After Early Snag, Security Went ‘Swimmingly’

Posted January 20, 2009 at 6:41pm

Security officials had a bumpy start on Inauguration Day — with unexpected road closures, disorganized lines and massive crowds — but all seemed in order on the Capitol grounds by the time President Barack Obama took his oath of office.

“Smooth is a bit strong,” said one Capitol Police officer who guarded the section for ticket holders on the West Front. “But for this amount of people, you couldn’t ask for more.”

Early in the day, however, the record crowds disrupted Capitol Police plans. Just before 7 a.m., Metropolitan Police officials unexpectedly closed Independence Avenue Southwest, stalling a caravan of buses holding Members, staffers and other Congressional officials.

The original plan was to drive 17 rented buses up Independence and into House or Senate parking areas, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said.

“It worked well up until the initial blocks of the Mall started filling quicker than you could disperse the people to the western part of the Mall.

The number of people was overwhelming,” said Gainer, who was one of those stuck in the traffic. “In one sense, we were concerned about their safety. In another, this wasn’t a mob mentality. People were just joyously trying to get to the Mall.”

Officials were able to eventually unclog the street, Gainer said, and none of the guests in the caravan were too late for the ceremony. Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse even came to help clear the masses, he said.

“We’re now dubbing him the Moses of Independence,” Gainer said. “Or at least I am.”

Gainer said the rest of the day went “swimmingly,” with the traffic snarl a “hiccup” during a day that was otherwise uneventful security-wise.

Indeed, Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said the department had made no arrests as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, though she declined to specify whether anyone was detained. The rest of the city fared just as well, with no agency making any arrests, according to Mayra Lopez, a Secret Service spokeswoman at the Joint Information Center.

“It was really a successful event and rather an uneventful day,” Schneider said. Officers “worked really long hours and worked really hard and did a fantastic job.”

Many Capitol Police officers drove to the Capitol on Monday night, hours before their shifts began. Even so, several said they ran into street closures and were able to get only a couple hours of sleep before starting the day at 2 or 3 a.m.

Crowds began forming shortly after 5 a.m., and officers had their hands full giving directions, checking tickets and making sure eager Obama fans didn’t steal signs. By 6:30, thousands of people stood in lines that stretched for blocks.

People with tickets for standing-only sections seemed to have the hardest time. Lines were long and disorganized, while officers were few.

Schneider said checking tickets and screening visitors one-by-one “takes a little bit of time.”

“Every screening area had a large crowd, a large group of people and we did everything we could do,” she said.

By the end of the inauguration, the Capitol Police had called in more officers to crowded areas to help manage the exiting masses. Some officers directed people to the warmth of the Rayburn House Office Building, where they reassembled into yet another morphous, disorganized line.

During the swearing-in, however, officers were spared any serious emergencies. The bomb squad only got called for two suspicious packages, and Schneider said the owners of both quickly showed up and thus they were cleared quickly.

Instead, officers in the seated section focused on controlling guests who itched to get closer to the stage for pictures and a better view. After a few attempts to get everyone to sit in their assigned seats, officers appeared to give up, letting many guests gain a closer look by moving forward and sitting on the ground.

After all, officers were also excited to be so close to the stage — and at least one could be seen snapping some photos.

One officer, however, shrugged off his colleague’s excitement.

“I paid more attention to the crowds,” he said.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.