Pockets of Problems Mar Smooth Inauguration

Thousands of inauguration ticketholders turned away, some stuck underground.

January 21, 2009, 2:30 PM

Jan. 21, 2009— -- Nearly 2 million people stood on the National Mall yesterday to watch President Barack Obama's inauguration, but thousands of others who had tickets to attend the ceremony were turned away, told to wait, or left to languish in a tunnel as history went on without them.

An unprecedented number of people turned out to witness Obama become the first African American to take the oath of office, creating a security, traffic and logistical tangle for Washington, D.C.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty estimated the crowd at 1.8 million people, breaking the previous record of 1.2 million at Lyndon Johnson's inauguration in 1965.

Given the large crowds at yesterday's events, things on the whole went safely and smoothly. According to the Secret Service, not a single person was arrested on the mall.

However, several hundred to several thousand people, carrying purple tickets that would have given them standing-room access outside the Capitol building, waited for hours in a cramped tunnel with no access to latrines or emergency services.

While most of the 1.8 million people simply showed up at the mall, 240,000 others received tickets and were assigned to color-coded sections to watch the events relatively close up. Before they could enter those sections they had to first pass narrow gates and walk through metal detectors.

Ticket-holders for the blue, purple and silver sections faced long lines with little crowd control procedures and many of them were ultimately turned away, according to people on the scene.

Several hundred to several thousand people holding purple tickets waited in line for hours in a cramped tunnel at 3rd Street.

Gates for ticket holders were to officially open at 9 a.m. ET, but Andre Chevalier, 25, who was to stand in the purple section, got in line at 6:15 a.m. He says he spent the next five hours stuck underground within steps of the Capitol.

"I thought that by getting there at 6:15 it was a matter of getting great seats or OK seats. It didn't seem in the realm of possible scenarios that we would get stuck waiting in a tunnel and never see the inauguration," Chevalier said.

Chevalier said the tunnel was filled with elderly people and small children whose egress was blocked by crowds on both sides of the tunnel. He estimated there were 15,000 people in the tunnel and an additional 30,000 in line behind them.

That estimate is substantially more than the figure given by the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrence Gainer, who told the Washington Post that far fewer of the total ticket holders were unable to get in to the inauguration.

"Four to 5,000 people were discombobulated. There was another 236,000 who were very happy with the service," Gainer told the paper.

Earlier in the day, he was quoted as saying all ticket holders had been granted access.

Gainer said space was constricted by too many people showing up in bulky coats on a bitterly cold day in Washington, when temperatures were in the low teens.

"It does appear that maybe there were more tickets in purple and blue than bulky people in coats would permit," Gainer said.

Chevalier and other purple ticket holders who found solace online in a Facebook group called "Purple Tunnel of Doom" said people remained calm, despite a lack of police presence.

"People were trying to be as civilized as possible," said, Chevalier, who volunteered for Obama, registering voters in Virginia. "I saw police early and they just drove by the line at 40 miles per hours. When we needed them most when the line started, no one was around."

Numerous local and federal authorities coordinated security at the event. A spokesman for the D.C Metro Police said crowd control in the area was handled by the Secret Service.

The Secret Service would not officially comment but said security in the purple area was handled by the Capitol Police.

The Capitol Police did not respond to inquiries by ABC News.com.

The Facebook group became a place where many people from numerous sections went to vent their frustrations at coming so close and yet being denied entry.

Security concerns – and also perhaps the cold weather – caused many of the ticketed seats along the parade route to go unused. The Secret Service closed many of the roads leading to Pennsylvania Avenue, where President Obama and his wife led the parade and then watched from a reviewing stand following the inauguration. Given the crowds and traffic restrictions, many ticket holders could not make it to their seats before access was closed to the public.

By 6 p.m. Tuesday, the city's subway system, the Metro, recorded 930,772 trips, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, breaking a previous record set the day before.

Riders complained of delays and cramped cars, but things seemed to run smoothly. The commute, however, was additionally slowed about two hours before Obama took the oath, when a 68-year-old Nashville woman fell on the tracks at a downtown station.

Eliot Swainson, a transit worker from Houston who was in Washington to help with the crowds, instructed her to move to a space under the platform while a train passed, police said. She was later taken to a local hospital with minor injuries.

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