WASHINGTON — The National Mall filled with America’s expectations Tuesday as excited crowds clogged mass transit lines and security checkpoints to witness Barack Obama’s swearing-in as the nation’s 44th president.
Energized by the historic moment, hundreds of thousands of people turned this city’s orderly grid of streets into a festive party scene. Ready to endure below-freezing temperatures, they streamed up from subway stations and thronged past parked buses, emergency vehicles and street vendors, bound for Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall for the inauguration.
“This is the culmination of two years of work,” said Obama activist Akin Salawu, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who helped the candidate as a community organizer and Web producer. “We got on board when Obama was the little engine who could. He’s like a child you’ve held onto. Now he’s going out into the world.”
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.
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. Subway service was disrupted on one of Washington’s main Metro arteries after a woman fell on the tracks at a downtown station. She was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.
The district fire department responded to dozens of calls from people falling down or complaining of the being cold, Etter said. About two dozen were hospitalized. D.C. fire and EMS department spokesman Alan Etter said medical personnel were having trouble getting to people quickly around the mall because of the throngs of people, but 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.”
Indeed, the streets around the Capitol quickly filled with people, and security checkpoints were mobbed in what was part of the largest security operation in presidential inauguration history. The cold registered at a frosty 25 degrees Fahrenheit at late morning.
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 coiled 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.
Christian Alderson of Berryville, Va., went to Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 to support the sanitation workers strike and said he was there when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
“That day was sorrowful,” Alderson, 73, said as he stood near the mall. “This is a dream come true for me.”
The voices in the crowd reflected the nation’s regions — from Los Angeles to Atlanta, from Portland to small Maryland towns. But many also spoke with accents from afar.
Diane Korir, a Kenyan native now living in Atlanta, said she feels a special bond with Obama because his father’s hometown is about 45 minutes from hers. She said her parents were watching the event live on television. “They keep calling and saying, ’where are you,”’ the 30-year-old technology consultant said.
D.C. police have projected inaugural crowds between 1 million and 2 million. Planners say attendance could easily top the 1.2 million people who were at Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 inauguration, the largest crowd the National Park Service has on record. By 7 a.m., some 207,000 people had entered Washington’s Metro transit system, transit officials said. Huge lines formed outside subway stations; many parking lots filled up and had to be closed.
The joyous mood was tempered only by delays and by the dashed expectations of revelers eager to get an up-close look at history.
The cold was also taking its toll. The streets were littered with discarded hand-warmer wrappers.
Shelton Iddeen, 57, of Greensboro, N.C., arrived at the Mall and 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.”