WASHINGTON, July 4, 2018. In today’s column, I remember Washington D.C.’s Independence Day debacle of 1976. Specifically, I’m talking about D.C.’s badly planned grand bicentennial fireworks display. It was an event that quickly turned into a transportation debacle of epic proportions.
For starters, I still love the patriotic music and festivities that mark America’s annual Independence Day holiday. Ever since I can remember, each 4thof July, most of the country traditionally celebrates the anniversary of its Independence Day in style. Except for today’s utterly deranged cadre of perpetually outraged #Resistance and #NeverTrump morons, of course.
For everyone else on Independence Day, it’s time to party, often with extended family. Out come the American flags, bunting, parades, bands and backyard barbecues.
And, of course, the myriad of outrageously extravagant displays of fireworks, both public and personal, even in this country’s smallest towns. I even recall enjoying a pretty impressive fireworks display many years ago while visiting the small touristy beach town of Hatteras, out on North Carolina’s magnificent Outer Banks.
Back in the day, we had…government efficiency
That, however, was the only public, outdoor fireworks display I’ve attended live ever since my young family and I went down to the DC Mall. The event: The famously overcrowded and ill-planned 1776-1976 bicentennial fireworks display. This still-remembered bicentennial Independence Day debacle eventually turned into a crowd control and transportation debacle of epic proportions.
The display was great, or what we could see of it.
That’s because the brilliant government planners that year were, even then, displaying their now well-known signature genius in planning this historic bicentennial event. The planners, local and Federal govies, came up with the bright idea to emphasize spectacular ground displays, featuring elaborate American flags, patriotic scenes and the like.
That creative idea, of course, was great for spectators who’d shown up around Cherry Blossom time to stake out a position near Ground Zero on the Mall. Or those with considerable political pull and able to get seated close to the action. Or, better yet, got relatively high-up seats in some of the District’s and Arlington’s taller buildings near the site. Here, the elites of the day could get a drone’s eye view of even the ground displays whilst sipping increasingly trendy chardonnays and nibbling haphazardly on various precious crudités.
As for the rest of us – those yet-unnamed Deplorables who lacked the stamina or political pull to get a ringside seat – we couldn’t see these ground displays at all. Sadly, they were the bulk of the evening’s fireworks program.
But the worst was yet to come.
Logistical fireworks lead to the bicentennial Independence Day debacle in D.C.
After the fireworks display concluded, the then-record crowd for the national bicentennial display – perhaps a million strong – proceeded to head for home. Many of them used the D.C. area’s brand new (and then very limited) Metro subway service. But, still in its infancy, all shiny and futuristic, Metro’s reach was still severely limited back then.
Many of the major suburban links were still gleams in the system planners’ eyes. Costs continued to spiral out of control as the three major area jurisdictions – D.C., Maryland and Virginia, aka the “DMV” – wasted valuable time arguing about costs, stations, and, of course, union contracts.
That said, all the local governments encouraged us all to take the very limited Metro to the fireworks and keep our cars out of D.C.’s Mall and city center areas due to the predicted massive crowds.
Of course, all those overpaid, overpensioned government officials who were doing the importuning predictably had no clue as to how this first massive test of Metro’s efficiency was going to work. As the ginormous crowds surged toward downtown Metro platforms, after the fireworks were over, the crush of humanity above and below ground was unbearable.
Some folks were injured in the mass- mall-wide-scrum. Many passed out, requiring emergency response. Mothers scrambled to keep screaming, terrified little kids from getting pushed off Metro platforms by the surging crowds and onto the dangerous, electrified tracks.
Trains were filled to the point of breaking down, leaving thousands of angry, frustrated customers stranded for hours. Numerous exhausted revelers were forced to spend the night sleeping on the ground or on park benches.
There was not anywhere near enough Metro capacity to get all those car-less people out of the Mall and downtown areas. Why the authorities pushed the use of a system that wasn’t really ready for prime-time mass transit mystifies me to this day. Maybe they were hungry for the extra revenue to help cover those cost overruns.
Poor prior planning promotes (perniciously) poor performance
Ironically, the idea of taking the Metro to begin with was inherently foolish. (The first stations in Virginia didn’t even open until the following year.) This epic government gaffe was really the heart of the national bicentennial Independence Day debacle.
The D.C. cops and emergency personnel seemed overwhelmed. Lacking the necessary manpower, the cops had no clue how to deal with the overwhelming crowds, although they got high marks for at least trying.
At its core, the Metro problem seemed to envision moving the vast crowds (and their cars) out of downtown D.C. into adjacent areas of D.C. Had Metro offered far-flung suburban stations and integral parking garages, as it does today, would have made the Metro strategy viable, I still wonder what was in planners’ heads back then.
Get ‘em up, move ‘em out!
At any rate, the entire après-bicentennial fireworks cattle drive was a madhouse. The surging, sometimes furious crowds resembled the mobs trying to escape Godzilla before he stomped on or fire-roasted them all.
Our fireworks transportation plan involved first driving in to Arlington. Then, we parked across the river in an obscure but available space in Rosslyn. I’d lived briefly in the early 1970s as a Georgetown grad student, and knew the area well. We then took a bus across the river to get close to the Mall.
Upon exiting the event, my wife, my young daughter and I fought the endless crowds. We stoically walked – or crawled – westward. We made it to Foggy Bottom well into the wee hours of the morning. Buses were just as crowded as the Metro trains at that point. One by one, each bus was already sardined with passengers and just breezed past us.
Finding a cab? Fuhgeddabouddit. We walked. And walked.
1776-1976 Independence Day fireworks endgame
The clock approached 3 a.m. We finally stopped at what was then a motel and restaurant on Virginia Avenue, across the street from the Watergate. (Currently, this building seems to be going through at least its 4thmakeover since that time.)
Dead-tired, we refueled with a very early breakfast at the thankfully still-open lunch-counter-style restaurant on the ground floor. Then we staggered back out into the void to continue our brutal slog Westward out of the city.
I no longer remember whether we found a bus, flagged a cab or walked across the Key Bridge. But we eventually found our car and made it home. Which, at the time, was all the way out in then very rural Leesburg, Virginia. A very long and brutal drive through miles and miles of bucolic countryside. All of which is now long-gone, replaced with wall-to-wall urban and suburban sprawl.
Maybe the bicentennial Independence Day debacle in the Nation’s capital city was when this country’s “fundamental transformation” first began.