Tuesday, January 20, 2009


We are back home after our valiant attempt to witness the swearing in of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.

I barely have the emotional energy to post, but I know many of our readers have been following along. If you did not get our Twitter streams today, then perhaps you have not yet read that we never made it through the gates. We were not alone; I would estimate that several thousand had to turn back at the Purple security checkpoint. We were in sight of the gate, perhaps 100 yards, and an eternity, away, at 11:45. Everyone in the crowd, as us, had valid Purple tickets, and there was periodic chanting of "Purple, Purple" and "Let Us In," but it became clear that we would not make it through by the time of the swearing-in. Worse, the crowd was becoming more and more distressed, and we could see the situation becoming dangerous. We fought our way back to the street and left.

The consequence of spending all our time and energy trying to get into our assigned, ticketed area meant that we were completely aced out of even getting to the Mall to see the ceremony on one of the myriad Jumbotrons deployed there. The bottom line was that they simply did not have enough security screening capacity to admit all the ticket holders in the 3.5 hours allocated to do so.

We did spend some time ruminating about having chosen a later start this morning -- a calculated decision based on our understanding of when the gates opened and how the lines were to be managed. As it turns out, it made no difference. We ended up standing next to several couples who had lined up at 7am (the gates opened at 8) and were in that line for over four hours. The fact that we arrived in the neighborhood of the gates at 10am and ended up right next to them speaks volumes about the nature of the problem -- whatever semblance of order was intended for the process, it degenerated into utter chaos well outside of the screening checkpoint.

When all things are considered, we were glad that we spent an hour and a half on the metro, where it was warm, and an hour and a half trying to get in the gates, as opposed to having spent four hours in a cold line only to still be turned away at the gate. We're also glad we spent only a few hundred dollars, mostly in fuel, to attend -- many who were turned away had flown here from their home states and paid for hotel reservations.

We left Odyssey this morning at 7:35 in 18°, but clear, weather. Our plan was to catch a 7:51 bus, and we wanted to be several minutes early, just to be safe. That bus never came, and we ended up on the 8:21 instead, so we were off to an inauspicious start. We arrived at the Vienna station just as they were closing off the parking lot, which was now full. The Metro system was so overloaded that trains were being removed from service, and we had to wait for another train to come in from the east.

Waiting for the bus, still happy

Lo and behold, that train was already full -- apparently, anyone trying to get on at points east could not board an eastbound train -- they were leaving Vienna already packed. So they merely boarded the westbound trains, and stayed on board at the terminus. So we boarded an already packed train, but Louise scored a seat, and I was able to sort of lean on her armrest.

Good thing, because the train proceeded very slowly, with nearly ten minutes at each stop, between waiting for other packed trains ahead of us, and a handful of people trying to squeeze on our train, keeping the doors from closing. The normally 35-minute ride to our transfer point took well over an hour. At some point, the entire car started singing, and we went through God Bless America, America the Beautiful, the Star Spangled Banner, and even We All Need Somebody (to Lean on). That was, for us, perhaps the most moving part of the day, and there were several teary eyes.

Things cleared out before we made our transfer to the Red Line, and we had a smooth ride the rest of the way. But the delays put us at the gate area at nearly 10am, more than a full hour after our plan. What we saw when we arrived made our jaws drop -- the line to First street curled around D street and then down the tunnel under the mall, as far as the eye could see. We nearly gave up at that moment, since it was clear that line would never even make it to the checkpoint, and nothing was moving.

We later learned that the line had stopped due to a medical emergency, which added to the chaos. But we also noticed that lines converged onto First street from three different directions, and we simply went around the block and got into a shorter line. A lesson learned from our experience at the House office buildings yesterday. That, I think, is how we ended up next to folks who arrived three hours ahead of us when the lines again started moving.

Just as we arrived in the area of the gates, they closed the First Street entrance, and instead opened the gates a block away, and that was the final nail for us. We could see very little from where we stood, near the 101 Constitution building, and could hear nothing, so we decided to make one last push to the new gate, where we were ultimately stalled. Someone with a bullhorn at the gate kept announcing/asking that everyone entering the gate needed a purple ticket, and in unison, thousands of hands clutching purple tickets would go up.

As near as we can tell, the thousands who actually made it through the purple gate either had lined up in the small hours of the morning, or had come down a different street (one not on the "approved" directions provided to us) thus bypassing the medical brouhaha that had stalled the line for so long. Many of the folks standing with us expressed frustration that people who did not follow the "rules" (loose as they were) made it in, while those who followed directions were penalized. We kept a low profile, having somehow bypassed much of the line that some of these folks spent hours in.

In any case, we have to content ourselves with having been, at least, in this historic place at this historic time. We have since watched the inaugural address on-line, and we now have the TV on to catch the parade, which is already behind schedule, as President Obama has just left the luncheon at Statuary Hall. And, finally, when local friends learned of our strife today, they called to invite us to dinner and an inaugural party here in town. So I will be signing off here shortly to dust off the tux -- we're going to make the most of our time here in town, and, by this time tomorrow, I expect we will have gotten over our disappointment and will, instead, be rejoicing in a new hope for the nation.

Speaking of this time tomorrow, our associates at the Red Cross have asked us to stop by the Ashburn hot site, where HQ is operating while the DC building is inaccessible, for a visit tomorrow, so we will head up there in the morning.


  1. Sorry to hear you didn't make it. It was a significant moment in history, but I did notice a small piece of the purple section was unpopulated. Thanks for the Twitter updates though, it was interesting to follow your lack of progress, while I watched from a warm spot in the desert.

  2. Sorry to hear that you didn't get down to the mall. I applaud your effort and commitment to go through it all.
    What a fantastic day for our nation!

    Randy and Pam

  3. Sorry to hear about this. I was in the purple section, and did follow the rules, and got in line about 8:45. However there was extreme confusion, and before the gates were opened, the capital police refused to say which gates were for which color - so a yellow line, a silver line and a purple line had formed. Turns out, it was the purple gate.

  4. That's quite a bummer, to come so close and miss out.

    I noticed a small mention of the plight of some people with purple tickets in this article:

  5. Thank you for writing about this. I was one of the purple people in line since 6am. What an utter fiasco. This could be one of the most historic events in my life, and I spent it with a mob outside of a gate hearing and seeing nothing.

    The only saving grace is that the crowd was wonderfully behaved. At points it seemed like a riot was about to break out, but everyone stayed more or less calm. I guess I should be glad I wasn't trampled or tear gassed.

    A man near me had his cell phone out, on speakerphone, and he was listening to the speech as being heard by someone else near a speaker. We huddled around to hear the end of it, and despite all the setbacks and disappointment, when Obama concluded, we looked up and smiled at each other. It was poignant and bittersweet.

  6. Too bad on your trip to DC. You were not alone in your experience. By now you know that many others has similar experiences.
    You made our day though. The hubs was in Fairfax when I read your update, so I let him know. He swung by the Elks Lodge and got a pic of Odyssey and saw how big it is in person. Stay warm, even Florida is going to be cold tonight.


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