WASHINGTON – Sheila Brennan was one of the thousands of people willing to brave chilling winds and below-freezing air alongside the president Wednesday afternoon for an inaugural fireworks display and celebrity performances.
Brennan,64,a registered nurse from Springfield,Va.,staked out seats for herself and her husband at the Ellipse just south of the White House almost three hours before the inaugural event,“A Celebration of Freedom,” would begin.
“I just dressed like I was going to the North Pole,I could go on an artic trek,” Brennan said,pointing to her snow pants and heavy winter coat and directing her husband,Paul,65,to keep a close eye on their seats.
She probably didn't need to worry. Organizers said the area could hold 6,500 people,but it was about two-thirds full. Scheduled to run from 4 to 6 p.m.,the event didn't start until nearly 5 p.m. and lasted until a little after 6 p.m.
Brennan,who volunteered for President Bush's campaign,said she has attended the inaugural fireworks show since the Reagan administration,with the exception of President Ronald Reagan's second inauguration,when outdoor events were canceled due to cold weather.
Brianna Rodgers,16,traveled from West Monroe,La.,with 192 of her band mates to play in the inaugural parade Thursday. She was sightseeing when snow began to fall Wednesday morning.
“This is not normal,” said Rodgers,a high school sophomore,tapping her foot on the icy layer below. “We don't get snow very often.”
But the snowy weather was worth the phone call she would make to her parents in Louisiana later.
“I'm going to tell them everything. I'll have to tell them I saw him,” Rodgers said,referring to the president's appearance.
Most of the crowd bundled in blankets and huddled next to each other for warmth. Performances were shortened or cut – no kicks from the Rockettes,who appeared briefly on stage – as temperatures hovered in the low 20s. Some of the crowd left before the program ended.
President Bush,wearing a long dark coat,and first lady Laura Bush,wearing a cream suit and wrap,watched performances from an open booth at the side of the stage.
Country artist Kenny Chesney and actor Gary Sinise were among the celebrities who offered tributes to those in the military who are serving overseas.
At the program's end,Bush's breath was visible as he thanked the crowd for attending the event despite the weather.
“I want to thank you all for coming. Thanks for being out in the cold. You know no night is too cold to celebrate freedom,” Bush said as the audience applauded.
“What you are doing is taking part in a great tradition,” Bush said. “The inauguration is a time of unity. I am eager and ready for the work ahead.”
“We have faced enormous challenges. We have faced them together,” Bush said. “We have gained an appreciation for our freedom.”
The event culminated with an eight-minute fireworks display launched from Lafayette Park just north of the White House. As others hurriedly filed out of the Ellipse,Will Sarris,25,waited for a friend to record the fireworks with his camcorder.
“I like the president,” said Sarris,who works in telecommunications in Trumbull,Conn. “My toes are frozen off,but it's worth it.”