Former Metro inauguration czar shares experiences of 2009

Sara P Wilson 011807-16 Photo courtesy of Larry Levine at WMATA.

Four years ago, Sara Procacci Wilson was nicknamed Metro’s inauguration czar as the main point person for planning how the transit agency’s more than 10,000 workers would prepare for the onslaught of visitors expected for President-elect Barack Obama’s swearing-in.

Wilson worked for eight years at Metro and most recently held the position of assistant general manager for corporate strategy and communications before leaving in March 2010.

Here’s a recent question and answer with her, reflecting on her experiences from the last inauguration.

How did Metro’s preparations in 2009 differ from previous years?

A: One of the most important meetings I went to was called by [then Secretary of Homeland Security Michael] Chertoff. The head of the FBI regional office was there. So were the two governors, the mayor, and everybody went around the room and said what they were doing. It was eye-opening to see how much people were doing and to hear what people had done for the worst-case scenario.

What had they done?

A: They didn’t get into specifics. But they explained how they would evacuate the city if there was a dirty bomb or some other attack. How would they protect the president and disperse people and reopen bridges? How many burn beds were in a five-mile radius, 10-mile radius, 50-mile radius? If it did happen, they told of the resources we have in place.

How much prep work did Metro do?

We started doing our prep work before Obama got the nomination even. After he won the election, we had conversations with the joint congressional committee on the inauguration. They wanted people with certain tickets to go to one particular station and we said, no way.

That would have the risk of overwhelming the system. Spread out. Use all of your options as far as stations and as far as bus versus rail. Consider walking was our advice.

Internally at Metro, we had these mammoth meetings where 90 to 100 people would come from different departments and anybody could say anything. There were people who were organizing. Others telling us which streets were going to be closed. What buses were going to do. We had a 24-hour staffing plan for inauguration day.

Did the actual day turn out as you had planned and expected? 

Yes for the most part. [Metro had ridership records for Obama’s first inauguration with 1.1 million.]

Anything out of the ordinary happen?

We had one situation where I was sitting in the command center and a call comes over the radio at 9:28 a.m.

“Purple. Purple,” at Gallery Place.

That’s the code for when there’s a jumper on the tracks.

It turned out that a woman going to the inauguration had gotten jostled on the tracks by all the crowds and she had lost her footing and fallen onto the tracks.

A police officer from Houston, who was one of the many who was brought in to help out, saw her go down, jumped down onto the track, and shoved her against the wall under the lip of the platform just as a train was coming.

I remember thinking that awful feeling of there’s a jumper and then this is going to keep us closed for hours.

I remember the tension in the air and then feeling like jello when we realized things were OK.

Overall was 2009 considered a success?

We got people to where they needed to go. For a transit agency, it was huge. It become an opportunity to promote transit.

Follow me on twitter @postmetrogirl.

[This post has been updated.]

Dana Hedgpeth is a Post reporter, working the early morning, reporting on traffic, crime and other local issues.

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