The Ticket

INAUGURATION 2013: Purple Tunnel of Doom ‘survivors’ will try their luck a second time

Chris Moody
The Ticket

In 2009, thousands of Inauguration ticket holders missed President Barack Obama's speech after they were told to wait for hours in a freezing tunnel in downtown Washington, D.C. Now, some are returning for another try.

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A view from inside 'The Purple Tunnel of Doom' on Jan. 20, 2009

Rachel Slone, a Florida teacher who will lead 48 high school students on a field trip to see President Barack Obama's second Inauguration next Monday, has never told her students about the Purple Tunnel of Doom.

Four years ago, Slone joined nearly 2 million others who flocked to the National Mall to witness the historic swearing in of the nation's first black president. She had secured a ticket from her congressman that led her to the Purple Section of the National Mall, near the front. To ensure she had the best spot, Slone arrived at 4:00 AM with a friend, and police directed her to a line that led her into a massive freeway tunnel beneath the Mall.

There, she waited. The temperature was 19 degrees Fahrenheit.

One hour passed and the line barely moved. By the time dawn broke, thousands had entered the tunnel and filled in behind her.

Two hours. Three hours. Four hours. Still no movement.

By late morning, purple ticket-holders packed the massive freeway tunnel wall to wall. With the temperature below freezing--icicles hung from the ceiling--children huddled with their parents for warmth. The walls were covered in soot from years of cars passing through, so people passed the time painting dirt murals with their fingers. Some played tic-tac-toe with the soot while others drew the Obama campaign logo. After hours of waiting, one person wrote, "FREE THE TUNNEL PEOPLE!!!" There were no bathrooms inside the tunnel, so men made their own artistic contributions to the tunnel walls when nature called.

Despite the conditions and the waiting time, the mood throughout the tunnel remained optimistic. Because information was scarce--most of the news traveled along a massive game of Human Telephone- people had little reason to believe they would never make it to the ceremony. They sang together, belting out "The Star Spangled Banner," "My Girl" and "Lean on Me" between whoops of celebration about Obama's victory. Strangers shared food, water and cell phones with one another. Shivering children were given coats, scarves and gloves.

"It was a moment where you could see the goodness in people," said Trevor Williams, a newly arrived Washington D.C. resident from New York who spent six hours in the tunnel that morning. "The general attitude was very jovial."

But that was when people still had hope that they would make it out of the tunnel in time. With the Inauguration ceremony drawing near and patience growing thin, the crowd, now in the thousands, grew increasingly nervous. The clock was ticking and the line was halted, giving people a choice: Leave the tunnel in search of a better route to the Mall and risk losing your place in line, or stay put and wait for instructions from authorities.

Mark Evans, a business consultant from Omaha, Nebraska who had been in the tunnel with his young niece since dawn, decided to find out what was holding up the line. He emerged from the tunnel and found all entrances to the Mall closed off except for one 36-inch opening in a chain link fence where people were filing in--slowly--one by one.

There was no way everyone would make it in time, he realized.

Looking beyond the fence, Evans spotted a group of security guards with their backs turned to him. He shouted. He waved his tickets. They ignored him.

"It slowly at that point began to dawn on me that we're screwed," Evans recalled four years later. "We're not getting in."

Back in the tunnel, when it became clear that those who had remained inside would miss Obama's speech, the mood deteriorated from celebratory to despondent--and tense.

"Lord of the Flies really is the best way to describe it," said Matt Ortega, a Democratic National Committee staffer with a purple ticket who arrived at 5:30 AM. "It's still frustrating because two years of my life had culminated at that moment and for me. I love history, and to feel like a missed out on that part of history."

Ortega eventually drew the same conclusion: Hopeless. He ended up watching Obama's speech in the basement of Kelly's Irish Times, a pub near Union Station.

Slone also left the tunnel at about the same time and listened from the radio of a military Humvee out of sight of the Mall.

Williams retreated to his apartment and watched it on television.

Evans and his niece climbed up a concrete wall and were able to spot Obama--barely--with binoculars while listening to the sound of his voice bounce off the city buildings. The president's words were inaudible from that distance, so they listened the rest of the address in their car, which was parked nearby.

"It took me quite some time to get over this," Evans recalled. "The disappointment was just crushing."

Thousands of others, still down in the tunnel, missed the ceremony completely.

In the aftermath, the "survivors," as they called themselves, banded together in search for answers. Many had traveled from across the country, spent thousands of dollars and took time off work to be there. And for what? Incensed purple ticket holders wrote their members of Congress and directed their ire at California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who led the committee that planned the inauguration. Membership of the Facebook group "Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom" grew into the thousands. All told, an estimated 4,000 people with tickets had been shut out of the Inaugural ceremonies that day.

An official review of security measures on the day of the Inauguration blamed the problems on "flaws and shortcomings in the planning process." According to the report from the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies thousands of people without tickets had jammed the entrance to the Mall, leaving security personnel little time or resources to clear it out to let ticket holders inside. There were also technical glitches. Generators and magnetometers broke down, forcing security agents to wand every person by hand, making the screening process excruciatingly slow.

Despite the disaster of 2009, there are a few brave souls willing to make a return trip to Washington next week. Ortega, Evans, Slone and Williams--all Purple Tunnel Survivors--are determined to see Obama's Inaugural speech this time.

"I just can't imagine that they would screw it up that badly twice in a row," Evans said. He plans to bring his daughter with him from Omaha and watch the parade.

Williams intends to bring his wife to see the parade from the 15th street bleachers.

Slone, the teacher, has arranged to make the 13-hour bus ride with 48 of her students--some who have never left the state of Florida--and watch it in person from the Mall.

Officials promise that this year, they will take better precautions. More generators and magnetometers will be on hand to screen ticket holders. There will be more signs visible from Metro stations near the National Mall. U.S. Capitol Police will dispatch hundreds of "way-finders" sporting unmistakable bright jackets to guide lost attendees along their way. Law enforcement agencies will even assign agents to monitor Twitter to better respond to problems in real time. If someone is stuck in a tunnel and tweets about it, they will respond. No one will be told to wait in the tunnel.

And yes, the tickets to the Inauguration will be colored-coded again.

But this time, none of them will be purple.

Were you in the Purple Tunnel of Doom four years ago, or do you have a story about how you’ve missed another important event? Click here to tell us about it on our Facebook page.

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