By Pamela Constable and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Rick DeFilippi and Lucy Arrington of Cambridge, Mass., made detailed plans to see the presidential inauguration. They bought round-trip tickets from Boston on US Airways and obtained passes for the Capitol lawn from a congressional office. They stayed at a hotel in downtown Washington and walked to the Capitol early Tuesday morning, thinking they had plenty of time to get inside.
Instead, like at least several thousand other inaugural visitors, the New England couple left Washington disappointed.
First, their inaugural tickets were useless because the security gates were shut while they were waiting in a long, slow-moving line in the frigid Third Street tunnel, so they watched the historic swearing-in of President Obama in their hotel.
"We ran into massive crowds, and we worked our way through and were told we couldn't get in that way," Arrington said. "We went to the next gate and ended up in a tunnel of doom."
Then, when they tried to leave town yesterday morning, the lines at Reagan National Airport were so long they missed their flight and ended up departing hours later.
Both coming and going, some out-of-towners discovered that their hopes for smooth and happy participation in the largest inaugural celebration in memory were marred by long lines, missed trains and planes, security breakdowns and chaotic crowds.
By most accounts, only minor hassles beset the vast majority of the crowd, officially estimated by the District at 1.8 million. But for a vocal minority, the trip of a lifetime turned sour.
Hundreds of irate people phoned congressional offices and media outlets, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) demanded an investigation. More than 1,500 joined the Facebook group Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom, which chronicles the ordeal of thousands stuck in lines in the Third Street tunnel, waiting in vain for admission to the inauguration.
Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer estimated that 4,000 ticket holders were in line as the swearing-in was about to begin. Numerous witnesses told The Washington Post that they thought the number was higher.
People said they stood in long lines that never reached the security gates, that there were far too few police and officials on hand to direct or control the crowds, or that they were given confusing information and sent in the wrong direction. In the end, many gave up and left in disgust.
"We did everything we were supposed to do, caught the Metro to the Capitol by 6:30 a.m. and got into line," said Gary Love, an investment banker from San Francisco who inched his way to the security gate for hours only to see it shut in his face at 11:45 a.m.
"The crowd was getting huge, but we never saw a single police officer in three hours. I came all the way from California, and this was a priceless moment to me. But I ended up huddled around someone's radio, trying to hear the last half of Obama's speech," Love said.
Officials acknowledged yesterday that miscalculations by planners and poor communication among law enforcement agencies contributed to a chaotic situation outside checkpoints to the Capitol's west front, where thousands of ticket holders wound up stranded and unable to attend the inauguration.
Yesterday afternoon, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies issued a statement apologizing to ticket holders who weren't admitted. By evening, Feinstein, who headed the committee, said she had summoned the head of the Secret Service and demanded an investigation.
"I have heard enough to know that something went wrong and we need to find out what happened," Feinstein said in a statement. She referred to the thousands of ticket holders who couldn't enter Capitol grounds and the problems with the Third Street tunnel, "where thousands of people were stuck for several hours and apparently without any law enforcement presence."
A satellite image taken at 11:19 a.m. -- 11 minutes before the scheduled start of the swearing-in ceremony -- shows tens of thousands of people clumped at security gates for holders of tickets for the silver, blue and purple viewing areas on the Capitol grounds.
To make matters worse, the same kind of crush occurred yesterday at National Airport and Tuesday night at Union Station as many of the same people tried to get home.
At National, many passengers missed flights because of long lines, even though airlines had added staff and opened early. At transit hubs such as Union Station and L'Enfant Plaza, where riders catch commuter trains and Metro trains, confusion was so bad that people were crying, officials said.
But people were most bitter about the experience at the swearing-in. Gainer denied that slow screening was responsible for the difficulties, saying that the sections filled by noon and that additional people couldn't have fit even with speedier processing.
His account contrasted with reports from some people who got into the sections and said they weren't full. Authorities did not count how many entered or were stuck outside.
The satellite photo indicates that the back parts of the blue and purple ticketed areas were largely empty. It also shows empty swaths in the silver ticketed standing-room-only areas on both sides of Third Street, beside the Capitol Reflecting Pool.
City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said that his office had been closely monitoring the crowding in the tunnel leading to several checkpoints and that police were at both ends, trying to control the flow. He blamed the crowd backups on slow processing at the security checkpoints just outside but said his staff did its best to keep things moving.
"When we saw the tunnel filling up, we worked to try and clear it, but it might not have felt that way to people inside," he said. "We never expected the tunnel, which is vast, to fill up with people."
Dan Gerstein, a political consultant from New York and a purple ticket holder who never made it inside, had no sympathy for official explanations. He said he was "outraged" with security officials' performance at such an important event. "There was total incompetence and insensitivity, and now they are compounding it by being unaccountable," he said angrily. "At a moment of great hope, they crushed the hopes of thousands of people."
Staff writers Mark Berman, Maria Glod, Hamil R. Harris, Dan Keating, Lena H. Sun and Eric M. Weiss contributed to this report.