Where's the news about the crowds during the inauguration?
January 20, 2009 6:55 PM   Subscribe

Why hasn't there been news coverage about the crowd situation during the inauguration in D.C. (or if there is, where was it?) We were there and it was GREAT but also a logistical nightmare and I'm confused as to why the only story about it appears to be in the Everett Herald.

We saw the inauguration!!! It was AWESOME!!!

But...it was also the most poorly planned large event I've ever been to and I'm curious as to why there doesn't seem to be much news coverage of this aspect of the event.

The signage was poor- we found out by happy accident within 48 hours before the inauguration that the entrances (four?) to the silver inauguration ticketed area had been reduced to one, entering on 3rd street. But the Mall was closed, all of it. So around 5:45 a.m. we wandered up and down Massachusetts Avenue until we found someone who had heard that the 3rd street tunnel had been opened (the Army and local police all had no clue). There were no signs, no volunteers directing anything until Third street. There was briefly a queue on third in front of the silver gate, but there was no crowd control or directions of any kind around 7:15 a.m. someone started cutting and then everyone started running- one of my companions went down in the crush.

Though we got her up fast, she (and all of us) were shaken. We ended up massed in a pudding-like crowd, shoved closer to each other than I think I've ever been with strangers. That happened, for varying periods of time from 15 min to 1.3 hours of being smushed intimately close to the people around me without moving or shifting at all.

Anyway, the rest of the day went like that- the inauguration itself was wonderful (great speech!), but getting home was a nightmare. It took us four hours to get across the mall. We were trying to cross the mall, but they closed all of the metro stations on the silver exit side of the mall and the crowding was insane. Along the way, we got caught up in increasingly scary mob situations- people were yelling, screaming at each other. I saw a fight, and in one bad mob situation I got knocked down (I'm pretty small and relatively easy to get knocked down in a crowd, to be fair). Someone stole my hat, and the general tone of the crowd as the day wore on was increasingly grim, verging in some places on nasty.

The varieties of military, police, secret service and other officials were overwhelmed and uninformed. They were occasionally frightened by the crowds. At one point there was an (out of state) police officer shouting, "Get back! Get away from me! Get AWAY!" in a rather frantic tone to the people around him. The kids and elders I saw looked frightened and lost, most of the kids I saw were crying or distressed.

No one had any sort of information as to closures (accurate or otherwise) or knew how/where/when might be possible to get anywhere. The general theme seemed to be them suggesting we get away from their personal checkpoint, as long as we moved into someone else's area and became someone else's problem, it wasn't an issue.

It took our party four hours to cross the Mall alone, much less getting the rest of the way home. We staggered home around 5 p.m., and our apartment was less than .5 miles from the inauguration site. Here's my question- none of this seems to be showing up in the news I've run across online. Am I missing something? Why does there not appear to be media coverage of this?
posted by arnicae to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
They talked about this on ABC News (World News Tonight) and showed empty seats because of the problems getting in.

And someone I know at NBC Nightly News said Brian mentioned the problem with the colored tickets, etc.
posted by Zambrano at 7:15 PM on January 20, 2009

There was a piece about it on NPR this afternoon, too.
posted by bunji at 7:16 PM on January 20, 2009

Here's the Washington Post article.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:16 PM on January 20, 2009

It was covered pretty well in the Washington Post - particularly in the Inauguration Alerts section. At least the crowding and confusion about signage was covered... I didn't see mention of any crowd control issues as serious as what you are describing.

Sorry for your bad experience! I was a little jealous of everyone who got to be there in person to experience the day, but after reading your account, not so much!
posted by bchaplin at 7:17 PM on January 20, 2009

There's people talking about the "purple tunnel of doom", where folks got stuck for hours and missed the inauguration.
posted by saffry at 7:19 PM on January 20, 2009

I heard about it on CNN and also MSNBC, I think. Seems to have been a big(ish) story.
posted by rtha at 7:20 PM on January 20, 2009

Response by poster: We had a wonderful time...and I'm pretty sure after a little sleep, we'll all be unequivocally glad we got up at butt-o'clock, etc.

It was really wonderful to be there, I just thought it was bizarre I wasn't seeing much info about it online.
posted by arnicae at 7:20 PM on January 20, 2009

Brian Williams sorry.
posted by Zambrano at 7:20 PM on January 20, 2009

NBC4 (Wash. D.C. local) also reported on the crowd problems on metro platforms that lead to dozens of people needing treatment for hypothermia who were kept outside of the station.
posted by cowbellemoo at 7:25 PM on January 20, 2009

I think you're misthinking "problems with VIP access areas" with "problems with the inauguration." Certainly the former is troubling—and from the pictures of the tunnel of doom, maybe actually horrific—but for the majority of the people at the "inauguration" inauguration, including me; that is, just being there, things went by very smoothly.

This isn't perfectly analogous, but it's like saying the VIP room got too full. FWIW, I did not see one violent situation or altercation the entire time I was there.
posted by trotter at 7:26 PM on January 20, 2009

There was also an earlier short article on the Washington Post site about problems for blue and purple area ticket holders. The article itself is nothing much, but the comments are quite horrifying.
posted by gudrun at 7:27 PM on January 20, 2009

A different longer article at the WP.

It seems to be covered appropriately, in that the local news is focusing on it, and the national news is not, since it really is a local story. Of course, when its your local story it seems bigger.
posted by smackfu at 7:39 PM on January 20, 2009

You are absolutely right about the problems with crowding this early afternoon. I was also wondering why there weren't signs, officials directing crowds (or even available to help individual members who were struggling in a bad way), or access to roads and other areas accessible that morning.

I was at the Mall today, in front of the Washington Monument. My friend and I had a relatively easy time getting their this morning since I mapped out the best route around the parade route to the inauguration sites in the Mall the night before. After Obama finished his speech, most of the crowd beyond the monument started dispersing toward, it seems, either the parade route, or the now unseen and in most cases unavailable exits/entrances we had originally used.

As we moved toward what we thought were the right exits, we found the crowd suddenly and ever increasingly dense and pressing forward. Some people eventually told us to turn around and go back toward the Mall after the crowd had become crushed together for about 15 or more minutes. There was no one around to tell us where we really should go, to help people becoming ill, or monitoring any of the situation at all. We started to move back toward the WM for a while but were then urged by people in the crowd to move to the side.

Note that there were thousands of people moving in each direction at most of these times given the confusion. People were moving around without much care or concern for others and I could sense the tension building within the crowd as we became entangled for longer and longer. It was a pretty frightening situation. I was afraid that people would become angered in the crowd or beyond it in the streets. Things could have gotten ugly, especially considering how cold and hungry most people were in addition to the crowding and confusion problems.

We eventually made our way to open territory on the Mall and waited a bit until the right exits were more easily noticeable. After we made our way out, it took us two more hours to find the way back to the apartment where we are staying. Roads were closed that hadn't been earlier, and the crowd was still confused and very cold.

Had there been inauguration volunteers or officials directing the crowd, things might have gone better. I just can not believe that there was no one around at all, in any capacity, securing or managing the crowd. We were unregulated masses. There was even a group of people on the barely frozen pool near the WWII Memorial, walking, running, and biking across it. That could have been a very, very bad situation. I took pictures but wouldn't look otherwise.

I have no idea why the situation was the way it was or why the media has not been covering the madness (which it absolutely was). I suspect that attention was paid so closely to Obama's activities and security in both the media and security detail that the safety, security, and civility of the one or two million of us in attendance was essentially ignored.

Perhaps we should make this known to the inauguration committee or other authorities. I'm pretty sure few people know what was really going on down there.
posted by inconsequentialist at 8:21 PM on January 20, 2009

I want to also comment on this quote from the first article you site:

While thousands of port-a-potties lined the National Mall, there were no toilets in the mob zone. Some people urinated anyway.

The toilet situation was clearly a problem that did not have to be. The port-a-potties were lined up in the same way today during the inauguration as they were on Sunday during the rally at the Lincoln Memorial. This means that many of the available toilets were unnecessarily far away from the areas where people would be during the inauguration, lining the Reflecting Pool area in several rows. These could have been moved to the relevant streets and avenues where the crowd had to walk and gather most of today.

Quick note: I don't think anyone else has mentioned this yet, but there was also a problem with a lack of trash cans and receptacles.
posted by inconsequentialist at 8:31 PM on January 20, 2009

I agree that things could have gone much better. I spent more time than I would have liked trying to get through the Purple Entrance. The reality is that the institutional knowledge gained during events like this is often lost since events of this caliber only occur once every 4 years.

IMHO, people/news orgs were too wrapped up in OHMYGODTHATSOBAMA! To report on some of the logistical nightmares that would've otherwise been blamed on "The Bush Administration."
posted by ASM at 8:44 PM on January 20, 2009

I wasn't there, but I do think that it's important to keep in mind the sheer difficulties in doing anything that involves smushing 2 million people into that small a space in any way efficiently. Frankly, I'm just amazed nobody got trampled to death.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 8:44 PM on January 20, 2009

I just briefly typed up my experience here, and yet I think I got away easy. I never saw any angry mob type behavior, though. Everyone was calm for the most part, with lots of strangers joking around and lots of impromptu sing-alongs.

The port-a-potties were also a huge problem because they blocked people's way out south, and the trash situation was frankly ridiculous!

I agree, it should be a huge story. I get the point that it was an unprecedented crowd, but the lack of directions and no help from officials made everything worse. I think that people are focused on other things right now, but there will be some serious complaints voiced once the euphoria wears off.
posted by gemmy at 9:23 PM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

We ended up massed in a pudding-like crowd, shoved closer to each other than I think I've ever been with strangers. That happened, for varying periods of time from 15 min to 1.3 hours of being smushed intimately close to the people around me without moving or shifting at all.

Was this unexpected? That's pretty much exactly what I imagined the situation would be, and one of the main reasons I wasn't interested in going with friends.

Honestly, I think a lot of it could just be crowd dynamics, not spectacularly unusual mismanagement. Although I may not have been to an event on that scale, this kind of thing (lack of signage, uninformed cops, difficulty getting from A to B, people tripping, jammed subways/tunnels) is what I've seen for years at New York's Halloween parade, not to mention Times Square at New Year's. I think once you get a couple million people in one place, it's extremely difficult to predict what could happen and how best to deal with it.
posted by booksandlibretti at 11:38 PM on January 20, 2009

You guys should write to Dr. Gridlock, or direct him to this thread. If anyone can get some light shown on these logistical issues, it'd be him. His column is widely read in the DC area.
posted by longdaysjourney at 1:31 AM on January 21, 2009

I don't think anyone else has mentioned this yet, but there was also a problem with a lack of trash cans and receptacles.

In the UK a lot of places like train stations don't have any bins, after a spate of IRA bombings where bombs on timers were left in bins. People either take their rubbish away with them, or just chuck it on the ground.

In other words, the lack of bins might have been deliberate.
posted by Mike1024 at 5:18 AM on January 21, 2009

Nobody was hit by train. It was close, but had a happy ending:
The 68-year-old woman who fell on the Metro tracks this morning couldn't get off the tracks in time to avoid an oncoming train, according to authorities, so other riders helped her hide under the platform, averting disaster.

The woman told officials she was too close to the platform edge at Gallery Place-Chinatown and slipped onto the tracks, according to Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. Customers who saw her tried to pull her up as a Red Line train got closer, she said, but couldn't and so helped push her under the platform before the train pulled in.

"It would have hit her if she were on the tracks," Farbstein said. "But she was able to get herself out of harm's way."

Metro officials were able to resume normal service after about 45 minutes, which is a relatively short time for this kind of incident.
posted by NortonDC at 6:00 AM on January 21, 2009

A few things from my point of view. There were no one directing people on where to go when you left. No one. Thus, you got a lot of situations where people are trying to leave from what looks like a perfectly reasonable direction and then after standing and getting up to the front after twenty minutes, being told to go all the way back and try somewhere else as you can't leave that way. A sign would have been the least they could do. When leaving the other parts of the mall they were doing crowd control where they were letting people trickle out of streets that were boxed in by barriers, one by one. So, yeah, there is a huge, huge, backlog of people and no one can figure out why there is no movement because, again, no signs, no people saying anything. Stood in a mob while they tried to get three ambulances through people who had nowhere to go.

Is it a virtue of my experience that I was only afraid of being trampled once? Look, I know it's a shit load of people, but I do think that there was very obvious things they could have done to make it go more smoothly.
posted by josher71 at 6:08 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ugh, sorry to hear about your experience. We didn't have tickets, but still wanted to head downtown. We took the bus from Glover Park, hung out in front of the jumbotrons at the WWII memorial, and then hopped on the bus back up Wisconsin with absolutely no problems whatsoever (seriously, we even got seats on the bus both ways)! There were also plenty of Port-a-potties that actually had toilet paper at the WWII memorial!
posted by echo0720 at 8:31 AM on January 21, 2009

At one point during our attempted exit from the Mall, someone tried to tip over one of the port-a-potties so that we could get somewhere. There was no one around to stop him or even notice him. People were climbing into trees and on top of the POP's to try and see whatever exits or movement that they could and sometimes just to get out of the crowd. This did not seem like to me like intuitively what would happen with this many people. I was also at the rally at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday where there were a few hundred thousand people. Things went much smoother there.

I think things on Tuesday were a lot worse than some seem to imagine. It wasn't just that getting places was difficult or that officials were uninformed. There was no way to get anywhere and no way to know where we were supposed to go and there were simply no cops or anyone else around at all. Routes were blocked after the ceremony that had been open prior to the ceremony, ones that I had every reason to believe would have been open and away from the parade route.
posted by inconsequentialist at 8:49 AM on January 21, 2009

I was also at the rally at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday where there were a few hundred thousand people. Things went much smoother there.

It seems like the parade route and the Capitol are the big difference. You essentially have people in a rectangle but they can't leave on two sides.
posted by smackfu at 8:53 AM on January 21, 2009

Purple ticket holders have set upa Facebook group. They've posted info on how to complain.

It is ironic that a co-worker of mine whose husband's BFF is the deputy director of the rules committee got *platform* tickets because the seats needed to be filled up at the last minute. She showed us stunning photos today; her hub shook Obama's hand as he exited at the close of the ceremony.

I'd have some pretty pithy remarks, but this *Ask*MeFi ...
posted by jgirl at 9:04 AM on January 21, 2009

I'm sorry you had a bad experience. I've seen/read lots of coverage on the ticketed area problems in both the national and local news outlets.

We were just in front of the Washington Monument. We got there around 8 am and I was very surprised that there was no security at all to enter the Mall, just a nice person welcoming us to the Inauguration. I had combed the Secret Service Web site, along with the DC government's Inaugural site for a list of prohibited items. In the end it made no difference (at least where we were). We could have brought in anything (and the thought was not lost on me that anyone could have brought in anything as well, like a dirty bomb if they really wanted to disrupt the festivities).

Getting out was harder than getting in. They funneled people to one exit onto Constitution Avenue. But eventually we made it out. It seems that this time it was better to have no tickets! Again, I'm sorry you had problems. Despite the cold and the crowds it was a wonderful experience for me and my 12 yo daughter.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 10:55 AM on January 21, 2009

We went on Sunday to the concert instead of the actual inauguration. That was also not handled the best - gates opened an hour late, causing huge lines. The long list of prohibited items was not enforced - rules mandating no backpacks and only TINY bags turned into people wheeling in shopping carts full of paraphernalia. Of course given the cold we were angry about that as we would have loved to have brought more stuff to help with the long day and long wait, etc.

The worst was when we needed to leave, there was no one to direct, and huge bottlenecks that could have been prevented. We did our best to plan using entrances and exits and Metro stops that were further away, but no one seemed prepared for the crowds, at all.

My friends who were there on Tuesday all complained of the same things - no one to direct, no clear signage, crowded Metro platforms (why on earth did they just not make it free for one day? Because the DC metro is like London and requires inserting a farecard both for entrance and exit), poor crowd control, etc.

Of course most people are still thrilled to have been there. But you can complain about the bad parts while still being thrilled to have been there, it doesn't cancel it out.

No one was prepared for 1.5m people.
posted by micawber at 1:08 PM on January 21, 2009

I'm confused as to why the only story about it appears to be in the Everett Herald.

Mostly, it's too soon. People won't be getting back to their communities for a day or so, and the stories about their frustrating experience will take a day or more longer to get in the paper. Maybe by Sunday the Times or Post will take note.

It may be a blog world, but a lot of journalism still operates on 20th century terms.
posted by dhartung at 10:18 PM on January 21, 2009

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