By Paul Duggan and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
With well over 1 million people jammed into downtown Washington yesterday, the biggest inaugural security and safety operation in the city's history faced an array of challenges: There were lost children and cold-related medical emergencies, suspicious packages and stalled lines at police checkpoints -- even a potential terrorist threat from overseas.
But as twilight fell on President Obama's Inauguration Day, officials responsible for controlling what might have been the largest public gathering ever in the nation's capital dared to sigh in relief.
"It was an absolute success," U.S. Capitol Police Chief Phillip D. Morse said of the effort, which involved more than 30,000 law enforcement officers and military personnel from across the country. Although there were numerous complaints about chaotic procedures at security checkpoints, the event went off without serious disruption.
By last night, with the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural parade over and the vast crowds mostly dispersed, no serious injuries or significant property damage had occurred, officials said. Not a single arrest had been reported by police or the Secret Service, said a spokesman at the Secret Service's joint information center.
"We anticipated the worst things could happen, but it was a great American celebration," said Army Col. Dan Baggio, spokesman for the Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region, which is responsible for homeland defense in the area.
"All of us in law enforcement want to thank most the cooperative, patient, orderly citizens who attended," said Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, whose agency oversaw a security effort that involved the military and more than 50 law enforcement and public safety agencies.
The security measures and sometimes-conflicting guidance from law enforcement officers left many people bewildered, though. Several thousand ticket holders were blocked from the grounds of the Capitol when entry procedures bogged down and security officials became overwhelmed by surging crowds at several gates.
"This is crazy," said Tonita Davis, 42, of Dayton, Ohio. She and her family arrived downtown at 6 a.m. but left the Capitol area. They had tickets but said those were of no use. "It's quite a disappointment."
Yet most headaches were minor, officials said.
The FBI dispatched a team to the 600 block of 14th Street NW for a report of an unattended backpack, which proved harmless. Agents had to deal with six men on horseback at Second Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE. The riders apparently wanted access to the parade route but were turned away. A call came about a suspicious man on the roof of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the FBI responded quickly. The man turned out to be a maintenance engineer.
Still, the FBI's command center was to continue operating late into the evening, until the president returned to the White House after attending inaugural balls.
The security force, including 13,000 National Guard and active-duty military members, represented more than a 50 percent increase in manpower from the 2005 inauguration of George W. Bush.
The increase reflected the far larger crowds expected at this inauguration and the military's enhanced role in homeland security since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A senior security official with access to internal estimates from several agencies put the total crowd size at 1.8 million, including the parade route. A satellite image appears to show about 1 million people on the Mall at 11:18 a.m., according to a Washington Post analysis.
The D.C. government has estimated that it will spend $28 million providing law enforcement assistance for inaugural events. Maryland and Virginia said they will spend more than $2 million for additional security. The jurisdictions will spend millions more on communications, transportation, and fire and emergency medical services.
Congress has made $15 million available to the District for the expenses it will incur assisting with the inauguration. And, for the first time, the White House declared the city an emergency zone for the inaugural period, allowing it to tap disaster funds.
D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said his department had transported more than 200 people attending the inauguration events to hospitals by early evening.
Hospitals reported treating several dozen people, most for cold-related ailments and others for partying too hard. Officials said 750 people were treated at first aid stations on the Mall, but none of the cases was serious, officials said. About 30 children were separated from their parents but were reunited, police said.
Officials said a 68-year-old woman injured her arm when she fell onto the tracks at the Gallery Place Metro station. She was treated at the scene.
Far from public view, U.S. counterterrorism officials investigated a potential threat to the inauguration by an East African Islamic extremist group linked to al Qaeda. The threat was said to be of "uncertain credibility," and officials encouraged people to go about their usual plans.
In a bulletin issued to law enforcement agencies Monday, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and intelligence officials said they were analyzing information that people affiliated with al-Shabaab, a radical group fighting an insurgency in Somalia, might try to stage an attack yesterday, U.S. officials said.
The FBI's command and tactical center had more than 40 people representing a variety of law enforcement agencies. During the swearing-in, investigators watched on two large TV screens, pausing to take in the moment and applauding. They put their headsets back on and, as Obama's speech began, returned to work.