A Difficult Task on a Somber Day
National Park Service Has Thankless Job During Ceremony
By Eric Rich and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 11, 2004; 8:26 AM
Of all the tasks performed by all the government workers in and around the U.S. Capitol since Ronald Reagan's body arrived there Wednesday, the job that fell this morning to National Park Service supervisor Matt Fagan had to have been the most thankless.
It was Fagan who, shortly before 2 a.m., was tasked with turning people away after officials decided no one else could join the ever-growing line to view the former president's body. The queue by then stretched from the Capitol to 7th Street. With shuttle buses still arriving, officials were concerned that even some people already in line would not make it to the Rotunda before the extended viewing hours ended in preparation for the casket's scheduled departure for the National Cathedral 90 minutes later.
Fagan listened attentively as admirers of the former president pleaded for some special dispensation. Yes, he told them, he understood that they had traveled great distances. He knew they wanted nothing more than to pay their respects.
"I just drive here five hours," said one man on the wrong side of a fence.
"Sorry sir," Fagan replied. "A lot of those people aren't going to make it in," he added, gesturing to the back of the line.
"I'm willing to take my chances," the late-comer said.
The Rotunda where Reagan's body lay in state was opened to the public shortly before 9 p.m. Wednesday. To accommodate a crowd that never ebbed, additional security screeners were put in place and viewing hours were extended from 7 a.m. today. The final visitors finished up in the Rotunda shortly after 8 a.m. By one police estimate, some 2,000 people flowed through the Rotunda each hour. Still, with a wait estimated early today as long as eight hours, many would be disappointed.
But Fagan, in his ranger's flat hat, was the picture of grace as he broke the news to disappointed Reagan fans, appealing to their better selves with a blend of patriotism and civility.
"The one thing that is heartening about this is that so many people showed up for an event of this nature," he told the crowd at one point. "That says a lot about our culture and our country, that people care."
At this, there were nods of agreement and a few people wandered off. It was hard to be angry at Fagan, an earnest 45-year-old.
Nonetheless, after a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh, Joy Koplinski made clear that she was angry at least at the situation. She had been assured, she told Fagan, by someone official that she and her husband Stan would have no problem as long as they arrived before 3 a.m.
"We would have gotten here earlier," she said later. "That irritates me."
Koplinski, wearing a red sweatshirt that said "God Bless America," choked back tears as she explained her desire to witness what she had come to witness. "I don't care if I have to stand nine hours,'' she said.
Others pointed out that, with images of the scene filling news most of the day, the problem might have been foreseeable. "Some of these people were not thinking right," said Michael Dennis of Charleston, S.C., who already had been through the line and was, at 2:30 a.m., standing among those who hoped to join it. "Most of these people are just chasing down a dream right here. I feel sorry for these folks, though."
Not everyone had come from far away. John Hozey and his sons Jimmy, 10, and Jack, 12, of Washington, said, "We were here earlier [Thursday] and thought we'd come back in the middle of the night and it would be better. And we lost our chance."
Was he disappointed?
The last person to officially make it into the line was Fred Miller, an office manager who drove from Brooklyn, N.Y., after work. "I haven't eaten. I haven't slept. I've been going since six yesterday morning," Miller said.
Soon, Brenda McGuirk, an executive secretary from Alexandria, appeared in the queue and admitted that she had sneaked in. More followed as security around the rear of the line became momentarily porous.
Then, nearing 3rd Street, the authorities cracked down. People in line who wanted to use the bathroom were given a password -- "yogurt" -- that they were to utter to regain entry into the line.
Others, from near and far, were gently turned away by Fagan's colleagues.
"You have to understand how many people have come from such distances," Fagan said. "It's obviously a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You see people get upset, disappointed, angry. You can't blame them."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company