Escape from D.C.

I drove the icy streets to get to the train station at 5:30am. The plan was to catch Amtrak at 6:25, arrive in Baltimore about an hour later, then catch the reserved MARC train into DC. All worked out except Amtrak was running a bit late and we had to RUN to the almost-full MARC.

20090120-crowds6My supervisor and I had both scored silver tickets from Senator Carper, after requesting them the morning after the election. Silver was the worst ticket issued, but it was still better than the open areas which would be more crowded. We were all dressed in proper layers, and I had my hat and gloves. Cold was not going to be an issue.

We arrived at Union Station at around 8:45. It was crowded, but not crazy. There were lots of people on the streets, most of which were open only to pedestrians for the day. I had mapped out the least-crowded way to get to our ticket area, but we decided to follow the official signs in case they had made changes for security reasons. BIG MISTAKE.

In their wisdom, they instructed silver ticket holders to walk down D Street, which is two blocks over, parallel to the Mall. It turned out that this meant that all silver ticket holders had to cross through the line for the purple 20090120-descentsection. That crowd (tens of thousands, see photo) was already restless, angry and shoving forward because their gate wasn’t yet open. It took almost an hour to cross over one street. Way to go traffic planners! (See someone else’s photo here and another here.)

Once we were through that crowd, we made our way to the I-395 tunnel entrance—the same tunnel we could have accessed two blocks north with less shoving and mayhem. The interstate was closed that day so pedestrians could access either side of the mall underground. They did one smart thing that day.

The walk was long, but at least the wind wasn’t on us. It was pretty eerie walking under such a long tunnel, knowing that there were crowds above you. And since most people were headed the same way, there was no pushing and shoving in the tunnel! But it wouldn’t be long!

20090120-tunnel4On the other side of the tunnel the signs disappeared, but we were told by one of few visible police that the silver line was “that way.” It inched around block after block. We followed it until we couldn’t really figure out the end of it. Another police officer told us to make another block and meet the line at the front! Let’s urge people to cut in line—in front of people who haven’t moved forward in hours! But we had little choice, as there was really no end to the non-moving line. It was already about 10:30, and the word was, no entry by 11:30, no entry at all!

Toward the front of the line, or the point where it dumped into a huge mass of people (about 50,000, see photo) waiting to just have sight of the security gate, we cut in as the crowd was split for a passing ambulance. This is the first sign that the crowd might get ugly, with a few shouts of “let us in.” At times people held up their tickets—a subtle hint that something needed to give! Others had simply given up, perching themselves against the fence as we now had view of the Capitol. A few stood on barricades, directing traffic. A couple of really tall guys played Moses trying to lead his people to freedom. Most were pretty jovial, all things considered.

20090120-crowds1But we pushed forward with the rest, crossed the corner to get ahead a little, climbed over barricades that were unseen until you were upon them, then finally rushed forward to the gates to only get a pat-down. No metal detectors!?! Ticketed folks were kept back, many never entering, for a pat down? As far back as the silver section was, they should have simply checked tickets and let us in! There was a mad rush of people into the half empty silver area, and we found our spot. By then, it was 11:30, and people were taking the the stage.

The inauguration itself was as expected, a few long-winded speeches, a few songs (Aretha was excellent), and then the main event. There was so much energy in the air that I didn’t notice that Chief Justice Roberts flubbed the oath. The moment was so powerful that I barely even paid attention to the speech. I just know that when the crowd cheered, the ground shook from behind. Yes, there were that many people in the free area. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that sound/feeling. I know I won’t experience it again.

20090120-massesThe cannons being fired off added more magic—after the initial surprise. People laughed, people cried, people screamed their little lungs out. They chatted with people they’ll never see again. People held up their children who waved flags. Sure, they booed Bush and chanted as his helicopter went over—he probably wanted to see the crowd for himself! He always liked a bit of adventure.

When it was all over, there was more adventure waiting for us as we tried to escape DC. Many streets off the mall were narrowed with barricades and fencing. Open plazas were blocked off, and almost everyone had to exit to the south because the parade was about to occur to the north. So everyone was forced onto a limited number of streets, pooling in jammed areas where no one moved. Silver ticket holders were forced toward Third Street, along with hundreds of thousands from the open area behind us. The line, er mob, didn’t move.

20090120-viewGetting fed up, a few people broke down the fence protecting the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian, and people began pushing not only toward Third Street, but also FROM Third Street. They ALL wanted to exit that way. There was a steady trickle squeezing through (imagine a bucket of sand with a pinhole leak). At first there was no exit from the new area of “freedom,” but officials at the museum realized they needed to open the front plaza so the escapees could leave the museum grounds. By that time, a full unit of the chain link fence was open and people rushed to climb the 3-foot embankment to freedom. We were pushed right along with them and had to go with the flow. Good thing, as we skirted the grounds, crossed the street, and made it to the tunnel within minutes. We even had time to rest and breath, because we still had five hours until our scheduled train.

The tunnel was uneventful, except for a crazy preacher guy on the north side—I’m still not sure what he was preaching. On the return, we knew to walk the extra blocks away from the crowds. The walk to Union Station was crowded, but moved quickly. Until we GOT to Union Station.

In a stroke of genius, as we later found out, someone decided the station would be a good place for one of the inaugural balls! So, on a day that two million would be in the city, the ONLY real train station was left with only one entry, and half of its floor space. What the hell!? There was one entrance into the Metro subway in front of what normally would be entrances to the main station itself. Nothing was labeled so everyone tried for that door only to be turned back unless they were going underground for the Metro. So not only was there a mob of immobile people, some had to turn back and walk out against the traffic, including us! On to the next unlabeled mass of people!

The next line, as we found out, was the correct line. We stood in that mass of people for over an hour only to be told that the station was closed due to overcrowding—you know, closing half the floor space couldn’t have anything to do with that!? It gets better. The closure was by order of police. Guess who had no clue what was going on. The police officers. Instead of finding out and letting people know, the police stood by while people in the crowd wasted 911’s time by calling in to find out what was going on. Not only was the station closed, but we had to leave the line, after making the little progress that we had. We crossed the street and found a litter-filled area next to the old Post Office, now a restaurant and the Postal Museum.

We sat there for some time, trying to hear the ONE loud speaker over the crowd of over 50,000. Finally we heard that the station would reopen and that MARC and Amtrak ticket holders should move toward the front of the building. Um, not true, that was closed. We went to the same line we were at before, circling the large crowd to get as close to the entrance as possible. They were STILL not telling people where to go, and Metro riders were still mixing in with our line.

By now, the crowd was larger than when we first stood in line, and some people were getting ugly. They too held up tickets and shouted “let us in” and “tell us where to go, tell us where to go!” Some people approached a police officer sitting quietly in his patrol SUV demanding that he use his loud speaker to tell people where to go—again, Metro riders were never told where to go, and most MARC and Amtrak riders could not HEAR where to go. A few complained about the lazy police officers who were just watching and chatting. It was a mess, that could have easily turned ugly in other circumstances! (See someone’s photo of the mob at Union Station—my head is right at center, a bit forward of the “Do not Enter” sign, dark brown hat, lighter brown hood on back. See another photo of the chaos here.) Whoever decided to have an EVENT in the station on THAT day needs the old Marie Antoinette treatment!

The second time in line was much better, though. They seemed to have it together more, including a secured line for exiting the building if needed. They let so many people in at a time, in hopes that most would be on MARC and get out of the station quickly. MARC was letting people on the first available train instead of the ticketed time. That was genius. Amtrak was running on time, so I’m sure some people got left behind. But, after 5 hours just getting to the station, we got an early train and got the hell out of town. Baltimore was much quieter as we waited for our peaceful Amtrak ride back to Delaware.

Standing and walking for 9 hours: painful.
Chaos, poor planning, pushing and shoving: stressful.
Being part of history: priceless.

I would definitely do it all again…

 

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