Throngs endure the frigid wait to watch 'a piece of history'

More than a million Americans began gathering before dawn, all determined to see Barack Obama become president.

obama innauguration crowds 248.88ap (photo credit: AP)
obama innauguration crowds 248.88ap
(photo credit: AP)
They began gathering before dawn, more than a million Americans, all determined to see Barack Obama become president. In freezing temperatures, wearing an array of fur and fleece, they waited, converging on the plaza before the Capitol building after arriving in chauffeured Rolls Royces, overnight buses and packed subway trains, all to watch change become more than just an idea. Michael Luick-Thrams, a native Iowan who runs a center that traces the stories of World War II refugees in the Midwest, drove for three days from St. Paul, Minnesota, in a van with no heat to witness "a piece of history." "I was 12 before I met a black person or a Hispanic person, and 20 before I met a Jew - so for me this is about how much this country has changed," he said as he waited in line for the security check. "And since Iowa was the state that gave Obama the first green light, I'm really proud." He said he'd been to countless protest marches in Washington - for everything from the AIDS quilt in the 1980s to the 20th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech - but never to an inauguration. "It really makes such a difference, to come here and say, 'Yes, we can,' instead of 'No, you can't,'" Luick-Thrams said. "It's the people's turn now." Nancy Spencer - originally a supporter of Hillary Clinton - said she had come from Long Island, New York, with her husband Lewis and their eight-year-old son, Abraham, because it was the first inauguration she'd ever felt was important to see in person. "I never take him out of school, but for this it was worth it," Spencer said, exclaiming with worry as her husband hoisted their son high on a lamppost to see how long the wait would be to reach the waiting row of metal-detectors. It turned out to be nearly three hours, in a crowd that grew increasingly impatient and pushy as noon - the constitutionally appointed hour of the handover from one president to another - drew near. "Let us in! Let us in!" people chanted, in the same cadence they used for "Yes, we can!" "This must be Bush's fault - Obama wouldn't do this!" yelled one woman at a policeman who told her she might miss the swearing-in if the crowd couldn't be screened fast enough. Another woman, resplendent in a golden fur coat and matching hat, said she might as well have stayed in Atlanta and watched the event on television. "You wouldn't have had anything to tell your grandchildren," said her friend, who declined to give her name. "I may still not, at this rate," retorted the first. Even native Washingtonians seemed exasperated. "I knew it would be crowded, but I didn't think there would be this much security," said Joyce Fobbs, a retired US Navy administrator who worked polls for the election. She left her house at 4 a.m. to get a good place in line, but said she had been misdirected and wound up trapped in the crowd, despite holding an embossed blue ticket from her congressman's office. Once inside, the mood lifted and the crowd stood rapt as Obama recited the oath of office, then nodded earnestly as the new president spoke about the difficult task of righting America's economic ills and restoring its reputation abroad. Confetti went up as the ceremony ended, and onlookers lined up again to get back out of the National Mall through security gates, some rushing to make flights home while others raced to get through another set of checkpoints along the parade route from the Capitol building to the White House. Along the way, people changed their chants from "Oh-bah-mah!" to "President! Obama!" and impromptu drum circles went up next to street vendors hawking everything from Obama-branded ear-warmers to hot "Barack O'Chocolate" and "Michelle O'Mint" drinks. Yet few exhibited the wild exuberance that erupted the night Obama was elected in November - perhaps as much because of the weather and the waits as because of the increasingly dire economic climate facing the US. "It's just too cold," said Teresa Jordan, a nurse who came on an overnight bus from Chicago. "It's hard to have that much spirit when it's so cold."