A Vast, Diverse Sea of Humanity Celebrates the Dawn of an Era
From Across the Country, A Jubilant Crowd Converges

By Michael E. Ruane, Nikita Stewart and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, people stood gazing toward the carpet of humanity that was gathered in the distance, before the cream-colored inauguration platform at the U.S. Capitol.

Dwyan Turner West, a 36-year-old tech manager for the Army, listened quietly to the loudspeakers as Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation's 44th president. West, an African American, stepped to the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, bowed his head, clasped his hands and saluted.

His angular face was taut, his eyes blinking. At the conclusion, he raised his right fist in the air, then both fists. A stranger, a white man, leaned into his ear and said, "Welcome to the new America."

Turner West shook his head and smiled. "We did it," he said. "We finally did it. It's here."

That was the sentiment of many of those who braved the cold and the crowds and waited for hours yesterday to witness Obama's elevation to power and to hear his first words as commander in chief.

By 12:04 p.m., when Obama raised his hand to take the oath under a pale winter sky, their numbers had swollen to well over a million, perhaps eclipsing the record 1.2 million set for Lyndon Johnson's inauguration 44 years ago. One official estimated that 1.8 million came to the Mall and the inaugural parade.

People wept, danced, sang and kissed.

The crowds began arriving at the Mall well before sunrise. They came from across the country, by all means of transportation. Some staked out spots hours in advance on the Mall or along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route.

It was a day of contrasts. This inauguration had the tightest security ever, with sharpshooters and the National Guard very much in sight, and yet Obama and his wife got out of their limousine -- twice -- and walked a good stretch of the parade route. More bridges and roads were closed to private vehicles than ever, and yet people got in and out of town relatively smoothly -- thanks largely to Metro, which set a ridership record.

Considering the size of the crowd and the security challenges it presented, the day went off without major problems, amid an atmosphere of jubilation.

The swearing-in ceremony climaxed four days of celebrations, including a whistle-stop train trip to Washington from Philadelphia, a concert on the Mall and a national initiative of community service. It came after months of anticipation and mad scrambles for tickets to the swearing-in and parade. Organizers had said it would be a stupendous event, and it was.

Ella Mae Johnson, 105, from Cleveland, was there on the Mall, wrapped in a sky-blue sleeping bag and propped up in her wheelchair by her nurse. "I intended to come, and I am glad I came," she said.

So was John L. Harrison, 87, of Philadelphia, a retired Air Force major who as a black B-25 pilot during World II was denied the honor of flying combat missions because of the color of his skin.

And Beverly Fleming, 55, of Chatsworth, Calif., and her mother, Frances, 75, and daughter Jewell, 30, who said they felt blessed to be present.

"I used to tell my children that they can be anything and do anything that they wanted to do in their lives," Fleming said. "And with Barack Obama being the first African American president, it just means that my words did not go in vain. For my children and my grandchildren and my great grandchildren, anything is possible."

VIPs were scattered among the crowd, and Oprah Winfrey caused a brief sensation when she arrived at the Capitol for the ceremony. One little girl was dismayed when she missed snapping Oprah's picture. "Calm down," said a woman with her. "You'll get someone else. We'll find somebody special."

As the big moment approached, Charity Smith of Little Rock was overtaken with joy, ceaselessly waving a small American flag near the foot of the Capitol.

"I have a ticket, but I can't sit down," she said. "I can't hold my peace."

The air was now filled with the stirring music of John Philip Sousa and Aaron Copland and with chants of "Oh-Bahm-UH!" The crowd roared when the Obamas' children, Malia and Sasha, came out, followed by their mother, and finally the man himself.

And when Obama stood before the throng and began his inaugural address -- "My fellow citizens!" -- a voice from the thousands in front of the Capitol enthusiastically responded, "Yes, sir."

Yes, sir, and yes, we can -- that was largely the soul of the day.

But the afternoon was tempered by concerns about Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who suffered a seizure during a post-inaugural luncheon for Obama at the Capitol. He later was said to be awake and feeling better. The inaugural parade, which often starts late, was delayed a bit as doctors tended to Kennedy.

By and large, the public heeded advice to plan ahead, leave early and dress for the freezing weather. The temperature at noon was 28, with a wind chill index of 17. Usually, things turned out well. But there were some embarrassments, primarily at the Capitol grounds, where several thousand people with tickets to the swearing-in were kept away after mistakes that contributed to delays and confusion at screening points.

"There's absolutely no way we're all getting in," said D.C. documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who, despite her ticket, gave up hope shortly after 10 a.m.

Her voice quavered, and she broke down on the phone. "I was on [the campaign] for a year and a half, and I'm really upset." she said. "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."

The sheer number of people caused other problems, including long waits for buses, packed train platforms and long lines to enter and exit stations.

At times, frustrated crowds surged toward barricades near the Mall and parade route. About 30 children were separated from their parents, and more than 200 people were treated at medical stations on the Mall, many for cold-related conditions.

Yet as dusk fell, no one had been seriously injured, according to officials. There was no property damage. And officials, pronouncing the day a resounding security success, reported no arrests during the events on the Mall or along the parade route.

One potential tragedy was averted when a 68-year-old woman fell on the Metro tracks but was pushed under the platform and out of the path of an approaching Red Line train by a Houston transit police officer, one of many out-of-town officers here for the day.

"It would have hit her if she were on the tracks," Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

Crowds were so tightly packed at security checkpoints that scuffling sometimes broke out.

"Let's not have another Wal-Mart!" someone yelled, referring to the death of a store employee during a shopping stampede in November.

For some, the conditions proved too difficult to take.

James Glenn, 66, came all the way from Columbus, Ga., and even made it near one of the many Jumbotrons at the Mall before he decided to turn around. And so, minutes before Obama took the oath of office, Glenn was trudging down a path miles away, closing in on his bus behind RFK Stadium parking lot.

"It was too crowded," he said. "We're going to get on our bus and watch it on TV."

By mid-morning, many elderly people and others became fatigued and rested on street curbs, or, in one case, on folding chairs provided by the Capitol Police.

A 63-year-old man from Oakland said he was weary and did not think he would make it through to his seat without resting. He said he thought maybe he should have given his ticket to his daughter, who had dropped him and his wife off at the Capitol and returned to a hotel in Maryland.

For the most part, however, a sense of history and excitement defined the day.

At an Obama souvenir shop on E Street between Sixth and Seventh streets NW, the proprietor Valerie Cunningham allowed people to come in to warm up and use the bathroom.

"Good morning, good morning," she greeted people as they walked in.

The 40-year-old Tampa businesswoman, who set up shop in the District for a week, said she had not considered putting up a no bathroom sign like those seen at other buildings in the area. "I'm a Southern girl," she said. "It's about hospitality. That's all I know."

Not coincidentally, people were scooping up her hats and T-shirts reading "CHANGE," "DESTINY" or "44."

Some people in the crowd said they had been drawn to bear witness to other moments of recent history -- the inaugurations of presidents George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, for example, or the lying in state of Ronald Reagan in 2004. But for many, many others -- black, white, Hispanic and Asian; old and young; immigrant and native born -- this moment resonated in a unique way.

Outside a checkpoint for ceremony ticket holders at Fifth and C streets NW, Irma Brown-Williams, 66, a retired high school teacher from Tuskegee, Ala., stood apart from about 300 revelers. She had pinned black-and-white photos of her mother, father and siblings, all deceased, to her ankle-length coat.

"I'm here for them," Brown-Williams said. "They could not be here, so I brought them with me." Nearby, a small group of Howard University students started singing to pass the time. As the music eventually segued to "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the spiritual "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," others joined in, thrusting black, brown and white fists into the air.

After a long series of official introductions at the Capitol, people began chanting Obama's name. He was introduced a moment after noon and sworn in on Abraham Lincoln's Bible a minute later. Then he began his address to the gigantic crowd and the nation.

The Mall fell silent. People huddled around portable TV sets.

This was a moment, Obama said, that would define a generation. As he spoke it seemed the entire generation stood listening.

In the Capitol crowd, Elizabeth and Stanley Walker turned to each other and kissed.

"All these years, our family -- and we both have large families -- struggled and strived," said Elizabeth Walker, 67, a Management Consultant from Kingswood, Tex. "This moment came. It finally came. I wish my parents could have seen this."

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