WASHINGTON – The first hint of trouble came less than an hour into the debate in the U.S. House chamber about certifying electoral votes from Arizona.

As Republicans outlined their complaints about the election results, a member of the House press staff approached us in the gallery and quietly said we should go back to the press room and gather anything we needed because we were about to be locked in the chamber.

Then came word that rioters who supported President Donald Trump had breached the Capitol, followed minutes later by news that they were in or near the rotunda, just down the hall.

The idea that we were under attack first hit me when a Capitol police officer stopped proceedings to tell representatives to don gas masks stored under their seats. The members struggled to find and fix the masks over their heads.

In the press gallery, journalists hurriedly read instructions that in the heat of the moment seemed impossibly jumbled. I put my mask down and tried to keep reporting because it did not seem real.

From there, it was all downhill.

Suddenly, police searched the public gallery overlooking the proceeding. The area was empty except for representatives who could not sit on the House floor because of COVID social distancing rules. The cops looked under seats as if searching for a bomb.

As tensions mounted, a Democratic congressman yelled from the upper level at his Republican colleagues who had been charging without evidence that "30,000 illegal aliens" voted and that registration deadlines had been extended illegally.

"You caused this," he yelled, or words to that effect.

Earlier in the day, the president had encouraged tens of thousands of protesters gathered at the White House Ellipse to march to the Capitol and call out Republicans who he said appeared ready to join Democrats in certifying the electoral votes that gave Joe Biden the presidency.

Repeating false claims of massive voter fraud, Trump called his loss of leads in critical states in votes tallied after election night an "explosion of bullshit." The president promised he would join the crowd at the Capitol.

I don't know if he did. Media reports suggested he returned to the White House.

But the president's words ran through my head as I shuffled toward the exit of the press gallery with my colleagues.

We had to climb or slide under rails to get out. The laptop power cords kept snagging around my feet.

The dull thuds of a sledgehammer, or something like it, interrupted my thoughts. I could see people trying to smash their way through the main door into the House chamber. The window on the door broke as Capital police and House security guards pushed a piece of furniture against the door and drew their weapons.

It was the very door through which the polished mahogany boxes holding the country's Electoral College votes had been carried barely an hour before.

We hunkered down, trying to stay low in case someone started shooting. The crack of what could have been a gunshot or a hard slap on the wooden door made everybody jump.

I moved behind a chair for better cover. Someone knocked on the locked doors of the upper gallery and we jumped again.

"Show me your hands," a cop screamed through the door as he unlocked it.

As the entryway opened to our rescue, we pushed forward. My computer cords were still tangled around my feet.

At the marble stairwell that runs between floors of the Capitol, we turned left in time to witness four to six men lying face down held at gunpoint by police.

I struggled with my cellphone to take a photograph. I was shaking uncontrollably.

As we headed down the steps, I spoke with a man who turned out to be Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Costa of California.

He blamed the president for inciting the violence.

"This starts at the top," he said. Trump "got exactly what he wanted."

Costa said the House should return to the chamber and finish certifying the Electoral College vote. What was required, he said, was to defy the attempt to undermine the election.

Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432