Problems are few despite the crowds

Thousands of people lined city streets and converged on a downtown plaza yesterday for a glimpse of Pope John Paul II, but the expected gridlock -- be it pedestrians or cars -- did not meet predictions.

The Secret Service and Baltimore police estimated that 350,000 people watched the parade, yet it seemed easy to get a prime viewing spot -- even moments before the pontiff's motorcade rolled by.

More than a thousand law enforcement officials provided protection -- from agents who lifted manhole covers searching for bombs to counter-snipers positioned on rooftops along Charles and Pratt streets -- but there were no reports of trouble.

Police reported no arrests. But they faced a brief scare when a housekeeper at the Tremont Plaza Hotel, where many bishops and Secret Service agents were staying, jumped 29 floors to her death one block from the parade route. Police said she was despondent over personal problems.

The incident quickly drew scores of heavily armed federal agents and city police officers dressed in riot gear and carrying semiautomatic rifles, who sealed the area off for blocks.

During the visit, fewer than a dozen people were treated for minor injuries -- from cuts and bruises to feeling faint -- at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

But for all the talk about difficulty in getting around, many people who came expecting a dangerous crush of humanity found relative ease. The northbound Jones Falls Expressway was closed from downtown to Northern Parkway for several hours late yesterday afternoon and evening for the papal and vice presidential motorcade.

"This is nothing," said Peter Jesionkiewicz of Baltimore, whose family is from Poland. His father went to see Pope John Paul II in Warsaw shortly after he was elevated in 1978, and the turnout was so large it was almost impossible to get within 50 feet of the pontiff.

"It's a little surprising," said Cleveland Melvin, a 69-year-old retired painter who lives in East Baltimore. "It doesn't look like as many people as we had for the Ripken parade last month."

The largest crowd was at Pratt and Light streets, where the parade route turned north. People were orderly, even subdued, but seemed to be having a good time. In some spots, onlookers stood three-deep; in others, such as Charles and Saratoga streets, they were eight-deep and more.

Maurice Braswell, a parking attendant at the eight-floor garage at Fayette and Eutaw, said he had been bracing for hundreds of cars. Instead, the garage, which charges a $5 flat rate for events, was less than a quarter full.

"I'm very surprised," he said. "We'll fill at least four floors just for an Orioles game on a Sunday afternoon."

Officials said people took their advice and used public transportation. The city's Department of Public Works, which monitored highways and local streets, reported no traffic jams into late afternoon.

By 7:30 p.m., MTA spokesman Anthony Brown said the Light Rail set a record with 20,000 riders. A total of 35,000 people used mass transit, including the MARC trains, buses and the Metro.

A squad of 15 Baltimore tow trucks fanned out across the city early Sunday, removing more than 100 illegally parked cars from the streets -- most parked in restricted areas downtown near events the pope was scheduled to attend.

The cars, all given a $52 illegal parking citation, were taken to city impound lots, where owners had to pay an additional charge to reclaim their vehicles.

Most people said they understood the security measures that shut down parking in much of downtown and prevented people from crossing certain streets and opening their windows along the parade route.

But some resented the police presence, with officers virtually everywhere. One woman wandered the crowd carrying a sign that said "Jesus Would Not Have Used Secret Service."