MEDIA
02/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Inauguration Horror Stories: Long Lines, Pushy Celebs, Tunnels Of Doom

Over two hundred people responded to our request for witness accounts of what happened to Purple Ticket holders on Inauguration Day, offering up richly detailed accounts from a plethora of vantage points. The outpouring from you readers was tremendously valuable and vital, and for that, we offer all of you our sincerest thanks -- check out the final product here.

What follows are some key excerpts from the accounts we received. We obviously couldn't highlight everybody's story, or even the complete stories of everyone we did include, on these pages. But everyone's contribution was valuable, and we'll be happy to add to the excerpts below.

While we concentrated our attention on the situation over by the Purple Gate, we should not that the problems of the day were by no means confined to that location. There were similar struggles by people waiting in the Silver and Blue sections, as well as people on the parade route.

There's something else important that comes out in many of the letters we received: while there was anger and disappointment to be had in abundance, we've heard over and over again that the folks who were packed in and pressed together did what they could to look out for one another - people seems attentive to children and the elderly, and were quick to offer assistance to people in need. And most importantly, while there was a fair amount of rulebreaking, fence jumping, and line-cutting, the situation did not devolve into any sort of violence or mayhem. That speaks very well of the people who gathered for this event.

* * * * *

Susan Connolly

"We took metro to Judiciary Square and started walking toward the Capitol. We asked a DC policeman where we should line up to enter the grounds and he told us to line up on First Street NW. It was approximately 8:15, the ticket listed the opening of the gate as 9:00 AM. There was no line on First Street just a huge mass of people. We began waiting about a half a block above First and D and stood there for 2 1/2 hours with no forward movement. People began turning around, coming from the front of the line saying that the gates were closed and that no one was being allowed in. This started happening about an hour after we got onto the street. At no time did any police authority come along to provide information or order. People were patient and believed that there was a problem but it would be resolved and they would get in as promised.

As more and more people left we were able to make it up to First and Louisiana where we could see the Purple Gate behind a security fence. Again, no security, no police at all, just an empty security area behind the fence. We left around 11:30 and made our way to an Irish bar where they were allowing people to come in to watch the event on TV. People we spoke to said that they had friends who made it into the Purple area (the magic of cell phones) and that the area was uncrowded. "

Mischa Thompson

We attempted to head to the mall via the Senate side at roughly 9:30am. We never made it because we kept running into the purple and yellow lines and all of Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues were blocked. We walked an hour simply trying to get around the lines to D st to get to one of the entry gates for the mall. We never made it. In the process, we visited the Tunnel of Doom, heard the chants of let us in at the gates, and were kicked out of the space in front of 101 Constitution with threats of "you will be arrested, this is for persons entering the building only and not a watching area, etc." Of course this almost led to a fight by people who were tired and disgruntled at this point. The highlight was, we ran into Bishop Desmond Tutu at roughly 11:15am. He was cold and had apparently been walking in circles as well for some time. We had just come out of the tunnel so I'm assuming he was a Purple Ticketer. We offered to help him get to the lines or just get somewhere warm to view the inauguration, but he was done and said he was going home. So I gave him my handwarmers and he headed off.

Alex Wagner

So I got stuck in the Purple ticket melee at 1st and D street. We were packed in like sardines (couldn't even put my arms up it was so tight) when Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon (surrounded by their larger 'body' guys) started shoved people out of the way so they could get to the front. I don't know if they made it in--the only way I did was by squeezing out and wrapping around to Louisiana and Const. Ave., and then only by 5 mins--but Mariah really lived up to her hard-earned DIVA reputation. I know of several other folks closer in who got shoved as well.

Andre Chevalier

"At this point, 6:30am, my estimate is there were about 7 thousand people in the tunnel which formed a line about .4 miles into the tunnel where we lined up at the end.


From 6:30 - 9:15 there was almost no movement forward. During these three hours a constant flow of people continued to fill up the line behind us - everyone was asking each other if they had purple tickets to make sure that this line was still all purple ticket holders. Everyone I asked confirmed they had purple tickets.

Between 6:30 - 9:15 there were several speedy pass bys of police cars but, no one on foot or stopping to explain when the line was to begin moving. Rumors circulated that the gates were opening early at 8am instead of 9am but, again the line moved no more than 40 yards between 6:30 - 9:15.

By 9:15, the tunnel was full and I noticed some people already giving up who were out the other end of the tunnel in line and walking back through the tunnel. The tunnel had at least 15,000 people in it."

Kate Sisk

We arrived on the mall at 6:15am and proceeded to walk towards 1st and Constitution, what was supposed to be the purple entrance. We started at 14th street and walked over to Constituion so that we could walk East to 1st. What happened from there was 3 hours of begging every officer in sight to let us go one block East. We showed them our tickets, we begged, we tried to explain, but because these cops were from North Carolina, Kentucky, Atlantic City, etc., they had no idea where to send us or what to do. We finally got in touch with a secret serviceman who told us that we were on the parade route and that we were supposed to have used the tunnel to get to the purple gate. After hearing about what happened in the tunnel, I'm glad I didn't choose that route! When we finally arrived at 1st and Constitution (after trampling bushes, climbing over fences, breaking down barriers, and walking on windowsills), we realized the actual checkpoint for the purple ticketholders was 1st and Louisiana, which seems insignificant, but with 5,000 people around, we could barely move and couldn't get to the ticket gate. My husband jumped on top of a windowsill and could see the entrance, and guess what? There was no one there letting anyone in. This was around 9:30 and we were surrounded by a sea of people screaming "let us in, let us in."

Michael Ross

In sum, the idea, started the by Washington Post article yesterday morning, that only a few thousand ticketholders didn't get in is ludicrous to those of thus who were on the First Street of Doom. And I'm not even counting the thousands of people in the Tunnel of Doom, who had it even worse than we did. It's an Inauguration Day miracle that no one was trampled to death.

The organizers made the following errors that I observed: (i) telling people to show up very, very early, but not opening the gates until 8:00; (ii) failing to set up jersey barriers or fences to form an orderly line of ticketholders only (there were a number of non-ticketholders jammed in the street, adding to the bottleneck); (iii) police officials inexplicably and repeatedly trying to drive vehicles through the sardine-packed streets with sirens blaring, causing further pushing, packing, and anxiety; and (iv) failing to have even a single authority figure to give the crowd instructions and status update.

Brad Bannon

An officer with a bullhorn stood on a police car parked on D Street between First and Second and shouted that people with Purple section tickets who were standing in the street (including the intersection) were not properly in line for the Purple section and needed to go to the Second Street Tunnel to get into line for the Purple section. At about 9:30 a.m., instead of following the officer's instructions, my fiancee and I and another family made our way out of the crowd and walked up D Street toward New Jersey Avenue. We took a right on New Jersey and walked through freely flowing foot traffic toward Constitution Avenue. We then saw a much smaller group of people crowded around a small opening in the fence line around Capitol Circle E/NE. We joined that group, and everyone told us they had Purple tickets.

Finally, an officer at the small opening in the fence line announced that it was an entry point was for people holding Purple tickets only. We waited with that group and, around 11:00 a.m., cleared the gate and went through the metal detectors. As we walked into the Purple section, we noticed that there was an entirely empty block on First between C Street and Constitution Avenue. So it was clear to us that, had we stayed where we were standing on First, we would still be standing there. After the swearing-in ceremony, we ran into a person who had been standing in that crowd. He told us that he followed the officer's instructions to go to the tunnel, and he was denied entry in the Purple section.

Liz Selbst

The fence seemed to have opened at 1st and Louisiana. We knew this was not where the gate was supposed to be, but this was where the crowd was pressing towards. The people around us were mostly jovial and joking about the situation we were in, "It's a big group hug!" etc, but things started to get scary closer to the gate. Within about fifty feet of the opening, I was totally packed in and was beginning to think that some people might have trouble breathing if their lungs started to bear more pressure. I could easily lift my feet off the ground and the force of the crowd was supporting my whole body weight. I wasn't personally afraid, but I was starting to worry about some of the older folks and children around us. One man said to his four year-old son, "If you start to get too squashed, just remember to yell loudly." People starting asking others to back off and give them more space, but most people kept saying, "Sorry, I really can't move." I had expected some tight crowding, but nothing like that.

I think this was around 11:30 (I couldn't get my phone out of my pocket to check, it was too crowded) and a woman on a megaphone inside the fence kept repeating, "PURPLE TICKETS ONLY!" over and over again. "We have purple tickets!" the crowd yelled back. People were starting to chant, "1 2 3 4 Let us in...5 6 7 8 Open up the Purple Gate." People around me started discussing jumping the fence or trying to push through it, while others were trying to calm people around them down, trying to get them not to do anything crazy. One lady told her friend she was pretty sure the Secret Service would shoot anyone who climbed the fence (which was probably about 9 feet high), and discussion of that sort of riled up the crowd. A few people were yelling to stop the pushing, but of course nobody had control over that anymore. A real mob mentality had set in, where people started holding their tickets above their heads and waving them in the air. I did this too, although I have no idea why.

Gary Bachula

We arrived at the one single gate for purple ticket holders around 8:30 a.m. At that time, the yellow ticket line and the purple ticket line had crossed each other, so there was a great deal of confusion. The one or two guards at the gate were letting people in -- one and two at a time, a total trickle. The line seemed to go along the fence, around a corner, along the fence, then spilled into First Street. However, by the time it got to First Street, it was no longer a "line," but just a crowd of people. We joined the line (cut in if you will) along the fence. The line never moved, or should I say, over almost a three hour time frame, moved maybe 15-20 feet forward. From our perspective, we saw people being admitted almost constantly, but the flow was a trickle. The problem clearly was NOT the capacity of the security screeners -- they very often had empty lines at many of the tables/metal detectors. The problem was the trickle of flow into the gate.

Andrea Lyman

There was a constant stream of people entering the tunnel with purple tickets (hundreds and hundreds over the hours). People also began to walk through the tunnel from the opposite end and exit, which was curious. No officials ever entered the tunnel. We only heard rumors that no one with purple ticket would be able to enter the gates unless they were in line in the tunnel. We heard rumors of people being turned away from the gates and sent to the tunnel line. We heard that there were only a few metal detectors and that's why it was slow going. Everyone started to get nervous as the line moved about one or two feet every 5 minutes ( I checked the time on my phone) as it got closer to the cut off time. People started crowding each other and some began getting angry at others for cutting in line. We began to hear rumors that the purple section was full at around 10:30. There was no cell phone signal in the tunnel so we had even less communication. There was fear that if the people in the back, and this meant hundreds if not thousands of people, if they surged forward it would be dangerous. People seem to get killed from such crowd surges in similar conditions.

Once outside the rumors ran rampant that we were in a "line to nowhere". People were walking in the street and passing the folks in line. We got somewhat near the gate and found a dense crowd at a closed gate. No one was giving any information. There were no officials around anywhere. I'm not from DC so I couldn't really figure out where to go to try to get to the mall. Rumors abounded that the gate would re-open or that it was not going to open again. They did re-open the gate at one point and around 30 people of the hundreds pressed around the gate were able to enter. Officials asked us to hold up our purple tickets (which we did) spurring the hope that it had some merit. There were no jumbotrons in the area so we couldn't hear anything. Finally someone heard on their cell phone that Obama had been sworn into office. We cheered. Some were still frustrated and angry. I shouted that I had originally come to be a part of the crowd celebrating. I didn't expect a ticket. I said, "I'm here at the Inauguration in the purple ticket section and I'm happy". Others joined in cheering. No matter what, I was there, I was a part of the crowd. It could have gone better, but it could have been worse.

My thoughts? I think a theme park staff would have handled the situation well. They seem to know how to handle large crowds of all ages with tickets to events. They are great a dispersing information, too.

Louise Howe

At about 1040 I decided to try to walk around towards Union station to try to get under the "Purple" banner I had seen the day before. I think we walked up third and then turned right on D. I think we went down New Jersey Ave and took a right on Louisiana. We were successful in walking under the banner (near Louisiana and 1st I think) and getting into a crowd of people 20-30 ft from the purple gate screening. While the crowd was about 30 people wide and totally packed, it did move. We entered the gates at around 11:30 or so. We were so grateful to get in, but realized that we had been disadvantaged by following the rules. We knew that thousands of people who perhaps didn't know the streets around the area, or perhaps felt that they didn't want to give up their place in line after 4-5 hours, were shut out. Meanwhile, lots of people who had arrived long after we did, were admitted.

Ted Jou

Later that night, I spoke with someone who had gotten through the purple gate early, and he said that while an orderly line had formed stretching down 1st St. NW, D St. NW, and into the tunnel, large numbers of people (with and without tickets) formed a crowd adjacent to the line at the purple gate. When the gate opened, it did not open all the way, and the first part to open was near the crowd, rather than the line. The crowd then rushed in, prompting the security personnel to close the gate immediately. All the people standing in the actual line were denied entry. Other purple ticket holders were able to enter the mall through the yellow gate or through other means. I knew of a few groups who climbed barriers to get into the yellow security screening area.

Heather Stanton

My feeling (I don't know for sure) is that they may have moved the entrance because of the problem with the number of people trying to get through the gates or that a number of people were misinformed about the location of the entrance, but the primary problem was miscommunication regarding the correct entrance to the event for various ticket holders (on our side, purple and silver). Possibly more signs further from the gates would have helped. I knew the approximate location because I'd scoped it out the day before, but this was before any barriers were put up, so it was difficult to determine the right route to the entrance.

Adam Hennings

We found the "purple line" at 5:00am and took our spots in line between C and D on 1st. At first glance I estimated 500-1000 people in line in front of us. We were two blocks away from a large banner that read "PURPLE GATE." We waited in line without incident until 7:30 am. At this point floods of people were arriving from Louisiana and Union Station. New arrivals quickly stopped journeying to the end of the line and began forcing themselves into the line on 1st St. Within 15 minutes we were packed in a mass of humanity without the ability to move, and the line (which had formally been 5 people wide at the most) was now the width of the entire street. Gates were to open at 8:00 am. Because of the hordes of people and how we were packed in so tightly, we had no idea if the gates opened on time. 8:00 and 9:00 passed without us moving more than 10 feet. By 9:45 am more confusion broke out as we realized the actual gate was nowhere near the giant banner reading "PURPLE GATE." The gate was actually on Louisiana. In the confusion, my three friends and I reentered the line on Louisiana among many others. By this point all semblance of a line was gone. When we could get a view, all we saw were masses of people. People were coming straight from Union Station into the gate. Those of us that arrived at 4:00 or 5:00am were literally stuck 100 yards from the gate and not moving.

Panic started at 10:30 am when the music program was to begin. We still hadn't moved much. The only way we were moving forward were if people in front of us gave up and left. By 11:00 police began expediting admittance by increasing the flow of people to the metal detectors. After this my friends and I began moving forward and it looked is if we would make it in the grounds, even if we didn't get the spots we deserved. This however did not happen. At 12:00pm I was at the gate about to go through when 7-10 police office blocked our traffic and shut the gate in my face. Not only were the police unnecessarily rough in managing the crowd, they were extremely rude in explaining we were not to be allowed in.

Donna Rose

The odd thing is that there wasn't a single sign of anything or anyone "official". There were no police officers. There was nobody to provide directions. There wasn't a single person to talk to, nobody to contact if there were a medical emergency. Even worse, there wasn't a single toilet around. I have no idea how so many people held it for that long. I'm told some people called Metro Police and 911 about the situation and were told to sit tight. That was not good advice.

[...]

Hours ticked by and we moved a little. We didn't start moving with any speed until nearly 10am. By 10:30 we could see the other end of the tunnel but the line has swollen in width to fill the entire roadway. We finally got out of the tunnel just before 11 and had no idea about the chaos that had apparently gone on there. Our first indication that something was wrong was when people started to come back up the line in the other direction saying that the gate was closed and nobody could get in.

Most of us couldn't believe it and needed to see for ourselves. We got to the gate at 11 and sure enough it was closed.

Nancy Sableski

Getting through the gate was like going through the birth canal - it was so crushing and forceful. One lone woman police stood there to check our tickets. By now we could tell that Rick Warren was speaking. We sped over to security, and got the most perfunctory check - just held our coats open. Then we ran to the first sign we had seen that said, "Purple Gate." We went in, walked over a green wire fence, and worked our way around the portable toilets into a position that seemed OK, all things considered. Rick Warren was concluding his invocation by the time we felt we had arrived. There was no view of the ceremony, as it was blocked by a huge pine tree. The jumbotrons were also blocked by trees, so we strained to listen.

Michelle Barrera

I was stuck at 1st and D for 3 hours. I was dead center in the middle of the intersection and waited because we were told that was the entrance to the purple section, which we had tickets and a map to. I got there at around 8am and waited and waited and waited. Supposedly gates were supposed to open at 9am but after moving up by only less than 1/2 block we realized we weren't getting anywhere. With all the police/firemen and secret service they should have told the crowd that this was NOT an entrance but instead let the crowd get bigger and bigger in an area that was just a road block (which at the time we didn't know). With each passing hour the crowd just got more and more angry.

As the crowd grew, emergency vehicles kept trying to pass through the intersection that I along with hundreds of others were blocking. They made their way through because we kept crunching up and as we left a gap (that we were supposed to go back into) the crowd behind us kept moving up not realizing we were crunched. There were several people who almost passed out and plenty who were losing their cool because it got very out of control. There were at least 3 ambulances who made their way through the crowd. We were even shoved up with a cop car because Samuel L Jackson was being escorted through the crowd!

Nicole Napoli

The blue gate was exactly the same as the purple gate, only we weren't in a tunnel. I keep hearing reports of purple ticket holder getting in at the last minute. That did not happen in the slightest at the blue gate. Those of us who got there at 6 and 7 a.m. barely moved more than a few yards and there was no way around it. Our gates were closed before noon and no one was let in after that. The blue "line" was 30 people wide and hundreds of yards long. Cars with signs in the window saying "essential congressional personnel" kept driving through us while we were pushed onto the barriers. It was utter chaos in the blue line. I'd say very few blue ticket holders got in, but I have yet to encounter a single one of them in all the people I have spoken to.

Adam Fagen

I saw the request for stories on the Facebook group "Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom" and wanted to share that the experience along the parade route was nearly identical, but has not gotten any attention.

Unlike the swearing-in, parade tickets were made available for sale. A week or so before the inauguration, 5000 tickets were made available on TicketMaster for $25 each and were sold out in less than a minute or two.

I was lucky to purchase 4 tickets but was never able to use them as I was stuck behind security checkpoints, despite starting more than 6 hours before the parade and only 4 blocks from the parade route.

The Secret Service, Presidential Inauguration Committee, and Washington Post had distributed maps of how to access the parade, which streets would be available for crossing the parade route, and where the checkpoints would be. If this information was even accurate, it was significantly misrepresented.

[...]

But it wasn't just the extreme lack of capacity at the security entrances. It was the total lack of information. We saw a grand total of one police officer at 10th Street, even though the crowd was very heavy and packed in so tight that you couldn't move your arms. It's a wonder no one was injured in the crush of people. With police several deep along the parade route, they were virtually non-existent outside the security perimeter. As such, there was no order and every confusion outside. Even the few officials we saw were completely unaware of what was going on. I understand that it's hard to get information to thousands of people, but there seems to been no attempt to get information even to police officers.