Crowded but Moving Toward the Mall
Despite Glitches, Traffic Mostly Controlled; Metro Sets Ridership Record

By Eric M. Weiss and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The crush of inauguration attendees pushed the region's transit system to its limit yesterday, with many riders waiting several hours to board packed trains and miles-long traffic jams for coveted spots at Metro's parking structures, but the agency managed to handle the largest crowd in the city's history.

A woman fell off the platform and was pushed to safety at Gallery Place, closing the Red Line for about 45 minutes, but the agency still got passengers where they needed to go.

People, hundreds of whom had lined up before dawn, waited several hours at some stations, including West Falls Church and New Carrollton, for trains to the city. By midmorning, officials had closed one downtown station because of the crush. As people tried to leave the Mall following the swearing-in, L'Enfant Plaza and other nearby stations swelled with riders. By 6 p.m., Metro officials said, ridership had hit 930,772, already a record with eight hours of service to go.

Virginia Railway Express also had its highest ridership day ever.

Attendees also arrived by the thousands by bus, church van, bicycle and foot.

And for the most part, the regional transportation plan outlined by officials worked as it was supposed to. But the sheer numbers -- the largest inaugural crowd in history -- caused problems: long waits for buses, huge lines to enter and exit stations, and trains swollen with passengers that bypassed crowded platforms.

Attendees were confronted with an unprecedented plan that closed major highways and all bridges from Virginia into the District to regular traffic. The plan was so complex that many charged with carrying it out were confused. The worst gridlock was caused by pedestrians, and problems were exacerbated, attendees said, by limited and conflicting information.

"All I want to do is go to my hotel and watch the parade," attendee Sam Harte said. "So far today, I haven't seen anything but cops and concrete barriers."

National Guard troops charged with checking the identification of drivers entering security zones downtown enforced the rules sporadically, if at all. Officials on the ground were just as confused as the out-of-towners.

One District police sergeant at 17th and H streets NW was exasperated from trying to answer questions from hundreds of befuddled visitors. "I need a big, fat 'I don't know' stripped right across my chest, man," he said.

In some places, officers stopped trying to manage the crowds as pedestrians ignored orders to stay on the sidewalks and climbed over concrete barriers for shortcuts.

As people poured out of clogged arteries leading from the Mall before the parade, several onlookers were trapped in narrow human alleyways at the Washington Monument. "I think I'm being crushed!" one woman yelled as a throng of people tried to navigate a two-foot-wide space between a chain-link fence and the monument.

Others made rather quick escapes, thanks to fancy footwork in packed quarters and bicycles stashed at strategic spots. Other spectators found a novel way to escape: chasing ambulances. Hundreds of people ran down 18th Street NW, following a siren-blaring ambulance and chanting Obama's name.

To make it to the Mall in time for the swearing-in, many ignored officials and their plans, abandoning their cars on the side of Route 50 in Maryland; walking from RFK Stadium instead of waiting an hour for a shuttle bus; and even conducting a passenger mutiny on a Metrobus, forcing the driver to let them off nearer to the ceremony.

One D.C. family decided at the last minute to drive to the swearing-in ceremony. They zipped down empty streets and parked illegally a few blocks from the Lincoln Memorial. They were on the Mall in less than 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, the region's road system was anything but gridlocked. Even major accidents on Interstate 66 and the Dulles Toll Road, utility work on Wisconsin Avenue and several burst water mains -- enough to ruin a regular rush hour -- barely had an effect. Drivers found amazingly empty highways and byways, showing just how much everyone had listened to the dire warnings from officials to take transit.

"I can't believe it," Priscilla Pelzer remembered telling her sister, Maryann Trapp-Kettrles, as they drove in. They even nabbed a parking space along N Street NW.

Most followed the rules, got up before dawn and packed Metro trains and buses.

Metrorail service was relatively smooth, given the enormous numbers of riders.

The volume of traffic streaming through the stations prompted Metro personnel to allow people to walk through the fare gates without paying at some stations, such as Judiciary Square, L'Enfant Plaza and Farragut West.

Metro had to close one key station, Federal Triangle, at 11:30 a.m. because of crowds. It reopened by 3:45 p.m.

The most serious incident occurred at 9:25 a.m. A 68-year-old Nashville woman told officials she stepped too close to the station platform edge at Gallery Place, slipped and fell onto the tracks, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

On the platform was Houston transit police officer Eliot Swainson, 46, who was among the 100 officers from other transit agencies helping out in Washington. Swainson had been trained the day before about responding in just such a scenario. He leaned down and pushed the woman to safety under the platform seconds before the train pulled in, he said. "I remembered that the platforms have a little space, and I pushed her down and told her to stay down," he said.

The train "would have hit her if she were on the tracks," Farbstein said.

Metro officials were able to resume normal service after about 45 minutes, a relatively short time for that kind of incident.

By afternoon, as thousands of people streamed to downtown stations after the inauguration, crowds outside some stations became unruly because police were limiting entries to prevent train platforms from being overwhelmed. At Federal Center SW, about a dozen Maryland National Guardsmen had to call in a D.C. civil disturbance police team because of shoving, yelling and cursing, according to Capt. Rick Breitenfeldt. Emergency crews helped evacuate a few people who had been trampled, he said. But there were no major injuries.

Emergency crews responded twice to similar crowds at L'Enfant Plaza, according to District fire and emergency services spokesman Alan Etter. Ambulance crews treated several people at the scene, but no one needed hospitalization, he said.

Woine Ayele, 36, avoided the crush of homeward passengers, but that hadn't been her plan. She was upbeat waiting for a train home at the Gallery Place Metro station. She left her Silver Spring house at 6:30 a.m. to get to the Mall. She waited 45 minutes to buy a Farecard. She got shut out of the Mall. She couldn't see anything from the Washington Monument, so she left at 11:30 to try to catch the ceremony on TV. That didn't come close to happening.

But her spirits were not dampened. "I'm so excited. I saw the people. I saw the crowd," she said.

It took an hour and 25 minutes for talk of mutiny to begin, but the passengers on the 3Y Metrobus from Arlington County hit their limit about 8:15 a.m.

Many had boarded the free bus about 6:30 a.m. on Lee Highway, hoping for a straight shot to McPherson Square, or at least a scheduled special stop at 23rd and Constitution.

Turned away from both the Roosevelt Bridge and the 14th Street exit on Interstate 395, the bus idled in an endless string of buses trapped between 12th Street and Maine Avenue. Jovial talk of the inauguration turned to worry. Cellphones began to buzz with text messages, and iPhones searched for answers online.

"Yes we can . . . get there!" shouted one passenger.

"I have no idea where we're going," said Laura Dossa, 31, of Arlington, clutching the $25 parade route ticket she scored on Ticketmaster on Friday.

"We have to get off this bus, bottom line," said Craig Stephens, 33, of Alexandria. "We just need to get off."

At 8:07 a.m., the 3Y bus crowd chuckled when someone hit the "Stop Requested" button. As the bus inched along the Maine Avenue exit, those chuckles turned into chants: "Let us off! Let us off!"

And the bus driver did.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company