeling a bit anxious and wanted to calm down. When I went back to the gallery, I saw sergeants in suits running back and forth. I could hear radio traffic. I was a 911 dispatcher for 17 years and am trained to listen for keywords, but I couldn’t make anything out — just very, very loud screaming. I could hear the shouting from outside getting louder, and I was ushered quickly back into the gallery.
I didn’t realize that it was getting louder because they were getting closer. There was an announcement that the Capitol had been breached. The doors were being pounded, and as the doors were shut, you could hear the locks turning. They said, “We’re going to shelter in place, try to stay quiet.”
Just before that, there was some kind of scuffle between one of the sergeants at the door immediately to my left. I heard something that caused me to look away from the ceremony, where [Vice President Mike Pence] still was. I turned my head, and all I saw was a sergeant. It looked like he had been pushed from the outside to the inside. He was trying to maneuver himself, gain his footing. Then he pushed out with his whole body, and the door closed behind him.
My phone dropped and hit the marble floor. I told them not to touch it, so it was left there. I heard the door open again and close. There’s a shelter-in-place announcement. We are very anxious; you could feel the stress in some of my colleagues.
One of my colleagues sitting in the other gallery three sections to my right was shouting at the Republicans: “This is all your fault! You caused this!” We all shouted at him to calm down. I got up to sit with him because he was alone. None of us should be alone. So I ran over there. I grabbed both of his hands, and I said: “You’re angry, I know. I’m angry too. We all are, but we can’t yell at each other because we’ll just make things worse.” He said, “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m just really angry.” And of course we’re all really angry.
Then I realized we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and I had pulled both of his hands. So I got alcohol from my purse and gave it to him and used some myself, apologizing for touching him. He said, “It’s OK, thank you.”
Then everything began to unfold from there. I can’t tell you the timing because it felt so fast-paced and so slow at the same time. It was about 45 minutes of sheer terror. It was fast and slow. I don’t know how to explain it other than it was so intense. I remember running back and forth, back and forth because the officer was saying to grab your mask, put on your mask. I remember being angry because I thought he was talking about the face mask, not the gas mask.
We heard the shot and saw a cloud of smoke coming from under the ceremonial door. It was the tear gas, but we didn’t know what it was —just that something coming up. An officer was saying to get on the floor and be quiet, put on your masks. I was running back and forth trying to figure out how to open what looked like a briefcase with the mask. I gave one to my colleague because I couldn’t figure out how to open it. Jason Crow was giving lessons on how to do it, but I missed it and an officer ultimately had to put the mask on me. He didn’t have anything to protect himself either, and he was the only one there with us. We had been yelling at him a short while ago to close the doors that were still open and he said he didn’t have the keys, but we closed the doors and barricaded it. He managed to move something in front of it to barricade it.
At this point, we’re all on the ground waiting for instructions. The officer is saying to be quiet, as quiet as we can. They were trying to clear an area to evacuate us. He told us we were going to go out the door by the clock tower, the balcony door.
When the officer yelled, “Get up! Go! Go! Go!” I stayed behind to make sure the older members, those recovering from surgeries and others who needed assistance were not left behind. I didn’t realize that I would miss my short window to leave and be pinned down on the floor again. It happened so quickly. The officer closed the door, told us to get on the ground and then said we had to get and move in the opposite direction because the officers couldn’t hold the line. About 15 to 20 minutes later, after crawling to the other side of the balcony, an officer opened a door and told us to run.
By that point, I had removed my gas mask because I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t hear the directions because the mask was making noise. I had tried to take off my COVID mask, but it ripped my glasses off my face during the time there was an evacuation. I lost my glasses for a brief moment, then I sat on them and put them back on.
An officer was saying we’re going to get out a certain way and asking if we understood. We didn’t trust what she was saying because we had just been through it on the other side of the gallery. We had already been told we would be evacuated and then weren’t. When she opened the door and said we needed to run, we didn’t move.
She finally got us to move and we ran out of the gallery. There was a group of men — not in uniform — running toward us. Some of my colleagues started screaming, some started praying harder. We were shocked. We thought it was the mob coming after us. But then they started yelling, “We are your security. We’re here to protect you.” They surrounded us and we kept running down the stairwells. During this time, my son, who is a police officer, called me. I answered the phone and said, “Sweetheart, I’m fine, and I’m running for my life. I cannot talk to you right now.” And then I disconnected the phone.
After all this time, I’ve finally been able to create these different compartments in my emotional state. I had one experience in that 45 minutes in the balcony — that was one thing. Being evacuated to what was supposed to be a safe room, but being there shoulder-to-shoulder with my colleagues, many refusing to wear masks, just ugly refusal to have common courtesy for fellow human beings, is another compartment that I have. The safe room was five hours of agony, being really scared of getting COVID because it’s really hit my constituents. I just have to let it go.
The gallery, it happened. It was horrific. I survived. I’m alive.
It’s been really hard. The hardest part is talking to the officers, hearing their tears and pain. I hate to say it out loud, but I was so overwhelmed after three weeks of hearing them and seeing their emotional, fragile state that I can’t even look them in the eye anymore. They need our support. They need to know that we are grateful to them for saving our lives. I can’t look at those crazy images of them being beaten. I can’t imagine. My son is a cop. They were sent to work that day without the proper equipment that they needed. I spent years working as a 911 dispatcher, and one of the worst things you can hear is a call for help, officer down or suspect at gunpoint. They’re all triggering. To think of how fast-paced that radio was and all of that screaming that I was hearing — it was really them trying to get assistance.
Those who had been in the gallery decided to stay together when we went back on the House floor, because our constituents needed to see us finish our job. Walking back through halls that I had just been running for my life in brought a lot of trauma. I was terrified to even open my office door. I ran and grabbed my ceremonial bat and checked the three rooms in my office. Then I went to the bathroom, washed my face and arms and then sat down and cried. Then I finally made a call to my husband, which up until that point, I had avoided.
A little bit after 4 a.m. — I have a photo time stamped — I was in the car that I had rented for the week, and I was driving out of the campus. I stopped and took a photo. I don’t know how long I was stopped there. It was so much anxiety and fear. I was so afraid to leave the campus and drive home — just being outside of what again was considered a “safe zone” was very difficult to do.