"I'm hoping that they realize that the real harm that their actions have done to our country and our democracy," Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey tells PEOPLE

By Diane Herbst
January 07, 2021 12:38 PM
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Mikie Sherrill
| Credit: Tom Williams/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon as pro-Trump rioters were approaching the entrance to the U.S. Capitol building, lawmakers inside heard about the mob but continued trying to certify Joe Biden's election to the presidency. But soon, recalls Mikie Sherrill, a congresswoman from New Jersey, the rioters were inside, banging on the locked doors of the House chambers.  

"We had members of the police in front of the doors, we had barricaded the doors and they had their weapons drawn," Sherrill, a Democrat, tells PEOPLE early Wednesday night from a secure location. "[The rioters] broke the glass of one of the doors, but the door was barricaded with a large desk so they could not get in but they were banging on it."

The former Navy helicopter pilot remained calm as she and her colleagues took cover. They crouched behind chairs and, with reports of tear gas being dispersed in the Capitol, Sherrill showed others how to break gas masks from their packaging and use them if needed.

U.S. Capitol building
| Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty

"Some people were very frightened, but I will say that for a situation like this — for people who have not been through situations like this — I thought that everyone really behaved admirably, nobody fell apart," says Sherrill, a Naval Academy graduate and former federal prosecutor. 

"Nobody was hysterically crying, which would have really been a normal reaction, quite frankly, in a stressful situation like this," she continues. "But people really were able to fight through their fear and handled themselves very well."

Credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty

Once police got control of the situation, they opened up a pathway to get Sherrill and her colleagues out, walking by about five of the rioters at the door of the chamber, "on the ground, on their stomachs, with their hands behind their heads."

As scenes of violence unfolded — including reports of gunshots — Sherrill's husband and four young children back home "were worried."  "I called them and, you know, as a parent, you just sort of say, 'Oh no, I'm fine. I'm in a safe place. Everything's good, everybody's fine,' " she says. 

"I think they were really taken aback — my oldest is 15 — she was really taken aback at what people were doing, and she has been to the Capitol many times," she continues. "And I think for her to see the images of people storming the Capitol was pretty shocking for her."

Sherrill, who returned to the Capitol Wednesday night to continue the certification of Biden's presidency, shared the anger she feels toward the Republican lawmakers who continue to support Trump's lies that the presidential election is not valid and was stolen — lies that incited the riot.

"I'm hoping that they realize that the real harm that their actions have done to our country and our democracy and I hope they stand down," she says, "but they have not yet decided that this is harmful to our country."

Leading into Wednesday's unrest, Sherrill grew concerned over Trump's stoking of these violent right-wing groups, "groups that were known to be armed and had different plans to bring different pieces of weapons to assemble here.  

"So, yeah, I was very concerned that this group was mapping at the president's direction," she says. "I was concerned about what we would do today."