Crowds Disperse as Obama Arrives at White House

By David A. Fahrenthold and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 20, 2009 6:11 PM

After President Obama and his family arrived at the White House late this afternoon, spectators along the inaugural parade route thinned out considerably, beginning the final exodus of a historic crowd that created massive backups in streets and subway stations.

After being outside for nine hours, District resident Monica Waters said it was time to quit. "We are frozen," said the 46-year-old. "We saw Barack pass and [Vice President] Biden pass. It was exciting, but we are so cold. It's time to go."

At 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Obama's limousine had barely passed when the first people began running for the Federal Triangle Metro station. By the time the announcer read Biden's name, the crowd had been cut in half. And when D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) came by a few minutes later there were only stragglers.

"We got what we came for," said Kenneth Armstrong, who drove with family from Birmingham, Ala., and had waited since 4:30 a.m. at the parade security point to get a prime spot. "We were right up front when he [Obama] walked by. What more could you ask for?"

Metro officials said that stations were jammed this evening. Witness reports indicated the crowds may be starting to ease, but the stations could still be chaotic. About 5 p.m. at the Metro Center stop, one police officer noticed that a grade-school child had boarded a train that was about to depart -- without his family.

"Get that child off the train!" she cried, and snatched the child before the train doors closed.

As the throngs departed, officials said the day had been record-breaking -- the crowd was estimated at nearly 2 million, making this the largest public gathering in the capital's history -- and frustrating, but overall relatively untroubled. No arrests were reported. And, though medical personnel responded to hundreds of emergencies, none was believed to involve a life-threatening problem.

About 30 children became separated from their families in the midst of the crowd.

As Obama's speech ended, Capt. Mike Odle, one of six members of the Oregon National Guard who traveled to the District, felt a tug on his camouflage jacket. Standing beside a row of porta-potties near Seventh Street on the Mall, Odle turned to find Nathan, a sixth-grader from Warren, Ohio. Choking back tears, Nathan handed the soldier a note.

"If lost, please return Nathan to RFK stadium," it read. The note included the parking space where Nathan's bus driver had parked the group's charter, and it listed a cell phone number for Nathan's teacher.

Odle and other members of the Oregon Guard carried Nathan to Medical Tent 11 -- a repository for temporarily separated family members during the crush to leave the Mall shortly after Obama spoke. Nathan and all the other children were eventually reunited with guardians.

As of 5 p.m., 873,788 passengers had used the Metro system today, a transit spokesman said. She said the number seemed guaranteed to break the all-time ridership record of 886,681, set yesterday.

In mid-afternoon, passengers were still jammed into downtown Metro stations like Farragut West, where transit police Sergeant S. Flinn was counseling patience.

"Take your time. We're open 'til 2 [a.m.]," Flinn told a crowd making its way down to platform.

"You've got to make them laugh," he said afterward.

The inaugural parade route, by contrast, was surprisingly uncrowded. Authorities said that they only closed one of the route's 13 checkpoints because it had reached capacity. Other entrances remained open at 4:20 p.m.

At Constitution Avenue and 1st Street NW, front-row seats were still available as the parade's police escorts roared off around 3:45 p.m.

Elsewhere, spectators spent hours making their way through streets that had become rivers of parka-clad humanity, trying just to reach a Metro station. An hour-and-a-half after the end of the inaugural ceremony, Hasker Thomas, 29, was trying to catch a train to the New Carollton station, where a ride would take him and his family back to Philadelphia.

But he was still standing at First and D streets SE.

"It's something you have to endure for the chance of a lifetime," Thomas said.

Others were less sanguine, especially those who, because of crowds near certain entrances to the swearing-in ceremony, never got where they were going in the first place.

"I fought for him for two years and I came here expecting this nice ending," said a disgusted Gabrielle Sewtz, who was trapped in the crush of thousands trying to get off the Mall at 18th and Constitution. "Instead, it's been a nightmare."

She said she had bleacher ticket seats for the parade but never got through security. She is six months pregnant. "This is the worst experience ever."

Shortly after 2 p.m., about a dozen Maryland National Guardsmen had to call in a D.C. police civil disturbance team after thousands of people waiting to get on the Metro at Federal Center SW grew unruly, according to National Guard Captain Rick Breitenfeldt.

Frustrated that they could not get on the Metro shortly after the inauguration ceremony ended at around 2, people started pushing and yelling, he said. "It was really crazy there for a while," he said. "It took several hours for it to clear up."

Emergency crews helped evacuate a few people who had been trampled, he said. But there were no major injuries. "People were getting really angry because the line wasn't moving fast enough," he said.

Along the Mall -- which was packed even beyond the Washington Monument -- some spectators began leaving as soon as Obama had taken the oath of office, too frozen even to wait for his address. Their trickle became a slow-moving flood after the inaugural program concluded.

"It was worth it," beamed Donna Love, 54, retired electrician who came via chartered bus with friends from Detroit. "Runny nose and everything."

But for many in the crowd -- estimated by security officials at about 1.8 million people -- the experience was not quite over yet.

Some spectators have found themselves pressed up against security barriers, or trying to leave through narrow entrances where other spectators are trying to come in.

At 14th Street and Madison Drive NW, a crowd of thousands chanted "Let us out!" when barriers blocked them from leaving. Later, hundreds of people poured over a knocked-down fence near 15th Street, as National Guard soldiers let them pass.

On 18th Street NW, hundreds of people were using a novel strategy to escape the crush. When a siren-blaring ambulance passed, they ran behind it, taking advantage of the space it was clearing. The crowd was chanting Obama's name.

At 12th Street and Indiana Avenue NW, thousands moshed in gridlock, trying to turn north on 12th, just looking for a way around the security cordon. Several people were thrown to the ground as the crowd pushed them over curbs and between Jersey barriers. Parents screamed at kids to stay connected to family chains.

"It's apocalyptic," said Patrick Groneman of New York.

In other places, pedestrians found their path blocked by the security cordon around the inaugural parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

"Maybe we should just camp out until January 2013," one pedestrian said to another, meaning the next presidential inauguration.

This morning's ceremony may have been the largest public gathering in the history of the capital, and it strained even the special arrangements put in place by local security and transportation officials. Metro reported 545,603 passengers as of noon.

In the morning, spectators streamed onto the Mall this morning across swarmed bridges and in sardine-can buses and trains -- a historic influx that began slowly but jovially, then turned frustrating and even dangerous as crowds backed up at checkpoints.

Authorities reported no serious injuries among the throngs, but there were several close calls. A 68-year-old woman slipped and fell onto the Metro tracks at the Gallery Place Station, but other passengers helped push her out of the way of an oncoming train. Firefighters were called for people who had fallen down among a crush of people at a security checkpoint near Union Station.

Medical personnel on the Mall have treated about 674 people today, for problems including falls, chest pain and hypothermia, a government spokeswoman said. She said 44 of them had been taken to local hospitals, though none of them appeared to have life-threatening problems.

Overall, Washington area hospitals treated 350 people transported for medical emergencies ranging from hyperthermia to possible stroke during the Inaugural activities today, the D.C. Department of Health reported.

Some of them had brought their medical problems on themselves. As the swearing-in ceremony ended, several patients who had drunk too much alcohol were brought to George Washington University Hospital in Northwest for treatment.

"Some people have been overindulging in alcohol and coming in unresponsive," Heather Oldham, a spokeswoman for George Washington University Hospital, said at 1 p.m. "Maybe they were trying to stay warm." Others were also being treated for exposure to the cold, she said.

More than one dozen children suffering from exposure to the cold had been taken to Children's Hospital in Northwest. "We've seen about 15 kids, mostly just cold, and nothing out of the ordinary," said Emily Dammeyer, a spokeswoman for the hospital. "Nothing that a warm blanket won't cure." The patients ranged in age from 14 months up to 16 years, she said.

Georgetown University Hospital had treated 17 patients by early afternoon, including a half-dozen hypothermia cases, one case of alcohol poisoning and one person suffering lacerations. "There's been nothing out of the ordinary," said Mary Anne Worley, a spokeswoman for the hospital.

"It's been surprisingly quiet," Ronna Borenstein-Levy, a spokeswoman for Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, said early this afternoon. The hospital treated one patient injured in a car accident on the Clara Barton Parkway, she said.

Thousands of law-enforcement officials were working in the city today, but they found themselves dealing with mundane concerns and medical emergencies. About 1 p.m., the FBI was called to 2nd Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE, where six men on horseback had appeared. They apparently wanted access to the parade route, authorities said. They were told they couldn't take a horse into the area.

The D.C., U.S. Capitol and U.S. Park police forces all reported no arrests during the event.

"Our biggest problems were medical calls and lost children," said park police chief Salvatore Lauro, adding he was "pleased" with how people handled police closing entrances to the Mall earlier than expected. Police closed those entrances because they were concerned that the crowds were growing too large and could prove dangerous in an emergency, he said. "We didn't want anyone to get trampled," he added.

The crowd arrived this morning on foot and on bicycles, in taxicabs and charter buses and Metro trains so crowded that the sheer press of humanity caused riders to pop out when doors opened. They came from local neighborhoods and from states away -- some driving all through a snowy night.

For most of the morning, the wait was trying and freezing, but the mood was good. People sang hymns and show tunes, chanted Obama slogans and made up some of their own.

"It's a tremendous feeling of unity," said Philip Steggall, 55, an engineer from Rhode Island who was waiting on the frozen Mall at 6:20 a.m. "Who else would you come out for in the freezing cold at 5 a.m.? He's the only person I would do this for."

But, as the morning wore on, large crowds formed outside checkpoints to enter the tickets-only seating of the inaugural ceremony, and to gain a seat for the inaugural parade. People in these crowds said they waited for hours, only to find that the checkpoint was closed, or that their ticket wasn't the right one, and security officials at the head of the line couldn't guide them to a way in.

"There's absolutely no way we're all getting in," said D.C. documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who held a ticket for the purple seating section. "There's absolutely no way we're all getting in," she said, her voice breaking in a phone interview. "I don't want to be in a line when they're praying and when he's being sworn in, so I'm going to go try to watch it somewhere."

In other places, crowds chanted "Let us in!" or "Call 911!"

"I might as well burn this," said one man as he waved a blue ticket in the air. There were thousands of people standing between him and the security gate that the ticket entitled him to enter.

"It will keep us warm," said the woman next to him.

In some places, crowds even tried to go over or around security barriers. In one spot, crowds hopped over security barriers to reach a section of the Mall that had been closed because it was too crowded. Security officials hollered "Stop!" One man yelled in reply, "This is history!"

But security officials said no spectators entered specially protected areas without the required checks.

Today's spectators appeared to have heeded warnings not to drive into the District: Besides long queues outside Metro station parking garages, the highways and major arteries through much of Northwest Washington were holiday-clear.

The load was borne instead by buses and trains, which were packed long before dawn. As of 8 a.m. Metro ridership was 318,422, with extremely crowded conditions at L'Enfant Plaza, Metro Center, Gallery Place, Foggy Bottom and Federal Center Southwest.

And when the crowds left Metro, often they spent an hour or more filtering their way onto a crowded mall.

"I waited nine hours at Simi Valley to see Reagan's body," said Mike Plunkett of Vienna. "At least this time it's for a live guy."

At least some of those in the early crush simply extended their Monday night, snoozing at local fast food restaurants or taking advantage of the late bar and club closings.

Funmi Olorunnipa and her friends were sitting among the crowds at the Columbia Heights Metro station, waiting to catch the first train at 4:15 a.m. -- but they were on their way home after a long night, not on their way to the Mall after an early morning.

"We're just going home to change and then get in line to see it," said Olorunnipa, 27, a lawyer from Los Angeles. Her friend, Kaweyza Burris, 27, a lawyer from New York City, said that Obama's background had inspired both of them.

"We both come from immigrant families," Burris said. "Only in this country is this story possible. And not only do we identify with that, the whole country identifies with it right now."

Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan, Jacqueline L. Salmon, Nikita Stewart, Keith L. Alexander, Michael Birnbaum, Michael Alison Chandler, Aaron C. Davis, David A. Fahrenthold, Steve Hendrix, Jerry Markon, Jonathan Mummolo, Patricia Sullivan, Lena H. Sun, Christopher Twarowski and Eric M. Weiss contributed to this report.

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