A historic moment unfolds in frigid temps

Published 11:06 am Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The National Mall pulsed with celebration and history Tuesday as a vast, excited crowd bore witness to a transfer of power like none other.

Energized by Barack Obama’s moment, hundreds of thousands of people, likely to end up at more than 1 million, clogged the scene, cheering the dignitaries as they filed onto the inaugural stand at the Capitol. Obama walked quietly and with the merest stirring of a smile through the halls to his position on the stand and his place in history as the first black president.

The crowd erupted in jubilation as he strode out.

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Trumpets blared. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, the latter walking haltingly with a cane, embraced.

Enduring below-freezing temperatures for hours, people streamed from subway stations and thronged past parked buses, emergency vehicles and street vendors to Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall for the inauguration. Ticket holders approaching the inaugural site filed through security sweeps in lines coiled like cinnamon rolls.

The shattering of racial barriers with the inauguration of the first black president lent a deeply personal dimension for many in the crowd as well as a historical landmark for all.

“I’ve been real emotional all morning thinking about my grandmother and the heroes whose shoulders we stand on,” said Lyshundria Houston, 34, here from Memphis, Tenn., after more than 20 hours of travel. Houston, who is black, said: “They’d be so proud.”

Coming from the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she reflected on the civil rights movement on her way to the parade, and said: “Sometimes that makes the cold go away.”

At the Capitol, a plexiglass shield extended about two feet up from the balustrade around the speaker’s platform. Muhammad Ali took his seat on the platform, as did actor John Cusack and director Stephen Spielberg. A huge cheer rose from the Mall as the image of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy flashed on jumbo TV screens showing the veteran Massachusetts Democrat, who is fighting brain cancer, heading toward his seat on the inauguration stand.

The district fire department responded to dozens of calls from people falling down or complaining of the being cold, D.C. fire and EMS department spokesman Alan Etter said. About two dozen were hospitalized.

Etter said medical personnel were having trouble getting to people quickly around the mall because of the throngs of people, but he added that everyone who needed help has eventually received treatment.

“Obviously the crush of people downtown is making it very challenging,” Etter said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

By 4 a.m., lines of riders had already formed in suburban parking lots for the Metro transit system, which opened early and put on extra trains for the expected rush. Many parking lots filled up and had to be closed.

Streets around the Capitol quickly filled with people, and security checkpoints were mobbed. The cold registered at a frosty 25 degrees Fahrenheit at late morning.

Warming tents and other facilities on the Mall were late opening because traffic and crowds delayed staffers from reaching them. At one spot, 150 people waited to buy a cup of coffee.

At the Capitol, a plexiglass shield extended about two feet up from the balustrade around the speaker’s platform. Near the lectern were seats reserved for Elie Wiesel and Martin Luther King III. Other seats were saved for past presidents, vice presidents and their spouses — the Clintons, the Gores, the Bushes and the Quayles. Each seat was furnished with a dark blue fleece blanket.

A flea-market atmosphere prevailed on downtown streets, with white tents set up to sell Obama T-shirts and mugs as well as food, bottled water, snacks, scarves and footwarmers. The scent of grilled sausages and steaming Chinese food greeted those who walked toward the parade route, more than six hours before Obama would pass by.

As the first waves of people began moving through security screenings, they scrambled for prime viewing spots along Pennsylvania Avenue — sitting on the curb, staking out plots of grass, or clambering on to cold metal benches.

Real estate appraiser Denise Grandberry of St. Louis stood on the mall with her niece Murphy and daughter Nikki and talked about all the foreclosed homes she’s seen in her work. “I’ve seen the remnants of peoples’ lives,” she said. “I have hope now and I think the nation has hope.”

Some 410,000 people had entered Washington’s Metro transit system by 9 a.m., an extraordinary number, transit officials said. “God Bless them, they came out in this weather,” said Robyn Ahlstrom, a volunteer with the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Medical personnel struggled because of the crush of the crowd. One officer, with a patient he described as having had a seizure, tried to find out when an ambulance would arrive and couldn’t. “She’s been here nearly an hour,” the officer radioed. “She really needs to get to the hospital.”

The joyous mood of many was tempered for some by delays and dashed expectations.

Alice Williams, a 51-year-old teacher of gifted children from Kansas City, Mo., had the coveted purple ticket that would place her in front of the Capitol, but got caught in the crowd bottleneck and was stuck a half mile away.

“We got blocked off; there was too much traffic and no guidance,” she said forlornly. “I’ve been walking for an hour and a half. All I want to do is see my president sworn in.”

The cold was also taking its toll.

Shelton Iddeen, 57, of Greensboro, N.C., arrived at the Mall at 4 a.m. and huddled in front of an ambulance to warm up.

“My hands feel really bad; you can’t feel your toes,” he said. “I’m more concerned about other people, the elderly and the young. I’ve seen a lot of people here really suffering.”

Others were unfazed.

Faosat Idowu of Lagos, Nigeria, had tickets for the inauguration but couldn’t get through the crowds at five different entrances between the White House and Capitol Hill. She ended up walking in a highway tunnel that normally carries Interstate 395 under the Capitol grounds, closed for this one day to all but pedestrians. She wore a bright red scarf and hat adorned with dozens of green patches bearing Obama’s face and the words, “Africans for Obama.”

“It’s part of the excitement,” Idowu said. “I don’t mind it at all.”

Onjali Bodrul flew from London to see a man whose career she and her friends have followed since she was a political science student at Oxford four years ago. “He’s the first man in politics in a long time we don’t hate,” she said. “It’s like a football match, it’s so exciting.”


Associated Press Writers Donna Cassata, Kevin Freking, Ann Sanner, Troy Thibodeaux, Ken Thomas, Gillian Gaynair, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Ed Tobias, Ben Evans, Seth Borenstein and H. Josef Hebert contributed to this report.