Shepherding Crowds In And Out Of Capital

Hundreds of thousands of people were expected on the mall Sunday for the inaugural concert. Washington, D.C., officials were anxious about the city's trains, buses and roads holding up. Things were slow going through the security checkpoints. And when the concert was over, everyone tried to leave at once.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne. From Washington, D.C., officials yesterday was a trial run for tomorrow's presidential inauguration. Hundreds of thousands of visitors turned up at the Mall for a concert, and that placed a lot of stress on the city's trains, buses and roads. As NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, not everything went smoothly.

LAURA SULLIVAN: The day started out well. It was bright, clear, and traffic officers were in a great mood.

(Soundbite of Mall)

Ms. MELANIE SMITH(ph) (Traffic Director): Welcome! Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon! Welcome!

SULLIVAN: Traffic director Melanie Smith kept a steady stream of people moving down the street with gusto.

Ms. SMITH: Oh, I love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: I love it. Yeah, I got to holler at these people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen!

SULLIVAN: Smith had been at her post hollering since 7 a.m, and even at noon, people were still making good time as they passed her. But up ahead at the security checkpoint, things began to slow to a crawl. D.C. resident Chris Cutting(ph) climbed up onto a security barricade to get a better view of the long lines inching toward the checkpoint.

Mr. CHRIS CUTTING: Standing up on here looking across - a lot of people, every standing spot full.

SULLIVAN: Cutting was on a scouting mission for his friends.

Mr. CUTTING: I told them last night that I'd give them a call and let them know, you know, if there was any reason to come down.

SULLIVAN: So, what's the verdict?

Mr. CUTTING: No, I don't think so. You know, the concert might be over by the time they get in.

SULLIVAN: That's exactly what happened to many people. Some waited in security lines two hours, only to be told when they got to the front that the viewing area was full. They were left with only the hill of the Washington Monument, half a mile from the stage. Bobby Hamilton(ph) and his family, from Greensboro, North Carolina, spread out a blanket under the last Jumbotron on the hill and were determined to make the best of it.

Mr. BOBBY HAMILTON (Greensboro, North Carolina): Better than the one at the house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMILTON: And we'll see everything still.

SULLIVAN: It took almost seven hours for the lawns of the Mall to fill up with people. They came by train, bus, Metro, and carpool. And most people reported they had a pretty easy time of it. Then, they all tried to leave at once. At the Foggy Bottom Metro station, a thousand people piled up outside the entrance, trying to get into the station. Inside, the train platform was packed all the way to the edge.

(Soundbite of train)

Mr. MICHAEL JONES (WMATA): Clear the doors.

SULLIVAN: A woman tried to keep the doors of an overpacked train from closing by sticking her hand between them, drawing the ire of Metro officer Michael Jones, who had this point had been herding people for almost two hours.

Mr. JONES: These are not elevator doors.

SULLIVAN: As each train pulled up already full, frustrated train announcers tried to keep new passengers from trying to squeeze in.

(Soundbite of metro)

SULLIVAN: Outside, police officers began barricading the Metro entrance to keep people out until space opened. Security officer Eric Houser(ph), with the D.C. government, tried a more friendly approach to try and get people to another station.

Mr. ERIC HOUSER (Security Officer): It's a beautiful day to walk five blocks to the east, folks. Five blocks to the east. And thank you for coming to D.C.

SULLIVAN: Down the street, there were a couple of buses. But like the rest of downtown D.C. traffic, they weren't moving. After about 20 minutes, they opened their doors, and the passengers piled out to set off on foot. Officials say they expect a crowd several times larger on Tuesday. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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D.C. Security Braces For Inauguration Crush

DC planning map i i

Military personnel stand on a 40 foot-by-40 foot planning map on Dec. 18, 2008, spread on the floor of the D.C. Armory. It is being used to help plan inaugural logistics. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
DC planning map

Military personnel stand on a 40 foot-by-40 foot planning map on Dec. 18, 2008, spread on the floor of the D.C. Armory. It is being used to help plan inaugural logistics.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Police motorcycles line D.C. street i i

Washington, D.C., police motorcycles line 7th Street N.W. on Sunday, Jan. 18. Officials have brought in thousands of extra police officers to work during the inauguration. Andrew Prince/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Prince/NPR
Police motorcycles line D.C. street

Washington, D.C., police motorcycles line 7th Street N.W. on Sunday, Jan. 18. Officials have brought in thousands of extra police officers to work during the inauguration.

Andrew Prince/NPR

Millions are expected in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to watch President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in and parade, and to attend that evening's many inaugural balls. Law enforcement officials have devised an unprecedented and elaborate security plan aimed at protecting the president and the public.

While Obama has been thinking about what to say on Tuesday, and happy Democrats are figuring out what to wear that night, the Secret Service has been planning, too. Actually, its preparations began long ago, as the Service began working with 57 other agencies to make sure the new president and those who hope to catch a glimpse of him are safe.

"The Secret Service certainly recognizes the historical significance of this inauguration," says Special Agent Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service. "It's been widely reported that the crowds will be larger than average. That's certainly something that we're considering, and the plan that we come up with is going to have to be elastic."

It's estimated that as many as 2 million people might crowd the parade route and fill out the National Mall to watch the events surrounding the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president.

Cathy Lanier, the chief of Washington's police department, remembers election night. Thousands of revelers spontaneously poured into the city's neighborhoods to celebrate Obama's victory, and it became clear then that this would not be an ordinary inauguration.

"My officers were out standing around these large crowds in Adams Morgan," Lanier recalls. "People were just coming over and hugging the officers in just an unbelievable spontaneous reaction.

"I looked at my assistant chief about 20 minutes into this — this went on until 4 a.m. on a work night — and we just looked at each other and thought, you know, that whole plan that's almost complete is going to have to start all over again, because it's a very different event."

The biggest crowds will be on the Mall, where Jumbotrons will show the swearing-in ceremonies. The screens will also be used to pass along messages in case an evacuation is needed, and to announce when the inaugural parade route is filled to capacity.

About 2 square miles of downtown along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route will be fenced off, accessible only to people who have gone through metal detectors and bag checks.

At the Joint Operations Center, law enforcement officials will monitor feeds from hundreds of security cameras. They'll be looking for anything out of the ordinary, Lanier says.

"This is our city," she says. "We patrol it every day, and we know sometimes things that are very subtle that are out of place."

Seemingly nothing has been left to chance. The Coast Guard will patrol the Potomac River; military and police will patrol the skies. There will be a lot of police on foot. More than 4,000 officers from 99 different departments will augment 4,000 D.C. cops. Lanier says that while most police will be visible, many will not.

"There's a lot of people out there," she says. "There will be a lot of people, layered security — some that you will see, some that you will not. I have both plainclothes and uniformed people out there. I think it's very safe to say there will be many, many law enforcement folks out there that you won't see."

After the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in which a major hotel was targeted, police began briefing Washington hotel and restaurant managers to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior. But authorities say their biggest worries simply are the number of people who may show up in Washington and getting them out if something should happen.

While law enforcement hopes it has planned for almost every contingency, officials say they want the day to be memorable for the right reasons.

"We don't want security at the end of the day to be the story," says Donovan, the Secret Service agent. "We want it to be the democratic process, and we hope that that's not the case — that people are talking about security after this. We want them talking about what a great event it was and how the democratic process proceeded."

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