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Originally published January 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 21, 2009 at 9:29 AM

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"It's a blessing ... to see this"

Natania Macy stood with her back to a steel security grate, her shoulders draped with one blanket and her head covered by another, trying to block the damp winter wind that ripped across the National Mall.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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WASHINGTON — Natania Macy stood with her back to a steel security grate, her shoulders draped with one blanket and her head covered by another, trying to block the damp winter wind that ripped across the National Mall.

She had arrived at 1 a.m., waiting five hours outside a checkpoint before being allowed onto the grounds. She now stood half a mile from the Capitol, so far away that the man she yearned to see would be all but invisible, her constant companion the freezing cold that bit at cheeks and noses.

She didn't mind.

"It's a beautiful day, a beautiful day," said Macy, 32, who was born in Jamaica and lives in Philadelphia. "I wasn't going to miss it for anything in the world. I wanted to be part of history, and I'm here."

At 12:05 p.m. Tuesday, she joined hundreds of thousands of others — children and grandparents, wealthy and worse-off, black and white and every color in between — in emitting a thunderous, rumbling roar as Barack Obama was inaugurated as the nation's 44th president.

"It's a blessing to be here to see this," Samie Coleman, 63, said moments after Obama took the oath of office. She had traveled from Akron, Ohio, to see something no one in America had ever seen: the inauguration of an African-American president.

On a day the sun fought from behind clouds, people were drawn to the frozen patch of earth between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, believing that at this hour, at this moment, they had to be there in person. The air was filled with tiny U.S. flags, held aloft by multitudes.

Teri Quinn Gray arrived by plane, bus, subway and foot. She came from Jackson, Miss., but she didn't come alone. With her traveled the hopes of relatives in the South and the ghosts of ancestors unknown.

"I represent an 88-year-old grandmother, a 63-year-old mother — who thought this day would never come — and a 13-year-old son," she said. "I'm here representing generations."

People came on crutches and in wheelchairs, despite warnings that public transit might be dire. Some were bundled in stylish leather jackets, others in old cloth coats, frayed at the wrists.

Patience and courtesy were the rule, and no one seemed to have a harsh word for anyone else — except toward President Bush. When he appeared on TV screens, people booed, and when he was introduced, they booed louder.

Estimates of the crowd ranged up to 2 million.

"The rest of your life, you can say that you were here," one man told another as they stood outside a service tent.

"Yeah, waiting in line, for coffee," came the answer.

The bulk of the crowd centered itself between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. In some areas, people were shoulder-to-shoulder. Many walked for miles. Others chose to forgo the Mall for the parade, knowing they couldn't claim space at both.

With major highways and bridges closed, the Metro subway system became the primary means of transportation. On some lines from Virginia and Maryland, visitors said, cars became packed moments after the system opened at 4 a.m.

Many passengers reported smooth, fast rides into Washington. Others said their cars moved at stop-and-go pace. At L'Enfant Plaza station, big crowds on the exit platform backed up to an escalator that was carrying people forward, creating a dangerous situation. Metro workers at the front of the crush insisted people pay before they could exit.

Red Line service was halted between 9:25 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. after a 68-year-old woman fell onto the tracks at the Gallery Place-Chinatown station. She was not hit by a train and was being treated at a hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.

At 5:15 a.m., a bright crescent moon lingered overhead, as thousands upon thousands walked toward the Capitol, all trying to get as close as they could. The Capitol shone in the dark, draped in flags and bunting.

"You know, Obama is sleeping right now," one woman said to a friend. "We're wide awake."

Some people spread out blankets. A few crawled into sleeping bags. Others huddled by steam grates. Eric Christian, 48, said he wasn't bothered by the cold. "It's been very cold for eight years," the Cleveland man said. "Soak it up, because there won't be another day like this."

By midmorning, the Mall had been thrumming for hours. On the TV screens, Franklin Roosevelt warned the nation the only thing to fear was fear itself, and John Kennedy asked people to ask not. Their voices helped imbue the scene with a sense of continuity, of other presidents who faced war and recession, of previous hardships overcome.

At 11:58 a.m., the crowd quieted as Joseph Biden was sworn in as vice president. Music followed. Then came the moment people were waiting for: some for hours, many for decades.

Obama raised his right hand. He repeated the oath. Chief Justice John Roberts said, "Congratulations, Mr. President."

Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent Zoe Tillman contributed to this report.

Biggest Mall crowd in history
Up to 2 million people attended inauguration events Tuesday. Estimates of crowd sizes for previous events on the National Mall, from newspaper accounts the day after the event. Between 1975 and 1996, most accounts were based on estimates by the U.S. Park Service, which used aerial photographs to determine crowd size. In 1996, Congress barred the Park Service from making crowd estimates.
Event Date Crowd size
Bicentennial celebration July 4, 1976 1,000,000
Clinton inauguration Jan. 20, 1993 800,000
Gulf War homecoming June 8, 1991 800,000
Washington Super Bowl victory rally Feb. 3, 1988 600,000
NOW march and rally April 5, 1992 500,000
Washington

Super Bowl parade

Feb. 2, 1983 500,000
Iran hostage welcome Jan. 27, 1981 500,000
Reagan inauguration Jan. 20, 1981 500,000
Million Man March Oct. 16, 1994 400,000
Fourth of July celebration July 4, 1990 400,000
Carter inauguration Jan. 20, 1977 350,000
Sources: The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Washington Times

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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