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Purple Tunnel Of Doom: Ticketed Inauguration Attendees Shut Out

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WASHINGTON — They say Washington's all about access. Still, this was ridiculous.

First, in an episode fast becoming known as "The Purple Tunnel of Doom," thousands of people with coveted tickets at the Capitol were kept out of President Barack Obama's inaugural ceremony and left waiting in a tunnel below the National Mall, with officials blaming unanticipated crowd control problems.

Then, hours later, in an incident perhaps less grave but still acutely disappointing, many young partygoers with $75 tickets to the Youth Inaugural Ball were kept waiting for hours because of space problems, all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Some missed Kid Rock perform. They also missed Kanye West. And much worse, they missed Barack and Michelle Obama.

"Yes, we can!" they heard the crowd inside chant joyously as the first couple greeted them and took a romantic twirl on the stage, to the tuba music of an Air Force band.

But no, actually. They couldn't.

"We missed everything," said a dejected Andre Rodriguez of Houston, a student who'd worked on Obama's campaign staff in Texas and had been excited to see the man himself at the ball, which was broadcast by MTV.

Fire marshals decided to temporarily stop letting people into the ballroom for safety reasons, according to a statement from Melanie Roussell, spokeswoman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Rodriguez, 22, speculated that "maybe it was justice" _ after all, he had been lucky enough to witness the inaugural ceremony earlier that day.

But thousands of others who'd scored prized tickets did not make it.

At issue were tickets in the purple and blue sections, said a statement Wednesday from the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which apologized for the incident. It attributed the problems to unprecedented crowds, plus a huge flow of unticketed people toward the Capitol and into the 3rd Street Tunnel, where the ticket holders were directed.

The Senate's chief law enforcement officer also apologized. Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer cited the size of the crowd and the fact that people took up more space in ticketed areas than anticipated because of bulky winter clothing. "There was no more room to get in," Gainer said.

He also said a broken power generator meant some automatic screening machines didn't work, requiring security officers to hand-search many ticket holders.

Gainer said 3,000 to 4,000 people were kept out, but two people who were in the tunnel, Jeremy Cohen and Adam Safran, said it looked like many more were there.

"There was no security, no crowd management, nothing," said Safran, 39. "I got there at 6 a.m. and still couldn't get in. Some people got there at 4 a.m."

Ironically, he said, he had friends who arrived much later _ around 8:30 _ and got into the ceremony just fine, because they weren't directed to the tunnel.

Cohen, 31, of New York City, said things "got ugly for a second," when people who'd been waiting for hours noticed newer arrivals cutting in. "There definitely was a lot of potential for something bad happening," Cohen said. "Luckily people were mostly in good spirits."

By about 10:30, when it was clear they weren't getting in, Cohen said he and Safran left the tunnel. They knew that trying to get onto the Mall _ with a crowd of at least 1 million _ was too difficult by then. So they found a nearby restaurant and watched on TV.

"We've had pretty good time here anyway," said Safran, of Benicia, Calif. "But think of the people who only traveled to Washington because they had these coveted tickets. There must have been a lot of brokenhearted people."

By Wednesday there were more than 1,000 members of a Facebook group called "The Purple Tunnel of Doom."

"It's remarkable that there wasn't a riot," wrote one, Marc Lynch. "I rode the Metro home with a lot of people who had been turned away, including an elderly African-American woman muttering over and over to herself that it had been one of the worst experiences of her life."

By contrast, the Youth Ball experience might seem petty _ except that for many it was their only chance to see Obama. The president paid tribute there to the vital contribution that young people made to his campaign.

"This was carried forward, inspired, driven by, energized by young people all across America," he said. "The future will be in your hands," he said. "You will make it happen."

Well, maybe not Tuesday night. Rodriguez, dressed in a tux rented for more than $100, and his friend, Jazmin Acuna, who'd spent the same getting her hair done, thought they were in, after waiting an hour in the cold outside the Washington Hilton.

But it turned out that was just the beginning. Inside, they couldn't get into the packed ballroom. They could drink, though: "Seven bucks for a beer and nine bucks for a cocktail," Acuna, 23, said.

As midnight neared, and crowds were still waiting outside, the couple was part of a group milling in the lobby. A reporter asked if they would keep trying to get in.

"Nah," Rodriguez said. "We gotta leave."


Associated Press Writer Brian Westley contributed to this report.

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