Associated Press photographer Andrew Harnik regularly covers protests in Washington D.C.. But nothing prepared him for the events of Wednesday, when he found himself locked in the chamber with members of the House of Representatives as Trump-supporting rioters stormed the Capitol.
“It escalated to a level that nobody had ever seen before,” Harnik, 39, tells PEOPLE.
Photographers are only allowed to bring their camera into the chamber once or twice a year, Harnik says, so he wore a suit and tie when he arrived at 8 a.m. Wednesday. At about 1:45 p.m., his editor called him and asked if he could take his camera to the window on the third floor and see what was going on outside.
“There was a big group of people congregating at the steps up the center of the building. And there was a police line kind of holding them back, and really within a minute or so, I could see this line collapse,” Harnick tells PEOPLE. “The people outside stormed up the stairs and took over the East front landing in front of the doors that lead directly into the Capitol rotunda, which is the space that you see heads of state lie in state. … I could hear broken glass and shouting, and then some sort of large explosion went off outside.”
Harnik ran downstairs, and found the rotunda was empty. “I could see people at the door,” he says. “Officers looked pinned against the door from this group trying to get in the building.”
He snapped photos through the window. One protestor asked Harnik to open the door.
“I ignored that,” he says. “A security guard ran up behind me screaming at me, 'What are you doing here?' Grabbed me by my suit jacket pulled me and said, 'The building is on lockdown, you should not be in this space.'”
Harnik returned to the gallery where he had been working with other journalists – but the door was locked. He knocked, but no one answered.
“Eventually, a security detail found myself and another photographer kind of just sort of standing around in the hallway and told us to run. We ran,” he says “They ushered us back into the house chamber and locked the door. So we were on lockdown, with members of Congress.”
A member of the security team told people to reach for emergency masks under their seats, instructing that the masks didn't need to be put on, but they needed to be ready.
“We could see that during this time there were officers with their foot jammed into the door that leads the center door of the house chamber. … The security team said, 'Okay, we're evacuating this room.' And all of the members on the floor, in an orderly fashion, were taken out of the room. As they were doing that, these members of the security team, started grabbing furniture from the house floor and basically creating a barricade at the main door.”
It was about 2:45 P.M. when the doors began to break.
“It was clear that there were people on the other side trying to get in. Within the next few minutes, we could hear popping noises, and the glass breaking,” Harnick says.
Officers pulled out their guns and started pointing them at the door. Harnick snapped his photos — including dramatic photos of guards pointing guns as they held the door. (One of his photos is shown at the top of this story.)
Security guards told everyone to get on their hands and knees between the seats and keep their heads down.
Harnick kept taking pictures. Security guards yelled at him to put his head down, but he kept working.
“They have a job to do to keep everyone safe — and we have a job to do, to capture what's happening,” he says.
When officers unlocked the doors, he saw people face down on the floor, officers holding them at gunpoint. “They were right outside the chamber doors,” he says.
Later that evening, he came across Representative Andy Kim (D-NJ) picking up trash and debris, trying to clean the rotunda, and Harnick captured poignant photos.
“Even for the people who cover politics in Washington day in and day out — we're used to some pretty dicey protests where people clash with the police and people get pepper sprayed,” he says. “But this was, this was just something that nobody had ever experienced before.”
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