Tens of thousands of people gathered on Wednesday for an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, many of them waiting for hours to pass through a sole security checkpoint providing access to the Mall.
Nine metal detectors were deployed to screen the audience for the “Let Freedom Ring” commemoration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, causing massive bottlenecks and frustrating crowds that at times chanted angrily to speed the security process.
Thousands missed much of the event, which began at 11:30 a.m., including highly promoted appearances by actors Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker and actress and television talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
Lenny Segel, 60, from Detroit, got in line at about 10:30 a.m. He entered the event just after 1 p.m. and noted the large number of older people who had to stand and wait for long periods of time.
“It was a total disaster for whoever set it up,” he said. “As great a march as this could have been, unfortunately it has become awful for a lot of people.”
Officials said temperatures in the high 80s led to heat-related illnesses and a number of people reportedly fainted. The D.C. Fire Department provided medical assistance to more than 100 people and transported seven people to hospitals. Most ailments were heat-related, department spokesman Oscar Mendez said.
Brian Leary, a spokesman for the Secret Service, which operated the checkpoint, said in a statement issued during the event that the agency had encouraged people to arrive early.
“We are aware of the delays and are working diligently to process people as quickly as possible through the checkpoints,” he said.
Security personnel eventually added additional magnetometers and opened other entry points at which they conducted bag checks and operated hand-held metal detector wands.
The situation improved by the time former President Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton took the stage at about 2:30 p.m., and for the address by President Obama shortly after 3 p.m.
Once inside, the mood improved.
Thaddeus Van Ware, 78, and his sister Ruth Holst, 80, attended the 1963 march. Despite the wait, the siblings called the 2013 event a “beautiful experience.”
“I thought it was special, wonderful,” said Mr. Van Ware of Silver Spring. “It was just as pleasant.”
Ms. Holst, who lives in Columbia, Md., described the speeches as “moving.”
Nancy Lee, 74, of Fort Washington recalled the march half a century ago and said she was proud to also attend the event Wednesday.