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Wanted: A Miracle of Compression

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You were amused by a YouTube video of 19 boys crammed into a car the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

You were awed by photographs of 25 students from South Africa stuffed in a telephone booth built for one.

Now, be prepared to have your mind boggled and blown as the nation's capital tries to squeeze 2 million to 4 million people onto a 2 1/2 -mile swath called the National Mall. Come one and all to the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

See more people packed between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial than were joined at the hip on Copacabana beach in Rio when Rod Stewart drew 3.5 million people for the biggest rock concert of all time.

Never before has such a feat been attempted on such a small plot of U.S. soil. Garth Brooks in Central Park drew only 750,000. Then again, there's never been a star like Obama.

"We're being very realistic in terms of telling people that the weekend will be extremely crowded," Steven Taubenkibel, a spokesman for the Metro system, told me recently. "On inaugural day, we're expecting eight consecutive hours of crush capacity."

Six weeks out, and you can already feel the tension.

Metro rail cars, which ordinarily hold 140 passengers, could max out at 160, Taubenkibel said. On the other hand, if 19 boys can cram into a four-seater, then expect 200 to cram into a Metro car. And that could feel more like 300 when people are dressed in winter coats and carrying backpacks and babies. Oh, wait! Backpacks and diaper bags aren't allowed.

The chills and spills don't stop there.

"The parade route will be completely filled way before the inaugural speech even happens," D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty told reporters recently. "That's something people will have to think about, whether they want to see the parade firsthand or see the inaugural swearing-in and speech. You can't do both."

And you might not get to do either.

For now, France holds the world record for longest traffic jam -- 180 miles from Paris to Lyon in 1980. But that could easily fall next month, and you could be part of the reason. The Capital Beltway alone is 64 miles around. Multiply that by eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper tour buses, RVs, SUVs, stretch limos, taxis and trucks, and you've got at least a million people stuck on 512 miles of concentric circles even before Obama can say, "I do solemnly swear."

And getting there is only half the fun.

It took 45 minutes to move 40,000 people into the Navy Yard Metro station in Southwest after Opening Day at Nationals Park. So, if, say, 2 million people try to funnel into a subway tunnel after the inaugural, the last passenger would have to wait almost two days, according to my calculation.

All kinds of records could be broken.

The longest reported conga line was made up of a mere 1,048 people dancing to "YMCA" at the Island School in Hong Kong last year. With Metro's decision to close its restrooms and put porta potties outside, thousands of people will be doing congalike moves trying to stay warm, to say nothing of trying to stay in control.

There is no record for the world's largest bathtub, but if enough people fall into the Tidal Basin, there could be.

Back in 2000, about 76,000 Denver Broncos fans broke the record for the world's "loudest roar." Standing on the Mall watching the inaugural on a JumboTron when you could have stayed home and watched it on TV ought to be good for a record-breaking scream.

"We fully expect the crowd to be here to celebrate the inaugural, democracy in progress, the peaceful change of power," Sgt. Robert Lachance, a public information officer for the U.S. Park Police told me. "Our goal is for as many people as possible to be here and be safe."

And 5,000 members of the military, along with 4,000 additional police officers from 93 law enforcement agencies across the country, will be on hand to help make your day.

So get ready for this magic moment, ladies and gentlemen. With Obama's swearing-in comes the first audacious act of his administration: Get the population equivalent of Los Angeles to stand on a geographical pinhead and then disappear into a subway tunnel.

And you thought shrinking the federal deficit would be a tough act.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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