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'This Is How I'm Going To Die': Police Sergeant Recalls The Terror Of Jan. 6

U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell wipes tears while testifying Tuesday during the opening hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Jim Bourg
Pool/Getty Images
U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell wipes tears while testifying Tuesday during the opening hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Updated July 27, 2021 at 12:51 PM ET

In gripping emotional testimony Tuesday, U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell recounted the "horrific and devastating" violence of Jan. 6 during the first hearing of the select committee investigating the insurrection.

"My fellow officers and I were punched, pushed, kicked, shoved, sprayed with chemical irritants and even blinded with eye-damaging lasers by a violent mob who apparently saw us law enforcement officers, dedicated to ironically protecting them as U.S. citizens, as an impediment in their attempted insurrection," Gonell said.

Gonell and three others officers recounted Tuesday their experiences on Jan. 6 when a mob professing loyalty to then-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the presidential election, which Trump lost to President Biden.

In his opening statement, Gonell said that he could hear officers "screaming in agony" as the mob crushed them and that he heard specific threats on the lives of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the event to certify the presidential election in Biden's favor.

Gonell described how he tried to assist two Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department officers who were being dragged into the crowd.

"I fell on top of some police shields on the ground that were slippery because of the pepper and bear spray. Rioters started to pull me by my leg, by my shield and by my gear straps on my left shoulder," he said. "My survival instincts kicked in, and I started kicking and punching as I tried in vain to get the MPD officers' attention behind and above me. But they could not help me because they were also being attacked."

He described feeling crushed by the rioters.

"I could feel myself losing oxygen and recall thinking to myself, 'This is how I'm going to die, trampled defending this entrance,' " he said.

More than six months after the attack, which he described as a "medieval battleground," Gonell said he is still recovering from his injuries. He's undergone surgery on his foot and has been told he requires additional surgery on his shoulder.

An emigrant from the Dominican Republic and a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, Gonell said rioters called him a "traitor" as they attacked him.

"For the first time, I was more afraid to work at the Capitol than during my entire Army deployment to Iraq," he said. "In Iraq, we expected armed violence, because we were in a war zone. But nothing in my experience in the Army, or as a law enforcement officer, prepared me for what we confronted on Jan. 6."

He said it wasn't until 4:30 p.m. that day, hours after the violence erupted, that he was able to let his family know he was alive. He didn't get home until 4 a.m. the next day.

"I had to push away my wife from me because she wanted to hug me. And I told her 'no' because of all the chemicals [on] my uniform. I couldn't sleep because the chemicals reactivated after I took a shower, and my skin was still burning," he said. By 8 the next morning, he was back at work.

"I made sure to work despite my injuries because I wanted to continue doing my job and help secure the Capitol complex."

He thanked the committee for its investigation, calling it "essential for democracy."

"Even though there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, including hours and hours of video and photographic coverage, there is a continuous and shocking attempt to ignore or try to destroy the truth of what truly happened that day, and to whitewash the facts into something other than what they unmistakably reveal: an attack on our democracy by violent domestic extremists, and a stain on our history and our moral standing here at home and abroad," Gonell said.

During questioning, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., asked Gonell about Trump's characterization of the mob as a "loving crowd." "How does that make you feel?" Cheney asked.

"It's a pathetic excuse for his behavior, for something that he himself helped to create, this monstrosity," Gonell replied. "I'm still recovering from those hugs and kisses." He added, "If that was hugs and kisses, then we should all go to his house and do the same thing to him." Gonell later said he didn't mean for his comments to be taken literally.

Earlier in his testimony, Gonell noted how in 2020, the Capitol Police were given "all the support we needed and more" during the Black Lives Matter protests but that the force did not receive adequate support ahead of Jan. 6.

"Why the different response?" he asked.

"There are some who expressed outrage when someone simply kneeled for social justice during the national anthem," he said. "Where are those same people expressing outrage to condemn the violent attack on law enforcement officers, the U.S. Capitol and our American democracy?"

Gonell said that he wants to see "accountability and justice" and that as soon as he recovers from his injuries, he will continue to serve the Capitol Police.

"As an immigrant to the United States, I am especially proud to have defended the U.S. Constitution and our democracy on Jan. 6," he said. "I hope that everyone in a position of authority in our country has the courage and conviction to do their part by investigating what happened on that terrible day and why."

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Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.