Ground zero from DC: what could have been an Inauguration Day disaster

Carla Axtman

(My apologies for the layout of this post. Apparently TypePad has made some changes and I can't figure out why it won't break up my paragraphs or thumbnail the photos)

I've been in Washington, D.C. for a few days but tonight is the first time I've had an opportunity for some time quiet enough to blog. It's been a breathtaking whirlwind of activity since my plane touched down on Sunday. I'll have more to say on the various events and activities over the last couple of days later. But I wanted to blog about what happened today while the events are still especially fresh in my mind.

The mood in the area is joyous. People are everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. Never in my life have I seen such crowds, generally very well behaved. And never in my life have I seen such inept, lax and frighteningly derelict security. The pictures you see here are from my friend. They aren't mine (mine will come later).




We arrived downtown near the 3rd Street tunnel about 6:45AM and the street was packed to the gills with people. We were told that the gate to the tunnel would open at 7AM. Then it was moved to 7:30. Then police cars and tow trucks and trailers carrying police horses were nudged through the sea of people, who were forced to part like the red sea to let them through. We were then told that because we had tickets to the blue seating area, we were in the wrong place and we needed to walk around to a completely different spot...which turned out to be the wrong information.

After walking for several more hours seeing very few security offering virtually no information to the crowd as to where to go (forget how to get anywhere--we couldn't get any consistent information on how to get to our gate), we finally found the line for the Blue Gate, which wound around the streets forming what looked like an enormous multi-block mobius strip. And it wasn't moving. At all. Still almost no security. Still nobody communicating with the crowds. I heard much later than the metal detectors went down and that security was doing pat-downs of those trying to get in. Apparently the generator quit working and they couldn't get another one in a timely manner.

At that point, we abandoned all attempts to get into our section (as did many others) and decided to head to the Mall and watch things on the JumboTrons. Our trek took us near the Bureau of Engraving and Printing where the crowds were literally shoulder-to-shoulder, packed like sardines. At one point, people began jumping the barricades without so much as a single security person stopping and redirecting. A town car attempted to push its way through the crowd, honking and inching forward behind people with young children. No police. No security.

As my friend noted this evening, we were absolutely at the mercy of the people around us. If one person would have decided to act in a nefarious way, there's very little that could have been done about it, save the crowd rushing the person or persons. If people would have started pushing and shoving in frustration, there would have been many serious injuries and likely even deaths.

When we finally made it to the mall, we were able to watch our new President's swearing in on the giant screens. But afterward as the exodus proceeded, allowed only 2-3 exits and again, very little security.

There's even a Facebook group dedicated to holders of purple tickets, who had experiences similar to ours.

This is a city that was attacked on 9/11. It's a city that has at least 12 different police forces and no representation in the Congress. Our very new, history making President calls it his home. Could he have been in real danger today because people were allowed to shove through the security barricades and fences..and lack of checks in the alleged ticketed areas? If an attack had happened in the city targeting the crowds, how many would have died due to a lack of security?

I've heard that the silver-ticketed section was even worse. People pushed through the mesh fencing and blew past security, many without being stopped or checked.

I'll have lots of photos of the events that I will hopefully post late this week (I've forgotten my card reader--ugh).

  • Chris #12 (unverified)

    What a mess! I suspected something was wrong when I saw all the empty bleachers on the parade route. I remember watching the Bush inauguration, and there were tons of people along the route, including lots of protesters. Not the case today, very few people, kind of a disappointment. It's a shame that folks got yanked around so badly.

  • Chris Lowe (unverified)

    Thanks for the report, Carla, we look forward to more. Scary stuff.

    On the formatting, two things that I figured out by trial & error. There is now a button that lets you introduce a break. I had to cut and paste the tag it produced to put the break where I wanted it.

    As for paragraphs, at the bottom of the text box there is a tiny, tiny wee little pull down menu that says "Format this as" -- it's not really clear that it is a pull down menu, but it is. If you choose the "Convert Line Breaks" option it will leave them in rather than collapsing the text together.

  • (Show?)

    Carla, I've fixed the paragraphing on your post.

    As for me, I spent around an hour stuck at 1st and D, purple ticket in hand, with several tens of thousands of my closest friends absolutely not moving - not an inch. Same story - incompetent police and secret service staff, with no information, no signage, and no bullhorns.

    Eventually, we gave up and walked 15 blocks to a lovely (and warm) cafe where we watched it on CNN with a few hundred folks.

    This was a serious security and crowd control disaster, but I can report that we had a great time anyway. Lots of very happy people. I'm just glad I had another reason to be here in DC - and wasn't one of the people who spent their savings to fly here, only to wind up stuck literally underground in the "purple tunnel of doom" for several hours.

  • AdmiralNaismith (unverified)

    I found Waldo!

  • bendskier (unverified)

    I'll bet there were more police around than you were aware of... plainclothes.

    I can understand your frustration with no signage and stuff. But I'll bet the prez was as safe as it gets, these days, short of not having the event at all.?.

    I used to live in NYC and have been in massive shoulder to shoulder crowds before, and yes, it is disconcerting, and potentially lethal if panic happens.

    Thats why many city folk avoid large events like the plague, and let the "tourists" have all the "fun."

  • (Show?)

    Skier I guarantee there were no plain clothes police in the solid human scrum that I stood in for 1.5 hours outside purple gate.

  • Dave G (unverified)

    Carla -- I looked for you in the crowd, especially the helicopter crowd shots, and by gosh, I think I saw you! Although it could have been someone else.

    Thanks for the report. Dave

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    But was it worth 5x what Clinton or 3x what baby Bush spent?

  • Tim Mooney (unverified)

    I was very sorry to hear about the people who missed out: I know people I work with who were hosed in the blue line and Kari, I know you flew all the way out here and ended up with a now-infamous purple ticket. I'm happy to read that the inaugural committee is looking into what went wrong, but I have to give major kudos to those of you in line who kept things civil, despite having great reason to lose civility.

    All of that being said... as a nearly 8 year resident of the District... overall, the entire weekend seemed to go very well. Most of us here in DC worried that Metro would fall apart and that our fair district would not be able to handle the millions. Going to and coming home from one of the balls last night, I was shocked at how well Metrorail seemed to handle the load. 90 tons of garbage will be collected and gone by the end of today. It's actually making me feel kind of proud of DC, the feds and the inaugural committee considering the massive production. However, I know how many people were bitterly (and rightfully) disappointed at missing the event of a lifetime, and I truly feel for those folks who didn't bail out and get to see the event elsewhere.

  • Tom Carter (unverified)

    Carla, I also looked for you in the crowd. All I saw was a sea of humanity. Maybe I need a bigger-screen TV.

    I lived in/around the District for about 10 years, and I've been in a number of large crowds on the Mall and nearby areas. The largest crowd I was in, about one million people, was on July 4, 1976--the famous "Meltdown of '76." Way too hot, not enough porta-potties, no Metro, bus arrangements didn't work, horrific traffic jams getting out of the city....

    Maybe it's a sign of advancing age, but I tend these days to prefer watching events and the crowds on TV. I admire your courage, but I'm glad I wasn't there.

  • Mike Licht (unverified)

    The Nation's Capital will celebrate the effective, efficient security measures during the recent Inauguration festivities at the National Bollard Festival.


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