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Purple Ticket Turmoil Explained: What Happened On Inauguration Day

First Posted: 02/23/09 05:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:00 PM ET

Tunnels Of Doom Doom I Tell You

So, what on Earth happened to the now-legendary holders of Purple Inaugural Tickets? Answering this question may ultimately require the re-opening of the X-Files. However, unsatisfied with the accounts we've read thus far, we've taken it upon ourselves to ask those who endured the ordeal to tell us their stories, in the hopes that we might divine some idea of what happened on Inauguration Day.

What follows is an informed reconstruction of the logistical mayhem on and around the Mall on Inauguration Day. It is stitched together from hundreds of accounts, some of which are quoted at length. This shouldn't be considered an official account by any means, and we welcome any information that furthers our understanding of what happened (particularly if it contradicts the standing account).

That said, here are our key findings, unpacked in more detail below.


1) Severe shortage of crowd control tools -- law enforcement, volunteers, signage, and barriers -- around the Mall. The few officials helping to direct traffic were pulled away from their spots early in the morning, overwhelmed by the crowd size, or visiting from out of town and not prepared to give directions around Capitol Hill. This shortage of knowledgeable assistance exacerbated logistical problems throughout the day.

2) The gates opened far too late in the morning. Though the official ticketed gates did not open until 8AM, people began arriving at the Mall in large numbers between 4AM and 5AM and were able to gain access to ticketed areas, with or without tickets. As the morning progressed, ticketholders stood in long lines while non-ticketholders continued to find unauthorized paths to enter the Mall.

From these two planning failures, the situation rapidly became unmanageable. Below is a rough sketch of how it happened.

(To get a better understanding of what went on, I'd recommend first taking a look at this painstakingly created Google Map. Image below, but follow the link to benefit from the interactivity.)

There was never a Purple Ticket line.
Let's begin at the beginning. As of Monday evening, Purple Tickets were apparently a highly-prized commodity. One ticketholder, Felice LaZae, took to Twitter to enthuse, "Feeling like Willy Wonka with my golden ticket to the inauguration (except it's purple lol)!!!!" Another tweeted: "Surprise: 1 purple ticket inauguration ticket for our household...who should get it? Lauti of course. He's the future. He should see this." As it turns out, many of the Purple Tickets went to people who had labored hard for the Obama campaign -- some had devoted years to working for Obama, others donated substantial time as field volunteers or unpaid policy advisers.

Large groups of people began arriving at the Mall between 4AM and 5AM. Most Purple ticket holders came via Metro to Judiciary Square or walked toward the main Purple Gate, located at 1st St. and Louisiana Ave.

By 6AM, the line for Purple ticket holders became at least three "lines" -- or more accurately, thick street-wide throngs of people, packed in like herd animals -- on 1st St., and Louisiana Ave., and C St.

Early on, as crowds grew, volunteers and police officers tried to funnel Purple ticket holders into the 3rd St. Tunnel (which exited at D St. heading towards 1st St.), treating that as the "proper" line. But other people continued to stream down 1st St. and Louisiana and became part of the problem, intersecting the "proper" line instead of moving to the end of it, back down the Purple Tunnel of Doom.

So, by 7AM, the three lines had converged into an amorphous, tightly-packed crowd around the Purple Gate, stretching north at least 1,000 feet on 1st St.

Since the Purple Gate hadn't yet opened, that crowd had nowhere to go. Readers described dangerously cramped conditions -- people unable to even lift their arms, some pressed into the steel security fence, prevented from exiting the area even if they wanted to. Here's one shot of the scene, sent to us by Pat Profeta:

When the Purple gate finally opened between 8AM and 9AM, small groups of 20-50 people were slowly allowed through the steel security fence and into a small area with metal detectors and screeners.

But ticket holders were arriving at the lines in far greater numbers than were being given access to the Mall.

The lack of assistance and crowd control turned even common incidents at such large-scale events into chaotic, dangerous ordeals. There are several accounts of medical emergencies occurring within shot of the Purple Gate, and the decision-making behind the response to these incidents was incoherent. Susan Mayer's account of the scene on First Street dovetails perfectly with my own experience:

Things remained relatively safe and calm with the crowd in good spirits until someone just south of D street on 1st had a medical emergency and called for a paramedic. About 30 minutes later, an ambulance tried to make its way down the crowded 1st street parting all the ticket holders in the street. People were able to squeeze out of the street to allow the ambulance to pass, but hoards of people followed the ambulance down First street to fill in the gap, quickly leading to dangerous overcrowding. This scenario was repeated 3 more times before 10 am with an ambulance passing through and the gap being filled in from behind.

During the 2 hours and 15 minutes I stood between D and E on 1st Street, I saw only 2 officials. One was not wearing a uniform, but walked up to a white unmarked car parked on the North side of 1st Street just North of D Street. The only interaction he had with the crowd was to ask someone not to stand on his vehicle. He then got into the vehicle and started the engine (presumably to keep himself warm) spewing exhaust fumes into the crowded street. The only other official we saw was a fire fighter (DC I think) who was standing on top of construction scaffolding along the north side of 1st street near the intersection with D street.

Because of his vantage point above the crowd, many people asked him what he could see and he just kept saying the same thing "People in all directions." He did say that the medical emergency was someone who had a stroke. After the ambulances made their way through and the crowding became unbearable, many started asking that firefighter for advice on which was the best way out of the crowd. He never gave an answer until after the 4th ambulance came through and people were beginning to get crushed.

This all occurred between 9:30AM and 10:30AM. During this period, while the lucky Purple ticket holders were trickling through the gate, other people -- some with Silver tickets (which we explain below) and some without any tickets -- were streaming into the Purple section.

* * * * *

Security breakdowns elsewhere impacted the flow at the Purple Gate
Away from the main Purple Gate, security perimeters continued to break down, and officials continued to be whatever the opposite of "omnipresent" is. Mary Shomon describes what may have been the final straw:

At around 10:15, we moved fairly quickly to 3rd and Maryland SW, two blocks away from the "Silver Gate" banner. At that point, the line itself was more than two miles long. But the front of the line "fell apart" as non-ticketed people pushed toward the checkpoint, becoming a giant mass of people. No one could move. There was not a single security staffperson or organizer on the scene to coordinate crowd control. At NO time did anyone provide information to those who were waiting. It was clear that there was no organization whatsoever.

We remained at that same spot with no movement, no information, no security personnel, no announcements -- NOTHING -- for another hour, until 11:15. At that point, as the inauguration ceremony was beginning, the crowd, which was yelling "Let us in!" (I have video) and "LET MY PEOPLE IN!) for 20 minutes -- surged forward, pushed over a fence, climbed over security barricades, and flooded onto the Mall. It was a free-for all.

It is a miracle that no one was hurt in this ridiculous stampede of people, because it was a tragedy in the making.

Meanwhile, another breach of the Purple section occurred around 9AM, when Silver ticket holders who had already made it onto the Mall broke through two mesh barriers to get a better view.

Reader Scott described the incident that was apparently the linchpin of the whole mess. Scott was standing in the Silver area with his family, when, at about 9AM, a series of unfortunate events took place, all caused by a Porta-Potty.

I was lucky getting in, had very little trouble getting through security and into the Silver area. Because of that, I was right up front, on the left as you look at the Capitol, with a great view of a Jumbotron.

Well, at least I had a good view of one for a little while. There was a large portapotty to my right, placed in front of the fence. After about 20 minutes or so, the group behind that portapotty convinced a worker to push it aside. He did, but he pushed it right in front of our view of the screen.

People yelled at him to move it, but he just walked away. Then, a few minutes later, a police officer came by, and we all yelled at him to move it just a few feet over (there was room) to give us a view. He pushed it about 3 inches, sneered at us, and left.

That annoyed some folks in our group, so they took matters into their own hands. The security fence was a double fence of plastic, with about four feet in between the fences. Well, people just pushed over the inner fence and moved over to the outer fence to give them some room. Most of us assumed that security would come by quickly and get them to move back. Well, none ever did.

More and more people pushed into that area to get a good view, and eventually that second, outer fence got pushed over in the crush of people. Still no security. So that fairly small group just started to walk forward, into the broad open area around the reflecting pool.

Well, then that small flow got larger, as more and more people poured out of the widening gap. It was like watching a little kid's dam made of sand get undermined by seawater. More and more people started to stream out into the big area around the reflecting pool.

Eventually, one cop tried to stop the crowd flowing out by yelling in his best cop voice, "Stop right there." Well, that worked great for about 20 seconds until everyone realized that was the extent of his powers. Then everyone just walked around him.

The flow of people out of the Silver area from that breach was now pretty strong, and as others along the front line saw, they started to push over the fence in their area. Eventually, the entire front fence failed and the whole section just walked forward into the area around the reflecting pool.

In front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, just across East Capitol Circle, was the Purple Section. As Scott relates, "Eventually, I think some of them pushed into the blue and purple sections, messing up those areas, as well."

Up on the streets, nothing was moving, and in a separate account, from Kirsten Clarke, those now-freely flowing Silver Ticketers make an appearance:

At 8am, there was still no movement in the crowd, but we all thought that maybe they had moved the time up to be 9 am. Many people started texting other people (silver tickets) that they knew, who said that they were letting in the silver tickets first and then would let purple and blue people in next. Other people said that the silver people had rushed the security gates and took over the purple section, so the security teams were trying to get those people out and then they would start letting in purple people.
* * * * *

Many more than four or five thousand people were impacted.
The media reports and official statements citing this number are completely wrong. And this becomes crystal clear when one considers the most celebrated group of Purple Ticket sufferers - those trapped underground in the so-called Tunnel of Doom. Lonnee Hamilton, whose account can be read in full here, told me that when she first "approached the line, we were first closer to the Purple Gate entrance."

But then the people toward the head of the line said that the line went back through the tunnel, and to "get in the back of the line." My father and I walked the length of the tunnel to get to to the back. We were lucky in that we'd arrived later, and our part of the line was already past the tunnel, so we waited a good portion outside the tunnel. But once the line started moving forward (at around 11am), then we were in the tunnel.

It would appear that early in the day, people at the Purple Gate formed a line that was directed backwards, up First Street, and then west on D Street back into the tunnel at the corner of Second and D Streets, NW. Why the tunnel was used for this purpose is somewhat inexplicable -- one can only assume that officials not only imagined that the line would not reach the epic lengths it did, but also that the line would, at some point, you know, move. These imaginings were clearly never actualized.

Problems were reported at other entry points as well. There were delays at the Orange Gate, and a power failure at the Blue Gate apparently caused the screeners to have to pat down attendees instead of sending them through metal detectors. But nowhere else were the problems as significant, or the dissatisfaction as strong, as it was among the Purple Ticket Holders. Dianne Feinstein has called for the Secret Service to get to the bottom of the matter. It may be that President Obama should get Chief Justice Roberts prepped for a third rendition of the oath, for the many people whose tickets could not get them access to the festivities.

Naturally, all of this could use some more fleshing out. Anyone with more specific information is invited to contact us. It's a very good thing that there wasn't a tragic ending to the plight of the Purple, and it's similarly outstanding that those trapped in the mess did not touch off some massive mob-fueled problem.

And, last but not least, we thank everyone who contacted the Huffington Post and shared their Inauguration Day experiences with us. Our account has been distilled down from hundreds of richly detailed stories, some of which we shall excerpt in a post, later today.