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The day after: Obama inauguration crowds made headaches, no injuries

January 21, 2009 |  8:10 pm


WASHINGTON -- People. Everywhere I turned, more people. To the left, people. Behind me, a crowd shoved for no apparent reason.

It was like the biggest rock concert imaginable. Except bigger.

An estimated 2 million visitors descended upon the city for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. That may sound like a lot. You're right. It is. More than you can imagine.

Unless you were there -- then it was all too real.

Now, I'm not claustrophobic by any means. But after becoming trapped within immovable mass after impenetrable throng, anyone can turn into a crowd-scared mess.

From the moment I set to embark on my journey Tuesday, obstacles arose. A line of people, waiting to buy tickets to the Metro subway system, snaked for half a block. Some machines were out of order, causing longer lines to purchase tickets than to actually get on the trains.

"We knew that we'd have mechanical problems," said Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the Metro transit system. Fortunately, the breakdowns were fairly routine -- disabled trains due to brakes locking or malfunctioning doors, Farbstein said.

But when 1.12 million trips are occurring over the course of a single day -- shattering any previous record in the transit system's 32-year history -- any snags can cause major delays.

The monumental task of accommodating the traffic load was amplified at 9:15 a.m., when a women fell onto the tracks at the Chinatown stop. She narrowly avoided an oncoming train and emerged with no major injuries, thanks to help from a transit officer. The incident caused major delays for about an hour.

Once finally into the city, masses of heavily layered clothing (there may have been humans buried within those long-johns, sweatshirts and winter coats; I'm not sure) waddled ...

...  its way toward the National Mall in the hopes of securing a decent spot. But by 9, just about the only options were miles away or a front row view of the porta potties.

Inaugurationportapotties Yes, I did "watch" the inauguration from behind a row of plastic toilets -- as did many hundreds of people, who packed into the area. A man, who some in the crowd called "guy in the tree," narrated parts of the ceremony. "I think someone is playing the cello," Guy in the Tree said of Yo-Yo Ma's prefatory performance.

The less-than-stellar conditions didn't seem to affect many of the potty-watchers. OK, a few people got sick, but the majority enthusiastically chanted things like, "O-BA-MA," and "Na-na-na-na, hey, hey, hey, good bye" during the sendoff of President George W. Bush.

Near hysteria didn't set in until after President Obama's final words punctuated the ceremony: "God bless the United States of America."

And, man, did we need that blessing. Only some kind of divine intervention could have prevented the flood of hundreds of thousands of cold and tired attendees that poured into the streets immediately afterward from turning into a violent mob. Nearby intersections became jam packed with people, pushing their ways in every direction.

At times, phone calls and texts failed to go through, as expected.

Emergency vehicles hit wall after wall of masses. Frustrated folks climbed on armored vehicles. An ambulance nearly backed into a woman, pushing a stroller.

"There was some tense moments for all of us in terms of crowd management," said Cathy Lanier, chief of metropolitan police.

Locals and tourists alike hurled angry comments from every direction. "What's wrong with this city?" "This is absolutely ridiculous." "Yes, we can! But can we please go home already?"

"I think if it wasn't so cold, people would have remained on the Mall," Lanier said. But thanks to the blistery winter weather, it was a mad rush to the nearest subway.

I overheard two Briton girls wondering aloud why the city hadn't arranged for a more elaborate escape plan. "Why can't they close off street routes, like any other city planning for a major event?" one girl asked. "It's that arrogant American attitude," the other retorted.

Of course, they did close streets. Plenty of them. In fact, they shut down key roads to make way for the inauguration parade, separating parts of the north and south sides of the city. The closings sent many walking aimlessly in the hopes of finding a non-crowded subway station. (By the way, there were none.)

"If there's 2 million people on the Mall, you can't put 2 million people on the rail system at once," Farbstein, the Metro spokeswoman, said. "It's a matter of physics."

The Metro, when evenly distributed, can carry about 100,000 per hour in "uncomfortably crowded conditions," Farbstein said. So, if everyone at the inauguration packed into the Metro system, it would have taken about 20 hours to get everyone to their destinations. Yikes.

Some stations closest to the Mall were closed with advance notice for safety reasons. Others, like the Federal Triangle stop, were unexpectedly ordered to be closed by police.

Despite all the frustrations, none of the 2 million attendees was seriously injured or killed. For this reason, Chief Lanier considers the event a success.

"If they didn't shut down things when they did, we wouldn't be talking about inconvenienced people," Lanier said. "We'd be talking about dead people."

-- Mark Milian

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Photos credit: Olivia Marinelli