Long Line Leads to a Letdown
Latecomers Miss Rotunda Viewing
By Eric Rich and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 12, 2004; Page A29
They came alone and in pairs. Some arrived in groups defined by family ties, or by the cant of their politics or by the kinship of a memory for which they revered him.
They came for 35 hours, spread over three days, through the heat of midday and the dank humidity that lingered past midnight. They came in an unbroken torrent, at a rate of almost 3,000 people an hour -- more than 100,000 of them by the time the viewing ended two hours past dawn yesterday.
The reward for hours spent in line was a brief circular passage around the closed coffin in which former president Ronald Reagan lay beneath the vast dome of the Capitol.
For the final few, the latecomers, the wait ended in frustration.
Shortly before 2 a.m. yesterday, the thankless task fell to National Park Service supervisor Matt Fagan. The queue at that hour still stretched from the Capitol to Seventh Street, still fed by the shuttle buses from parking areas and Metro stops.
It took hours for the line to wind into the Rotunda, and there was concern early yesterday that those at the tail end would not get in. Fagan, in his ranger's flat hat, was the picture of grace as he broke the news to disappointed people, 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," Fagan, 45, told the crowd. "That says a lot about our culture and our country, that people care."
At that, there were nods of agreement and a few people wandered off. It was hard to be angry at the earnest Fagan.
He listened attentively as admirers of the former president pleaded for 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 drove 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," Fagan added, gesturing to the back of the line.
"I'm willing to take my chances," the latecomer said.
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 some official that she and her husband, Stan, would not have a problem getting in if they arrived before 3 a.m.
"We would have gotten here earlier," she said later. "That irritates me."
Koplinski, wearing a red sweat shirt that said "God Bless America," choked back tears as she explained her desire to see 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 the 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 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 came from far away. John Hozey of the District, with his sons Jimmy, 10, and Jack, 12, 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 of people who got into the Rotunda 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 6 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 Third Street, the authorities cracked down. People in line who wanted to use the restroom were given a password -- "yogurt" -- that they were to utter to regain entry into 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