One potential inauguration tragedy, narrowly averted

Thousands of people waiting to see Barack Obama were stuck in a tunnel for hours; whoever was responsible is lucky no one was hurt, or worse.

Published January 21, 2009 2:40PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday night, I wrote about one woman I overheard on the subway saying she hadn't seen anybody in a bad mood the whole day of Barack Obama's inauguration. Turns out there's a large group of people with a legitimate grievance, though: Thousands of them, in fact, ticket-holders stuck in a tunnel approaching the National Mall for hours.

Over at the Plank, one of the New Republic's blogs, Peter Scoblic has a scary first-person account of what happened:

Tens of thousands of people were snaking in a rough line that started at the entrance on 1st Street and Constitution, stretched down into a tunnel at 3rd and D Streets, NW, and peaked all the way out the other end and kept going. For hours, we stood in this line, which moved ahead in spurts just frequent enough to keep us from growing too impatient even though we were underground. Spirits were high, and the line was relatively orderly despite the lack of police officers or other officials to control the crowd. But let me repeat that last part: In a tunnel filled with thousands of people, we saw not a single cop, inauguration worker, or EMT over the course of several hours.

As 11:00 approached, and the ticket-holders around us were becoming increasingly anxious that they would not be admitted to the Mall, we were still underground... Finally, the line, which by this time had widened to fill the tunnel from wall to wall as order broke down, surged forward. We emerged into the light, only to find that there was no line to speak of any more--just a single undifferentiated mass of people trying to force themselves around a corner and down 1st Street toward the Purple Gate. With no one directing pedestrians--I still had yet to see a single official of any kind--people packed together so tightly that you could not change direction and leave if you wanted to.

In the end, most of these people weren't able to get into the ceremony, or even to watch on one of the big screens as it happened, and I imagine that was a pretty disappointing experience, to say the least. Worse, though, is the very real possibility that someone could have been hurt or killed.

Frankly, I wouldn't have been surprised if something had happened Tuesday, even without the tunnel incident. Bad things happen, inadvertently, when any crowd this size starts moving, especially when it's penned in. I saw, at Clinton's first inauguration, the crowd break down a fence on the Mall (remember, this is pre-9/11) and suddenly start rushing to get closer to the action; the sheer number of people attending this latest ceremony meant any similar situation could be really dangerous. It is a testament to the organizers and to those working security that most people who attended had a relatively easy time of it. But they were also really lucky the shoddy planning for the tunnel didn't end up causing a tragedy that overshadowed the rest of the day.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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