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Scenes from the Mall tunnel

January 20, 2009 |  5:40 pm

Of the many reports surfacing of would-be inaugural spectators denied entrance to the National Mall, this one definitely takes the cake: A nightmarish scene inside what is being called the Purple Tunnel of Doom.


Writing on ForeignPolicy.com, Marc Lynch has the sad tale:

I went to the show with a few friends who received excellent Purple tickets as a reward for untold hours volunteering as foreign policy advisers for the Obama campaign. We got down to the security checkpoint for the Purple section bright and early (I left home at 4 AM), and were guided into a long tunnel which had been closed to traffic. We waited in line for nearly four hours, in a claustrophobic tunnel with no porta-potties, no food or drink, and not a single official or volunteer in sight. Finally, we got within sight of the Purple Gate -- only to find that it had been closed. Thousands of people in front of us hadn't gotten in (not that anyone bothered to tell the people languishing in the tunnel that the gate had been closed, mind you). Thousands of purple ticket holders were behind us. It's remarkable that there wasn't a riot. I rode the metro home with a lot of people who had been turned away, including an elderly African-American woman muttering over and over to herself that it had been one of the worst experiences of her life.

There's even a Facebook page: Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom.

More details on Talking Points Memo.

Flickr photos here.

--Christopher Hawthorne

Photo courtesy Marc Lynch

Comments () | Archives (18)

I had a purple ticket to the inauguration, but was unable to witness the event due to the lack of organization and communication of the Inaugural Committee.

I was one of thousands of people who waited in line at the Purple Gate for over 5 hours, only to be locked out of one of the most important moments in our nation's history. After spending hours in the Third Street tunnel, we searched in vain for an officer or staff member to provide us with information, but found only a frazzled volunteer who had no information to give. There were no bathrooms, food or water, police, or volunteers available.

Some people have waited their entire lives for a moment like this, and to be turned away, without an explanation, with ticket in hand, is unacceptable. While the rest of the nation watched this historic event, we stood with thousands of disillusioned people on a congested street, unable to even make our way out to try to watch it on television.

As a high school teacher in a state facing financial difficulties and potential teacher layoffs, it was a tremendous financial sacrifice to make a trip like this.

The name of the line tells it all. It was definitely a Purple Tunnel of Doom. It was awful to wait 4 hours on a line and get denied entrance because of poor planning. What happened? Someone needs to know so that a repeat does not occur.

I was there too, although I never even knew about the tunnel until later. We got there at 7:00AM and moved maybe a tenth of a mile in the 5 hours between 7-12.

True, it was heartbreaking for me and my friend who didn't get in. But it was truly frightening from a public safety standpoint. There were two different occasions when the call went out for a doctor. No medics ever showed up.

I was there at 6:30am in line in the Purple Tunnel of Doom and spent 4 hours in line to find out that we wouldn't be let in. It was a disaster in terms of planning and security. There were a number of non-official vehicles that entered the tunnel and could have posed a security risks to the thousands in the tunnel. Those in charge of security for the event had a number of failures elsewhere in the event as well when the fence between silver and blue area were knocked down and even people without tickets at all made their way into the blue ticketed area without eve going through a security checkpoint. While it was a day of joy, it was marked by disappointment for the thousands that were denied entry.

The Purple Ticket to Hell
Having worked many long hours volunteering for the Obama campaign, I was elated to be given a Purple Ticket the night before the inauguration ceremony. A Purple Ticket! I felt like Charlie Bucket when he found the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory! My wife and I boarded the metro and departed the Vienna station at about 5:30 AM but our high spirits were soon tempered by the reality of Metro’s poor planning for the large crowds. Metro apparently has a policy of taking entire trains out of service when one person aboard gets sick. This act defied any logic that any of us passengers could muster when discussing our predicament, but we dutifully attempted to exit the train onto an already crowded platform. To add insult to injury, the conductor announced that passengers would have to transfer to the opposite platform, gave warnings to clear the doors, and attempted to close the doors multiple times while passengers, beginning to panic, tried to hold the doors open to squeeze onto the platform. As the platform began to clear and the last passengers finally exited the doors, inexplicably, the conductor announced that the train was in service again! The crowd immediately surged back onto the cars, pushing and stumbling, a toddler’s head was smacked into the doorframe when her father was pushed through the door, resulting in tears and a shouting match. In a few seconds the train doors closed and the train surged forward with the cars partially full and leaving many very frustrated passengers standing on the platform.

We arrived to Judiciary Square Metro Station just before 7AM, a full 90 minutes after departing Vienna and excitedly hurried for the Purple Gate where we found a line extending down into the I-395 tunnel. We followed the line through the tunnel and out the other side and joined the end of the line. I was astounded! Was it possible that every person in this throng of thousands and thousands had a Purple Ticket? We waited in the concrete canyon while thousands joined the line; and thousands more walked along 395 or descended from above to cross 395 in a search for silver gates and yellow gates. At about 8AM the line began to move forward, we assumed because they had opened the gates. The crowd was ecstatic! As we entered the tunnel we began to get to know our neighbors; we shared stories and food. The tunnel was cold, ugly, dirty and uncomfortable. A foul wind blew from large slotted openings in the walls and ice sickles dripped from the ceiling. Every few minutes a security vehicle with its ear-splitting siren screaming, sped at a reckless pace through the tunnel scattering people before it. Tired people sat on the barriers near the wall, leaving spots cleaned of grime whenever they moved along with the line. We shuffled our cold feet and the girls grumbled that there were no porta-potties anywhere.
By the time we got to the dim center of the tunnel, we had had become friends with our neighbors; 3 sisters who were all young Army officers, and an Army veteran of two tours in Iraq from Chicago who had worked full time as a volunteer for months with Veterans for Obama. We grouped for photos and exchanged e-mails. We also carried on worried discussions about the capability of the security teams to process the many thousands of us in the tunnel and worried that we would still be in the tunnel when the inauguration started. The line was moving but it seemed to be getting thicker as we approached the exit. As the tunnel narrowed and inclined up to the street all movement stopped. The tunnel that had held an orderly line about 4 people wide when we passed through to the end of the line was now solidly packed with people. It looked like there wasn't even room to breath.

At 1030AM, with at least a 1/4-mile or more left to get to the gate, my wife and I made the decision to abandon the line. We knew it was too late to get a spot on the parade route, so we headed home so that we could at least watch the inauguration on the TV. We parted with our new friends who still had hope. As we exited 395 and headed for China Town, we met other purple ticket holders on the way to the metro. They had abandoned their quest within site of the security tent when the crush of people and near panic of the crowd frightened them. Other friends of mine that were finally just outside the security tent near 1200PM were refused entry and the crowd began chanting “Let Us In!” He also abandoned the line about 1230 but then chanced upon a yellow gate with no line and was allowed to enter.

The I-395 Purple Ticket tunnel incident demonstrated gross incompetence or crass indifference on the part of the security planners and the event planners and someone should be fired. It was a very dangerous situation in which a panic for any reason could have started a stampede and people could have been killed. It is a simple task to determine the time required to process a person through a security gate, then extrapolate to determine the time necessary to process all the ticket holders. They obviously needed to open the gates hours earlier. Planners either had to know that all the ticket holders would not get in and deliberately left them to suffer in the cold with no information, or the planners simply did not think the situation through. I don’t know which is worse. It really does not matter to new my friend Bobby, the veteran from Chicago; he drove all the way to DC only to see the inside of a grimy tunnel.


I read from a New Orleans purple-ticket-holder that the blame lays squarely on a large mob of people without tickets trying to force their way in - in, over, and around the deserving, responsible, ticket holders. Were any of you within sight of the gate to witness the same occurance? If his report is true - his reflection that the small group of people who broke the rules ruined the event for everyone. I am indeed sorry for each of you, if that is the case.

The lack of coordination was absolutely preposterous. As the writer stated, there were absolutely NO police, volunteers, or anyone in the 2-3 square block area where we were lined up to direct traffic or even provide basic information. The closest ambulance was 2 blocks away, and I also remembered the call for medic, and none appearing. Then the Capitol police, after closing the gates and after the swearing in, had the audacity to tell us that too many tickets had been handed out. That's crap, since only a set number of tickets are handed out, and individuals who had gotten in reported that there was plenty of space in the purple section. On top of all of this, friends with silver tickets got in only because crowds broke down barricades and started rushing the Mall, and cops didn;t bother checking tickets. Such inept planning and security breaches in what was known for months beforehand to be a historic and unprecedented event is aboslutely inexcuseable

I arrived from Judicial Square at approximately 6:30AM to find a long line of Purple Ticket holders wrapped into tunnel. I promptly took a space in line in the tunnel (at the point where it splits into two roads). Around an hour later, I had to find a restroom. My new friends promised to save my space for me. After searching for a restroom/portable potty for about 30 minutes I was told by an an officer that they were all inside the Mall area. So I made a mad dash to Union Station.

While trying to make it to the station I noticed that at 1st and E street the line of purple ticket holders was no longer distinct and late arrivals were not moving/ shifting to the back of the line in the tunnel. (Likely because they didn't know the line was wrapping that way and there was no one there to direct them otherwise).

As I exited Union Station, it was impossible to return to the tunnel because of the people congestion. I also noted a huge sign that said Purple Gate not far away from the station at the Junction of Louisiana and C I believe. (This was the only sign visible to people from above eye level. The other signs were virtually useless when the streets filled with people.)

Because of the volume of people, no/not enough security detail and poor signage people with purple tickets (who arrived from Union Station 'late' between 8-10AM) just filled the streets in front and near the Purple Gate Entry point unaware that some people had been in line since 4AM that morning and that there was a huge line spanning for several blocks into the tunnel. We were all literally human sandwiches. I eventually got pushed toward the barricade gate with people who were in line for hours and made it to the Capitol Grounds just as the ceremony was beginning.

It was definitely a logistical nightmare. Thousands of confused people. Additionally, adding to the confusion, the yellow ticket holder's line was stretching in front of the Purple Gate Entrance point and the Security Checkpoint/metal detector line was too small/moving too slowly to accommodate the crowd of people. I also believe that some yellow ticket holders were entering through the purple gate (they were basically trapped. Their line had been merged with all of the purple ticket holders filling the street) because I heard an officer on the bull horn say after awhile (and complaints from purple ticket holders) that Yellow Ticketed persons would be rerouted.

Sarah, I was in the crowd near the Purple Entrance Gate when there were 2 medical emergencies., if this is what you're referring to. The medics did indeed show up and provide attention to those in need. (First an ambulance arrived, and the medics moved on foot and secondly the medics weaved through the crowd on foot). I physically saw the medics (not the people needing attention). The crowd gently parted ways to allow for the Medics to reach the person(s) in need. Which I believe was not life threatening otherwise I'm sure more of a scene would have erupted.

I know many people invested a great deal in experiencing the occasion and think it's unfortunate that more effort, time and resources were not placed on crowd control. I also found it odd that there were not more officers/military personnel around helping to control the flow. It appeared that it is still a challenge for our agencies/organizations to connect and plan work that calls for an inter-agency approach. Outside the Security Checkpoint there was virtual no one in uniform helping/assisting/directing people. Rather after I left the tunnel I no longer saw uniformed personnel. (There were officers at the tunnel entrance checking tickets, directing purple tickets to the back of the line, and giving instructions for other ticket holders).

I do understand that not many people have experience planning events where an estimated 2 million people are expected but I did expect a greater (visual) effort in trying to plan for and accommodate for those potential crowds.

I was blue ticket holder who experienced the same problem. We weren't in a tunnel, but the mob of people was probably 30 wide and several hundred yards long. We waited in line for over four hours and finally abandoned our spot at 11:15 so that we could make it to a friends house to watch it on TV. We saw one police officer the whole time. The DC police truly showed their inability to handle something on this scale. It was utter chaos at every level.

I too was one of the "tunnel people." After being misdirected three times right after getting off the Federal Center metro, we finally found our way in line at 6:25AM. At that time there was a cop at the top of the tunnel only allowing purple tickets holders to enter, but neither that cop nor any others were around when we finally emerged from the tunnel almost four hours later during a mad dash to the purple gate. I only saw one event volunteer the whole day. That was when we were all mashed up against the purple gate shouting "let us in" when she came by to announce at about 11:00, "You are in the right place, just be patient." Ultimately the people who were patient that day got denied. After reading these posts and hearing the stories of others, it appears that a majority of people that got in arrived after we did and didn't even bother getting in line. But I hold no ill will for them, because I certainly understand that there was no police presence whatsoever directing people. I had two little girls with me so I wasn't willing to take chances like other people who got in. After waiting at the purple gate for about 30 minutes, we heard that they were letting people in the yellow gate so we forged our way up there. We got within thirty yards of the gate and felt hope as someone on other side kept asking people to lift up their purple tickets, which we all did. But there was no chance of getting in. Once the cannons went off, that's when we trudged home. I live in Arlington, and it was a big disappointment for me, but I feel horrible for those who traveled so far and expended so much to get here with nothing but a worthless purple ticket to take home as a keepsake. Two of my companions came out from Utah, and we hooked up later with a wonderful woman from LA who indicated her great grandma had been a slave here in Virginia, but we all walked home with the same lost opportunity. If anyone is interested, I have posted some of my comments video on Youtube on the channel: crazylaowai. Long live the tunnel people!!

My son and I were also purple tunnel people. I flew in from SF, and he from Minneapolis. When Our Congresswoman awarded us the now infamous purple tickets, we could not believe our luck. We got up at 4am in Baltimore, spent $50 for 2 train tickets and arrived on the first train at 6am. When we arrived at the purple gate, we were astounded at the number of people already in line! Could ALL of these people have a purple? The place was not that big to accommodate all of these people! But we dutifully went to the end of the line, down inside of the tunnel. And waited. And waited. And inched up a few inches. And waited more.

All we could talk about with our neighbors was what a downright dangerous situation this was. Thousands and thousands packed into this tunnel with NO police, security...NOTHING!! No information was ever given to us about anything.

After more than 4 hours in this tunnel, we gave up and thought we would try to watch from the Mall, only to find no way to get there through the throngs of people. So, after traveling 3000 miles to watch history, we did not even get the chance to watch it on TV.

I NEVER want to go to DC again.

Please sign my petition at
and show the media and the inauguration organizers how many of us frustrated ticket-holders there were! According to Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer, "Four to 5,000 people were discombobulated. There were another 236,000 who were very happy with the service." (Washington Post). Please help me demonstrate how much higher the numbers were, and demand that something like this doesn't happen again in 2012.

I hope they suffered.

Stop your whining. Perhaps you didn't watch tv later to hear what your revered Obama said in his speech, but he said it is time for people (this means YOU) to start taking responsibility for themselves, stop acting like children, suck it up and put in a little sacrifice, deal with a little hardship. You had to wait in a tunnel for a few hours? Oh no, and with nothing to drink or eat? Boo hoo. Tell it to a soldier in Iraq. Tell it to someone who lost his job or house in the last few months. Tell it to a military family.

Obama is saying the problems we face are large enough so that we can waste no energy or time on recriminations or investigations into the Bush administration. You are screaming for someone to be fired because your own sheeplike behavior led you into a situation you didn't like and shouldn't have stayed in.

Grow up.

To Rog Med, I've attended many gatherings (protested the Bush Inaguration) and am well aware of how the security is carried through...I never saw any security area, or tent with metal detectors, never saw anyone enter the purple area, or anyone screened, actually never saw an screeners or law enforcement officers. There was a large mob that eventually gathered, but entrance was to start at 8, and there was not "mob" at 8.
I arrived before 6AM, standing in the cold with some very enthusiastic folks...cheering and singing. As time grew short and we began to get in touch with the improbabiility of the situation, our hearts sank, some ran to their hotels, others just left, dejected. I was so hurt and angry at the same time...but reading some of your stories has led me to be grateful for the experience I had. Once my companion and I (both worked for Obama for a year) determined that we were not getting in--after being jostled through a mob near the gate (not too near)...knowing we could hear nothing, see nothing, we departed...a friend had invited us to join her for television viewing but there was no time to walk the distance, so we just walked the block near the mall, hoping to hear...but we could not. We happened upon a corner at E and 8th NW where about 10 people were listening to a radio held high by a black man, a few others were watching a television that was in the window...only they could see. As we were able to hear, we opted to stay, the group grew, as more and more folks walked up they too stood and listened. We began to react to the transmission: Barack taking the oath--tears and wide smiles, applause. "Yes", nodding heads, "Amen" --in response to his speech, especially the line about open hands and clenched fists! As a group, we did not bond, but together we rejects probably realized in some ways many yet don't--this was our wake up call, America. If we were in delirium that we are indeed united, that we are ready for any challenge, well, we have a long, hard row to hoe, just this time rejection for no reason came with no account to color, sex, or ethnicity. We don't know why we were turned away, we just were. The majestic music played by Perlman and Ma, (and another I cannot recall now) lifted my head to the clear blue sky, the crisp air lightened my otherwise heavy spirit...and I longed for the country, horses, and escape from that city that I've loved. I'll go back--the trip is less than 200 miles, there are wonderful museums, beautiful monuments, including a black marble wall with friends' names, but for now, I'm glad to be back in Lancaster and look forward to a time spent in the sun, in the garden, with things I trust. For nowat least, this national city and those who organized this event are not among those things. We've big problems, this will pass, but we did lose something yesterday...our innocence! Barack gave us words that are very appropro here: put away the things of a child; pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again. Purple people, people of the tunnel of doom, we are a part of history, on a day when we celebrated inclusion in our country, we were left out!


I saw the long lines for the purple gate- it had no officers looking after it- people were cutting it, people were in the wrong line. There was no information - it was basically chaos. I arrived late after standing and waiting for my bus to pick me up at 3AM. I didn't get to DC until around 9AM. By the time i got across DC on foot- the mall was already closed- and the ticket line wasn't moving. I was very disapointed that there were no screens outside the gated areas for the people who didn't make it in time.
I am laid off- and spent what little money i have to see this historic event. I also spent countless hours dedicating my time to making phone calls to swing states, and knocking on doors to get people registered to vote.
If they had just put ONE of the speakers and screens from inside the mall out on the street, it would have made a lot of people happy.

I was one of the purple ticket holders who spent hard earned money to fly in from Illinois,take time off work and brave the crowds and the crowded metro to arri ve before 5:00a.m. only to wait in the freezing cold, dark, dank tunnel for more than five hours only to get to a gate that locked us out. All the tilme we were in the tunnel no one came to explain why we had been herded into this awful place like victims of a concentrationcamp without explanation. Whoever is responsible for this event should be fired. This is not change we can believe in. This is politics as usual. The rich and famous are taken care of and the worker bees get forgotten or worse, mistreated. Our president is not to blame for this horrible circumstance but someone on his staff is and should be held accountable.

Everyone who had a purple ticket and did not get in and had to spend hours in a place that they would not otherwise be caugt dead in should be invited to a special purple ticket ball where the president and Mrs. Obama make an appearance. This treatment warrants more than a "oops, sorry." This administration is better than this.....I hope.


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