'And Then We Knew It Was Too Late'
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
At least 4,000 people with coveted blue or purple tickets to the presidential inauguration were blocked from entering the U.S. Capitol grounds yesterday because too many tickets were distributed, entry procedures bogged down and security officials were overwhelmed by surging crowds at several gates.
"Apparently we just could not get them all screened in time, and so we were a bit overwhelmed by the numbers," said Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer. "Four to 5,000 people were discombobulated. There were another 236,000 who were very happy with the service."
Many disappointed and angry ticket holders complained that they had arrived early and patiently inched toward their goal all morning, only to end up among frustrated mobs, clamoring outside shut gates just as President Barack Obama (D) was about to be sworn in. Others said they lost precious time wandering among mazes of barricades.
"We stood, and we stood, and we went nowhere. By the end, people were shouting and pushing," said District resident Marion Goldin, 68. "We waited until we heard them playing 'Hail to the Chief,' and then we knew it was too late. Those tickets were so sacred to us, and we never even got close."
Some people said they were stuck for up to four hours in the Third Street tunnel, where there was little security or official guidance. The slow-moving lines of ticket holders grew more chaotic and confused as the morning wore on. Before 11 a.m., one man said, they emerged to see locked gates where they had expected to enter.
"There was no law enforcement, no attendants anywhere," said Zach Goldberg of Northwest Washington. "People were clutching their children, fearing they would be trampled. The line inched forward, but soon it became a mob scene."
More than 200 people who endured that particular ordeal posted entries later on a Facebook page called "Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom."
Just before noon, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Phillip D. Morse said everyone with a ticket had made it inside the grounds, but later in the day he said some ticket holders had not gotten in because a set of gates had been shut as the crowd surged toward them. "To keep things safe, we had to cut it off," Morse said.
Last night, Morse said police are investigating the causes of the problems.
Part of the problem, Gainer said, was that people wearing bulky winter clothing took up more space on the lawn than officials had expected. A second hitch was a broken generator, which disabled some automatic screening machines and required security officials to hand-search many blue-ticket holders, adding to delays.
An explanation was offered last night by Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. She said some ticket holders, demanding access to the silver-ticket section, became so rowdy that they knocked over a barricade. Once inside, one witness said, some people stampeded toward the section. As a result, extra police had to be deployed there, leaving fewer to handle screenings in the purple and blue sections.
"Unfortunately for us, these are the sort of things that will take us days to get real reporting on," Florman said. "We need a chance to look back at those problems."
All of those turned away had obtained highly sought tickets from congressional offices that allowed them into standing sections on the Capitol lawn. They included prominent Washingtonians such as Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, and campaign volunteers who had come from 3,000 miles away.
June Jeffries, a former assistant U.S. attorney from Maryland, said she arrived at 7:30 a.m. but soon ran into a "gridlock," with far too few police to direct the crowds. At 11:26, she said, she gave up and left.
"I could have stayed home in front of my fireplace, with my big-screen TV," Jeffries said. "The biggest presidential moment in my entire 55 years, and I saw nothing."
Just as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was about to administer the oath of office to Obama, security guards pulled shut the tall metal gates at Louisiana Avenue and C Street NW. Thousands of frustrated people milled outside. Some thrust their purple tickets through the bars in frustration, chanting, "Let us in! Let us in!" or "Pur-ple, pur-ple!"
Others just stood sadly. As cannons fired to announce the new president, a middle-aged African American man stood outside the closing gates and began to weep silently. Nearby, an African American woman in a wheelchair drew a blanket tighter around her shoulders and closed her eyes. The moment of a lifetime had passed.
Staff writers Keith L. Alexander, Emily Langer and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.