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Inaugural Missteps And Miscalculations

Holders of purple tickets line the Third Street tunnel, trying to get to a checkpoint and a designated area near the Capitol to see the inauguration. Several thousand people with tickets for various areas didn't get near the swearing-in in time to watch it.
Holders of purple tickets line the Third Street tunnel, trying to get to a checkpoint and a designated area near the Capitol to see the inauguration. Several thousand people with tickets for various areas didn't get near the swearing-in in time to watch it. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)

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By Mary Beth Sheridan and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 25, 2009

At 10 a.m. on Inauguration Day, Capitol Police Chief Phillip D. Morse gazed from his patrol car as it cruised past lines of shivering ticket holders along the southwestern end of the Capitol. "They're flowing pretty good," he said.

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But in command centers around Washington, security officials were starting to get alarming e-mails and calls. A giant bottleneck of people had developed near a security checkpoint on the Capitol's north side. Thousands more people were stuck in the Third Street tunnel, many of whom had been standing for hours with their tickets.

A combination of official miscalculations and inadequate response contributed to a breakdown in order at half a dozen ticket entrances and intersections around the Capitol before the swearing-in of President Obama. In meetings that carried into the weekend, congressional and security officials were grappling with public outrage and trying to figure out what went wrong.

This much is clear: The Capitol Police and other officials underestimated the turnout among ticket holders. They turned down advance offers of help from volunteers and the National Guard, officials say. And police failed to respond adequately when trouble arose.

As a result, thousands of people with precious tickets to the swearing-in didn't get anywhere near it in time for the historic moment. Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer acknowledged yesterday that the number could be far higher than his early estimate of 4,000. Satellite photos show more than 10,000 people swarming outside each of three security gates shortly before the inaugural ceremony began at 11:30 a.m., or 34 minutes before Obama took the oath.

To be sure, more than 1 million people made it onto the Mall and Capitol grounds. But Congress members and attendees are livid about the breakdown in crowd management. Gainer said he has realized that the situation was more dangerous than it first appeared.

"We were fortunate that something worse didn't happen, that there weren't injuries," he said after meeting with the creators of the Facebook site "Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom" -- referring to the many holders of purple tickets for a designated viewing area who were stuck in the tunnel. The Facebook site has more than 5,000 members.

As was the case throughout the presidential campaign, supporters turned out early and in huge numbers to cheer Obama. Nikki Hudnall, 42, a nurse and campaign volunteer from Alexandria, arrived at the gate for purple ticket holders on First and Constitution Avenue NW about 6:30 a.m. with a friend from California.

The gates were not scheduled to open until 8 a.m. But a long line stretched down Constitution into the northbound lane of the Third Street tunnel. The women followed it.

"There was no direction, no security presence, no one giving any information," Hudnall said.

Unbeknown to Hudnall, ticket holders were never supposed to enter that part of tunnel, which was reserved for emergency vehicles. Police officers continued to direct people there, however, according to witnesses. D.C. police working crowd control were focused on the southbound section of the tunnel, which was designated a pedestrian walkway under the Mall.

"I think the overall view is, nobody felt they were responsible for the northbound tunnel," one D.C. police officer who was in the area said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.


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