"This was a jarring sight to see," Saul Loeb tells PEOPLE

By Wendy Grossman Kantor
January 08, 2021 03:26 PM
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Pro-Trump rioters inside Nancy Pelosi's office
| Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty

On Wednesday, photographer Saul Loeb was on the scene when brazen rioters ran through the halls of the U.S. Capitol building, causing destruction and violence in a scene unlike he'd ever witnessed before.

"This was a jarring sight to see. Clearly, something had gone terribly wrong," Loeb, who is one of a team of eight photographers assigned to cover the Capitol by the wire service, Agence France-Presse, tells PEOPLE after the shocking events that left at least five people dead and have led to calls for President Donald Trump to resign or be removed.

Loeb says he followed pro-Trump rioters heading into Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office at the Capitol amid Wednesday's chaos. He saw a woman in a Make America Great Again hat vaping before meeting a 60-year-old man, Richard Barnett, whose feet were kicked up at a staffer’s desk, flipping through Pelosi’s mail.

“He was happy to be photographed,” Loeb says. “It was just sort of a bizarre situation. Like, here you have number third in line to the presidency and the office is completely breached. I mean, the entire first and second floor of the Capitol was breached. The protesters were basically in control of a good chunk of that building, which is just wild. It's just unimaginable, really.”

Earlier Wednesday, Loeb was filing photos on the Senate side of the building when he heard rioters had begun to scale the temporary stands built for the upcoming Inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. He went and shot pictures, thinking that might be the story of the day.

Then, an announcement came over the loudspeakers inside the Capit0l saying there was a security threat and advising everyone to shelter in place. “Which, being a photographer, that's not what you want to hear. You don't want to have to stay in one spot. You wanna be out and try to figure out what's going on,” he says.

Loeb heard a commotion in the hallway on the second floor when he saw a group of about a dozen rioters talking to the Capitol Police outside of the Senate Chamber.

“This is an area deep within the Capitol, that nobody that's not supposed to be there ever gets there,” he says. “It's a pretty secure area. The fact that they were just outside the Senate door was just remarkable.”

The police officers — who have received some criticism over their response — were talking to members of the mob, he says. “The police were asking them, 'Why are you here? Where are you going? What are your intentions? How can we get you to leave?' So they're trying to defuse the situation,” Loeb recounts.

Credit: C

“It was not being defused as it normally would," he notes. "Usually, Capitol Police with any situation like this is very quick to take out the protesters — arrest them, tackle them, just get them out of the situation and get them away from the building and away from members of Congress. And that wasn't really happening."

Since Wednesday's events, the head of the Capitol Police has resigned from his post. Chief Steven Sund submitted his letter of resignation on Thursday, informing the members of the Capitol Police Board that his resignation will go into effect on Jan. 16.

Loeb says "hundreds and hundreds" of people were streaming into the Capitol building on all sides, putting Make America Great Again hats on statues, climbing and sitting on the statues, and even taking selfies. “It seemed like they’re coming from everywhere,” he tells PEOPLE. “In every direction."

He eventually tried to head back toward the Senate chamber, but the air was filled with thick smoke, which he surmises was “probably tear gas."

“There's a particular smell in the air," he says, "You could see people running back towards the rotunda that were coughing and sneezing and had red eyes. So I knew that wasn't going to be an option.”

RELATED VIDEO: Police Officer Dies a Day After Sustaining Injuries During Riots at the Capitol Building

That’s when he noticed rioters headed down the hallway to Pelosi’s office and followed them.

“The staffers that were in there before they evacuated, left in such a hurry that the computers were still on, their email was still on the screens," Loeb explains, noting he stayed at the Capitol taking pictures until the Electoral College vote was certified in the early morning hours Thursday after the joint session reconvened.

One day later, Loeb tells PEOPLE that tall metal security fences were being erected around the Capitol.

“Obviously things did not go according to the plan yesterday,” he says. “This is a major American institution that they completely took over.”