Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Cold Day in Hell

Imagine, if you will, a street the size of Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena packed with people, jammed sidewalk to sidewalk for blocks on end.

Then imagine that this mass of humanity is pressed up against a fence, impatiently awaiting an experience so important to them individually and collectively that they are willing to wait for hours in freezing weather for it to begin.

Add to this scenario complete ineptitude on the part of authorities to control the situation, leaving thousands of people angry and clueless as to what to do and where to go.

This was no figament of imagination, however. This was no training exercise. This was no dispatch from the Third World.

This was Inauguration Day, 2009, Washington, D.C.

A combination of official miscaluclations and inadequate response combined to a breakdown in order at half a dozen ticket locations, entrances and intersections around the Capitol before the swearing-in of President Obama, according to published reports and eyewitness accounts.

The result left as many as 10,000 people abandoned and outraged.

And we found ourselves smack in the middle of it.

We had traveled to Washington to be with our younger daughter who had spent her weekends working for the Obama campaign and wanted to celebrate his victory with us.

We had originally decided to pass on the swearing-in ceremonies, wanting to avoid the crowds and instead attend a few select events. But at the last moment, our daughter secured prime tickets for the oath of office ceremony from a friend who worked for a U.S. Senator.

So we rose at dawn, walked miles to the designated entrance for our tickets and waited in the 20 degree weather for admittance to the grounds.

The tickets were color coded. Ours were purple and there was a gate designated for people with those tickets.

I knew we were in trouble when we arrived. Thousands of people milled about, unsure of where to line up. A handful of cops at the scene remained mute, sipping coffee, uncommuicative. There were no amenities.

But we dutifully joined a queue that wound its way toward to the Capitol in hopes that we would be allowed onto the grounds.

Without exception, everyone near us had tickets. Most of them had worked for the Obama campaign in one capacity of another. A person near me was a political consultant from Palos Verdes Penninsula. Another was a volunteer from Michigan, yet another from Ohio. Many in the crowd had traveled from every corner of America to be there.

In the midst of anxiety and chaos, people remained good natured and calm, even when an ambulance in our area tried to make its way through the crowd to help someone who was ill. People tried to clear a path but there was no place for them to go.

A Washington Post reporter said she saw two door-size openings at the entrance for purple ticket holders. Once through those entries, people were supposed to be routed through lanes where Secret Service or Transportation Security Administration agents ran magnetometers.

About 10 a.m., though, TSA agents were standing idly because Capitol Police officers weren't funneling crowds through the gate, according to the reporter. The Secret Service said there were two dozen magnetometers at the checkpoint, each machine capable of screening about 400 people an hour. But some security officials say that wasn't enough.

At another section, according to reports, there was one gate for 100,000 ticket holders.

Several sources reported that the Capitol Police had turned down an offer of National Guard reinforcement and additional volunteers. They said they weren't needed.

The reason for the chaos remains a mystery to this day.

As the 11:30 inaugural ceremony time approached, people began to panic. Some scaled the fence to scream at the police. The crowd began to chant, "2-4-6-8, Open Up the Purple Gate" and "Let Us In!"

Fearing trouble, I maneuvered my family to the periphery of the crowd. It became clear we were not going to be admitted. My daughter broke down in tears. I held her and rocked her as I did when she was a child with a skinned knee. It was all I could do.

She wasn't the only one. Many of those around us cried and hugged.

Forunately for us, my daughter lived close by. We were able to make it back to her apartment and watch most of the proceedings on television.

As we watched, she signed on to a Washington Post web site where the D.C. police chief proudly announced that everyone with a ticket had gotten into the ceremony.

The swearing-in event wasn't the only bad experience.

The night before, we had attended a black tie event presented by the Illinois State Society. Security managed to take two hours to get everybody into the hotel. And nobody even asked me for a ticket.

That afternoon, our very own congressman Adam Schiff had scheduled a reception at his office. When we arrived, we saw lines of people blocks long who had apparently arrived to pick up their tickets for the Inaugural ceremonies. I called Schiff's office to see if they were aware of the crowds outside. They apparently weren't.

So it sounded like one lousy time, right?

Not really.

For those few days, Washington was Woodstock. People were friendly and courteous often in the face of frustration. More than 500,000 people showed up at the pre-Inaugural concert and more than a million watched the ceremony itself on the national mall. There were no arrests.

After dinner one night, a man and I struck up a conversation while waiting for our families at the door. He was African American and from the Virgin Islands.

"Look at these people," he said, gesturing to all the restaurant patrons. "All colors, all ages, all having a wonderful time."

He went on to tell me he was a former undercover narcotics cop from North Carolina who was astonished that crime had ceased to exist in town this particular week.

"This is truly historic," he said. "Let's hope this is the first day of the world we all imagined."

I agreed, shook hands and we went our separate ways into the night. Somehow, it didn't seem quite so cold.

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