The crowds: Millions flood Washington to witness history

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The wind cut to the bone as close to two million ordinary people poured into downtown Washington yesterday. All of them ticketless, they were upbeat and happy as they headed to the great frozen expanse of parkland known as the National Mall.

On a street corner, a group of young black men cracked jokes about Dick Cheney, whom they heard was being wheeled around Washington with a scowl on his face, after pulling a muscle while moving boxes from the vice-presidential mansion.

"It's amazing," commented Jarval Swanson to an elderly relative he was pushing down the street in a wheelchair. "How come you look so happy and Dick Cheney is so angry?"

All weekend, Vice-President Joe Biden was quoting Seamus Heaney, saying the inauguration would be a "once in a lifetime" experience for America, a time when "hope and history rhyme".

He was not mistaken and the roads around the White House were thronged yesterday with people who had travelled from all over the country to witness an event many of them thought could never happen in their lifetime. Many of those pouring on to the Mall before dawn were black, but there were Hispanics and Asians too. There were groups of youngsters and families. There were friends anxiously texting one another, trying to meet up.

People came from all over America just to be there, often by themselves. One black woman from Louisiana was wrapped up warmly in her fur coat and hoping to catch a glimpse of the soon-to-be President. She positioned herself at the side gates to the White House, more than an hour before the swearing in ceremony, judging correctly that this was where the presidential motorcade would emerge.

At 9.15am, a roar of Harley Davidson motor cycles emerged from behind the gates which were swung open as the police outriders emerged at speed.

They were followed by blacked-out four-wheel drives and the newly delivered presidential limousine. Right behind was an ambulance, painted jet black, which from this point on will be part of the travelling circus that has to accompany Mr Obama wherever he goes. Inside the security bubble of his limousine, Mr Obama and his family had a brief respite as they headed to a private church service directly across the street from the White House at St John's Episcopal Church. It would have been quicker for them to walk, but that is no longer an option.

With ever-present fears for the safety of the 44th president, a vast security net was thrown over the capital city, comprising 20,000 police officers in a three-and-a-half square mile secure zone. Secret Service agents drove unmarked vehicles packed with sophisticated nuclear isotope detection gear capable of quickly determining whether a nuclear bomb was about to go off.

In the years of paranoia that followed the 11 September attacks, the fears of a "dirty bomb" consumed much of George Bush and Dick Cheney's time. At last they were able to put their handiwork to good use.

While Mr Obama's cavalcade sped through the streets, people patiently filed through metal detectors and were watched over by 155 two-person FBI squads dressed in plain clothes.

And there were 5,000 surveillance cameras and other more sophisticated eyes in the sky.

The FBI's hostage rescue team was also in position and there were sharpshooters as well as more than 50Secret Service "counter-sniper teams" wearing balaclavas on the top of buildings, looking to head off trouble.

For days, government helicopters were scanning all approaches to the city, looking out for large trucks or petrol tankers that could wreak devastation if turned into bombs.

And finally, before yesterday's big event, the entire Mall was swept for bombs by the police.

Voices in the crowd

Geraldine Perkins

Geraldine Perkins, 62, travelled from New Orleans. She was not one of the lucky ones with tickets but got a good view of Barack Obama when his motorcade emerged from the White House as he made his way to church. "He waved at us!" she said, delighted. She is not surprised to see a black man in the White House. "I raised my son to believe that one day he could be president," she said. "Now I'm so proud that it has happened."

Ralf Moran

Ralf Moran, 42, was carrying a huge photograph of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King arm in arm. It was a clever mockup and made him the centre of attention in the huge crowd of people streaming onto the National Mall. "I never thought this day would come," he said, "and we've been waiting for it all our lives. Everybody here is in such a goodhumour because finally we are about to be led by an intelligent man who just happens to be black. I cannot explain what this means for us except to say that it we are all sharing thismoment together."

Doral and Anthony White

Doral White and her husband Anthony travelled from Chicago and were trying to stay warm in the Washington cold a block away from the White House. "It really very overwhelming, exciting, very spiritual," said Doral, 38. "I neverexpected to see this moment. I thought maybe my grandchildren would see it but not me – and here we are standing outside the place where he is now president."

Merwin Taylor and Lilla Hunter

"It's a very historic moment and its something that we definitely wanted to be part of," said Lilla Hunter, 37, standing before the small President's Church across the park from the White House. "We didn't get tickets to any of the balls or the events they are just so expensive so we came out here to the Mall instead. "Just coming out makes you feel like you are participating," said Merwin Hunter, 38. "It's a historic moment. There is a great shift taking place in American politics."

Austin and Louise Rogers

Austin Rogers, 69, and his wife Louise, 68, travelled from Charlotte, North Carolina. Mr Rogers said: "Both my wife and I participated in the Civil Rights rallies in 1961 and 1962. We came here to Washington prior to the famous Martin Luther King march." Louise Rogers added: "We worked for Obama, we did phone banks, we did voterregistration. We are so overwhelmed by what is happening. Never did I think that this would happen in our lifetime."