- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

They came in the hundreds of thousands, bundled in coats and hats, to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama.

They began streaming onto the Mall well before dawn, while a sliver moon still hung over the Capitol, and kept coming until they stood shoulder to shoulder for its full 1.5-mile stretch to the Washington Monument. And still they came, about 2 million strong, pouring into a spillover area that reached another half-mile to the Lincoln Monument.

They laughed, they sang songs and they stamped their feet to keep warm until the giant video screens lit up with the arrival of America’s 44th president on the Capitol steps to take his oath of office. And after it was over, they packed into almost a dozen balls in tuxedos and gowns to dance the evening away.

“I had tears running halfway” down my face, said D.C. resident Ja-lene Willis, 27, who had stood for hours to catch a glimpse, however distant, of the nation’s first black president. “I’m so proud to be an American.”

“Every time he speaks, he makes me feel so good,” added Jeannie Williams, 48, of Germantown, Md. “Just listening to him makes me so so proud.”

Stung by past controversies, the National Park Service declined to give an official crowd estimate until it has studied aerial photographs later in the week. But federal security officials told The Washington Times that the crowd was in the neighborhood of 2 million people, dwarfing the record of 1.2 million for the inaugural of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.

Adrienne Chu didn’t need official statistics to tell her how many people were trying to squeeze into the finite space between the Capital and the Lincoln Memorial; she lived it.

“I knew it was going to be crowded, but I couldn’t miss this,” said the 27-year-old resident of the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

With only a few exceptions, the massive crowd was extraordinarily well-behaved, accounting for no arrests. However, there were 490 patients who sought medical assistance. Most heeded officials warnings to leave their cars at home, helping to avoid the regional traffic gridlock that had been widely anticipated.

Subway ridership shattered records, hitting an unprecedented 873,000 by 5 p.m. with another nine hours of operation remaining. It took some riders more than half an hour to exit at L’Enfant Plaza and other Mall-side stations because escalator lines were so long.

But the crowding, cold and inconvenience didn’t dim the mood. Many groups sang hymns as they waited to pass through police checkpoints and strangers exchanged gratitudes and even gloves.

Long before Southern California’s Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren’s prayer and the Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction, it was as though the Mall had been transformed into a church revivial. To many, the event was a combination of Sunday services and a multi-generational rock concert.

Despite isolated booing of outgoing President George W. Bush, the throngs remained ebullient, chanting the new president’s name in three-syllable bursts of pride. Black, white and brown stood amidst prideful elders and excited children.

Mr. Obama addressed the masses from the Capitol steps, his words carried across the Mall by Jumbotrons and banks of speakers. The rest of the world listened in with hand-cranked radios, televisions, digital webcasts and even cell phones.

For Antony Mwangi, a Kenyan in the crowd, Mr. Obama is a “sign of success” that signals to the world that a developing country - such as the one where Mr. Obama’s father was born - “has its success, ambition and interests. That success can be achieved for everyone.”

The day came off with nearly seamless precision, watched over by countless military and civilian police, sharpshooters, ambulances and threat response teams. Police were everywhere.

The Secret Service led an unprecedented security effort, employing more than 30,000 police and military personnel from across the country.

Local and national law enforcement agencies coordinated to close down many of the highways leading into the District, a strategy that, combined with high Metro ridership, appeared to pay off.

Many roads, including the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and New York Avenue, were clear, and even the streets surrounding the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue remained passable.

The only serious accident concerned a woman who fell off a subway platform and was taken to hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

But the security, which extended to the ends of the Metro lines and along bridges and highways, cast a light pall over the event for some.

“It’s a little ridiculous, but if it’s to keep everybody safe I guess it’s worth it,” said Jessica Lewis, 53, of Detroit, who waited about an hour at a checkpoint at Indiana and Sixth streets Northwest to get to the parade route.

Emily Cuevas, 29, a D.C. resident who attended the events with her son, Miguel, 2, complained it was “unbelievable” that the parade-goers would be made to wait so long in the 20-degree wind.

And Sally Timpson said she spent 45 minutes “in some kind of holding pen” with hundreds of others and before giving up after a 2.5-hour trek.

“We were totally hemmed in, it was frightening,” said Ms. Timpson, who ultimately left to watch on television.

Among the revelers were, of course, the protestors, including an anti-Bush group and Save Darfur, which advocates more robust engagement in Sudan.

The group Arrest Bush 2009.com had a permit to stand in front of the FBI headquarters, along the parade route at Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.

“We want to let Obama know you cannot look forward until you fix the mistakes of the past,” said protestor Jose J. Rodriguez. “All we want is law and order.”

Many locals had the day off as well, with government offices putting liberal leave policies in place, and District businesses shutting down because of road closures.

But business was brisk for the entrepreneurs who set up hasty souvenier T-shirt stands at the outskirts of town, and the restaurants downtown.

Chinatown’s Greene Turtle, downtown’s Hard Rock Cafe, and the Capitol City Brewing Co. near Union Station were packed with visitors who watched the events on TV.

Herb Crowther III, who travelled to the inauguration from Cleveland, sumed up the spectators’ mood: “This is history. We think this is going to be a great administration.”

Ben Conery, Tim Warren, Daniel Leaderman, Tom LoBianco, James Finlay and Kimberly Kweder contributed to this story.

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