Lessons Learned From the Purple Ticket Turmoil

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Unanticipated crowds, missed signals and communication problems between federal agencies all colluded to trap thousands of would-be Obama inaugural well-wishers in the tunnel underneath Third Street for hours, according to a largely unredacted internal report prepared for Congress.


A mostly blacked-out version of the report had already been released by the U.S. Secret Service, which was in charge of the event, but under pressure from watchdog groups, agency FOIA officers decided to release nearly the entire 68-page investigative summary.  Minor details, such as the type of fencing used to secure perimeters, and the number of federal agents and police officers responsible for certain tasks, are blacked out.

The report, which was obtained by the Government Attic website, has a grand title: "The Multi-Agency Response to Concerns Raised by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies for the 56th Presidential Inauguration, March 11, 2009."

Tens of thousands of people obtained "purple" and "blue"  tickets to a general standing area thousands of feet behind  the more restricted zones reserved for official guests. Event planners admit they did not anticipate that many people without tickets would also show up. And show up they did -- very early -- before 8:00 a.m., when officers trained to do a "waist frisk" of people in that zone were scheduled to show up. (Closer to the platform, guests had to go through magnetometers operated by the TSA and the Secret Service; there were no delays; indeed, the Secret Service concluded that it had more mags than it needed.)

The report contains a key detail: the three agencies who had presences near or in the Third Street tunnel and purple/blue ticket areas did not have the same information about what the tunnel and the above-ground cross-over were supposed to be used for:

"... there were conflicting plans regarding the use of the Third Street crossover. The [Secret Service] map conflicted with the site specifIC map utilized by the U.S. Capitol Subcommittee. The [Secret Service] map indicated that Third Street would be utilized as a pedestrian crossover and parade route access point, while the U.S. Capitol Subcommittee map indicated it would be closed. When representatives of the USCP and USSS recognized this discrepancy on January 19, 2009,  the USCP and the USSS agreed that the gate should remain closed. The primary concern was the inability to separate silver ticketholders from those who only wanted to view the parade. Unfortunately, the decision to keep the gate closed was not communicated to partner agencies."

This may explain why numerous ticket-holders reported receiving conflicting instructions about where to go.

A Huffington Post reconstruction of the event places the blame for crowding in the tunnel squarely on the shoulders of police, who supposedly tried to use the space in the tunnel as an overflow line for those trying to get into the purple areas. "Why the tunnel was used for this purpose is somewhat inexplicable -- one can only assume that officials not only imagined that the line would not reach the epic lengths it did, but also that the line would, at some point, you know, move."

The government report concludes that only once were people ordered to line up in the tunnel -- when a "miscommunication" occurred as a group of silver-ticket holders were being escorted through the purple ticket zone. Mostly, the report concludes, people saw the lines and followed them naturally into the tunnel -- many simply noted signs (extant from traffic directions) pointing to the US Capitol and entered the tunnel of their own accord.

The tunnel was supposed to be blocked off by the DC Metro police department to be used for emergency vehicles only. Trucks from the DC Department of Transportation were supposed to block off the tunnel at 8:00 am, the time when the Mall was slated to open. But the DDOT trucks arrived late because they had been vandalized, according to the report. The report implicitly criticizes the DC police department for failing to realize that people were not supposed to be in the tunnel and for not ... you know, moving them out of it. 

Although it was reserved for emergency vehicles, pedestrians unexpectedly utilized the northbound tube of the Third Street tunnel as a queuing area. Crowds formed a line in the tunnel believing they could access the purple entry gate through Exit 9, the First and C Streets spur. The people who entered this line were in the tunnel for several hours in a line that did not progress. The following were contributing factors:
• Extreme overcrowding in the purple staging area that forced crowds west onto D Street.
NW.
• No signs or barricades prohibiting pedestrians from utilizing the northbound tube of the
tunnel entrance at Second and D Streets NW.
• A limited law enforcement presence in the northbound tunnel.

As a result, the Third Street tunnel became a relief valve for the crowd and people filed into the tunnel of their own accord to queue in line in anticipation of entering the purple staging area.

Other factors that contributed to the chaos include the co-mingling of non-ticket holders from ticket-holders, forcing officials to establish checkpoints to segregate the two groups, which further delayed entrance points. Though police had bullhorns, there was no large public address system to provide supplemental information. The type of fencing used to wall off the zones -- bike rack fencing -- proved too restrictive ... "the use of well-staffed rope lines should be explored as an option to create queuing," the report concludes.

How will organizers prevent something like this from happening in the future?  Better communication at an executive level, a public website that contains the latest, official information, and aggressive monitoring of the internet ... apparently, one data stream that did not make it into the Secret Service Multi Agency Command Center was Twitter, which would have provided an early warning that something had gone wrong.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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