A Michigan Reporter’s Harrowing Experience Inside Capitol During Insurrection

Detroit News Washington Bureau Chief Melissa Nann Burke shares her story and talks about the importance of journalism during a crisis.

As lawmakers evacuated the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday to flee a violent pro-Trump mob, journalists were stuck inside. Many continued to document those moments while their lives were at risk.

“At some point you just got to remember to take care of yourself and get through it because you have to survive.” — Melissa Nann Burke, Detroit News

One of those reporters was Detroit News Washington Bureau Chief Melissa Nann Burke, who reflected on her harrowing experience for the News.

She speaks with Jake Neher on MichMash about what she went through and the importance of journalism in a moment of crisis.

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The following is a transcript of part of Jake Neher’s conversation with Detroit News Washington Bureau Chief Melissa Nann Burke, edited for length and clarify:

Melissa Nann Burke: Honestly, it was terrifying. I always thought of the Capitol is a very safe place. But Wednesday, it very quickly became not a safe place.

I was covering the proceedings on the floor when we started hearing a lot of commotion, they announced that people had breached the building, they were inside in the rotunda and were headed towards the House chamber where we were. They locked us into the chamber for safety and started evacuating lawmakers. I knew it was really bad when they started handing down what are called these smoke hoods, which are basically for if there’s tear gas… I didn’t really know what to do with with it — how to open them or operate them. There was banging. They moved us to the other side of the gallery.

We ended up being trapped in the room for about 15 or 20 minutes as they tried to figure out how to evacuate us safely. In that time, there was a standoff at the central doors to the chamber, where police officers had their guns drawn at these insurgents who were trying to get in. They had barricaded the door from the inside, these officers, and had their weapons drawn and kept telling these folks to ‘get back, get back.’ they were talking to them through broken glass in the doors. I just got down in the gallery and hoped we would get out. It was terrifying. I was very shaken by the whole thing.

“I just told myself to keep tweeting. I was shaking in the gallery.” — Melissa Nann Burke, Detroit News

Jake Neher: And all the while you’re on the job, you’re covering what is happening there. What is going through your mind? And what are you thinking in terms of the importance of, in some ways, documenting what is going on in this moment, and also just pure self-preservation and the duress that you’re feeling in that kind of situation? Talk about the importance of journalists in that moment.

Nann Burke: I am amazed at the composure of a lot of my colleagues, particularly photographers who kept shooting, kept taking pictures. We have some incredible images from those moments. And I didn’t look at them until yesterday, until overnight Wednesday into Thursday, just because I didn’t have time. But in the gallery, I kept tweeting. I had sent a message on our instant message channel to my colleagues on the politics team, you know, ‘Just tune in to my Twitter.’ I couldn’t obviously keep sending reports that way. I just told myself to keep tweeting. I was shaking in the gallery. But I think it’s essential that we have reports of what was happening, what was going on, in real-time as much as we can…

I realized at some point that if these guys do break-in, that I had to get down. I kind of scooted down a few stairs and got — there’s like this little wall that runs around the side of the gallery — and I got down there and just kind of tried to keep tweeting and informing readers and everyone what was going on. But at some point, you’ve just got to remember to take care of yourself and get through it because you have to survive. So I’m so grateful for the law enforcement that kept us safe and got us out of there.

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  • Jake Neher
    Jake Neher is senior producer for Detroit Today and host of MichMash for 101.9 WDET. He previously reported on the Michigan Legislature for the Michigan Public Radio Network.