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Checkpoint choke point: Long waits cause frustration at security station for March on Washington
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.
"If I can see an African-American president, then I believe Dr. Martin Luther King would be smiling. But we still have a long way to go," she said.
The day began with a group that numbered well into the hundreds staging a morning march that passed sites relevant to the civil rights movement — including the headquarters of the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor as well as the federal courthouse in the District — before heading to the Lincoln Memorial despite soggy morning weather.
"It's an awesome turnout," said Van White, a Rochester, N.Y., attorney who organized the event. "You know with the rain and people were anxious about making sure they got to see the president, there was that tension."
The marchers arrived at the Mall at about 10:30, exacerbating delays at the checkpoint.
The mass of people waiting, which more resembled a crowd than a line, periodically broke into cries of "Let us in" and other chants.
Sharon Ford of Wheaton said she waited more than two hours to get in and that organizers appeared "ill-prepared."
"For a city that's used to marches and events, it should have been much more prepared," she said, adding that waiting so long for additional metal detectors was "absurd."
Clarence Butler, 72, of Boston, agreed.
"This is very poor management to secure the life of our president of the United States. One gate to allow thousands in is insufficient," he said.
But Patricia Hollers, 49, from Dallas, took the wait in stride.
"It took a long time to get through the line," she said, "but I know there's going to be a president and two former presidents so I expected high security,"
⦁ Andrea Noble contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Meredith Somers is a Metro reporter for The Washington Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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