/ 20 January 2009

A sea of people for Obama inauguration

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Special report: The Obama presidency

Barack Obama prepared to make history on Tuesday as the first black US president, riding a wave of public optimism he will need to tap to deal with the worst economic crisis in 70 years and two wars.

Hundreds of thousands of people, bundled up against the cold and in a festive mood, packed Washington’s Mall, which stretches 3km from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac River, and along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

Obama, a Democrat, was due to be sworn in as the 44th US president just before 5pm GMT, taking over from Republican George Bush.

The inauguration was taking place amid unprecedented security. About 8 000 police were deployed and a total of 32 000 military personnel were on duty or on standby.

The US Homeland Department said they were investigating a potential threat to the inauguration.

”This information is of limited specificity and uncertain credibility,” Homeland Security spokesperson Russ Knocke said, adding that Obama’s aides had been briefed on the issue.

This will be the first inauguration of a new president since the September 11 2001, attacks. Obama’s election has stirred white supremacists to anger, sparked arrests during his campaign and raised assassination fears.

US authorities arrested a US man last week on suspicion of threatening to kill Obama based on statements he posted on a website.

Capacity crowd
Crowds on the Mall had reached capacity about an hour before the inauguration.

People still en route were being told to enter the sweeping esplanade from the west side, over a kilometre from the swearing-in.

WTOP radio reported that police had to be called in after a large crowd tried to storm a gate just before 1pm GMT, but said there were no arrests.

A whopping 409 828 people crowded the Washington subway system as of 2pm GMT a transport official said, noting the crowd was so large patrons were having trouble exiting some stations near the Mall.

A woman fell to the tracks at about 2.25pm, a transit spokesperson said. The woman was not killed and it was unclear if she had been hit by a train. She had been rescued, but the incident caused additional, significant delays to the already over-burdened system and forced trains to turn back from downtown stations.

Spokesperson Angela Gates called the crowds ”unprecedented”.

People walking into the city instead of taking the train were being turned away from the 14th Street Bridge from Virginia, the closest to the National Mall, Virginia authorities said. The bridge had been designated for pedestrians, but has since been closed. – Reuters, AFP