Thousands Salute Slain Capitol Officers
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 29, 1998; Page A01
U.S. Capitol Police Officer Jacob J. Chestnut and Detective John M. Gibson, their coffins draped with flags flown over the imposing building they died protecting, were venerated yesterday by the words of the nation's leaders and by the silence of thousands of people who marched slowly and somberly into the Great Rotunda.
The daylong tribute at the august central hall of the U.S. Capitol was attended by President Clinton, Vice President Gore, members of the House and Senate and many other dignitaries. The Rotunda ceremony was a remarkable distinction for two officers who now join a select fraternity that includes nine presidents, among them Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
The bodies of Chestnut and Gibson arrived at the Capitol at 7:05 a.m., 87 hours after the officers were mortally wounded by a gunman who shot his way into the building Friday afternoon. Throughout the day, a slow procession that at times stretched the equivalent of four city blocks filed into the Capitol, evidence of how profoundly people have been moved by the deaths of two men whose job was to protect the "People's House."
The mourning was, fittingly, democratic in its size and diversity. The coffins, placed on a north-south axis on either side of the geographic center of the Capitol, drew police cadets and police chiefs, congressional pages and members of Congress, and the Capitol custodial staff and the president, vice president and members of the Cabinet. Tourists in T-shirts and sneakers walked with officers in full ceremonial uniform. A cook wearing an apron stood and paid his respects on the same spot later occupied by the two most influential men in the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.
"The story of what they did Friday is already a legend," Clinton said at the official tribute, held at midafternoon and attended by the families of the slain officers and scores of other dignitaries who crowded into the Rotunda. Clinton said the nation is "profoundly grateful that, in doing their duty, they saved lives, they consecrated this house."
"They remind us that what makes our democracy strong is not only what Congress may enact or a president may achieve," Clinton said, referring to the two dead officers and the law enforcement community as a whole. "Even more, it is the countless individual citizens who live out our ideals every day, the innumerable acts of heroism that go unnoticed, and, especially, it is the quiet courage and uncommon bravery" of those who are killed in the line of duty.
The tribute for the two officers -- the 24th and 25th individuals honored with memorials at the Rotunda -- places them in the lofty company of Americans who have lain 96 feet beneath the top of the great dome and been called national heroes, often in the same exalted language used yesterday. In the same place, Richard M. Nixon said Eisenhower "personified the best of America," and Ronald Reagan, honoring the unknown serviceman of the Vietnam War, proclaimed: "He may not have wanted to be a hero, but there was a need. . . . He accepted his mission and did his duty."
Chestnut and Gibson were "two sons of this institution," said House Chaplain James D. Ford, setting the tone for a service that at times seemed like a very large family gathered in mourning. Gore called them "ministers of democracy," and Gingrich said the two men "died in duty to the very freedom that each of us cherishes."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said: "Today we honor two men that should rightly be recognized in this hall of heroes. It is appropriate today that we honor these two men who did their jobs, stood their ground and defended freedom."
The mourning for Gibson, 42, and Chestnut, 58, began almost immediately after their deaths were announced Friday afternoon. Small bouquets began appearing at the Capitol's east steps, and by yesterday full wreaths and scores of smaller arrangements adorned the area. Inside the Rotunda, the display of the caskets in such a hallowed setting visibly moved many. Officers from across the country, in small groups and large, often paused before the coffins and slowly raised a salute.
The crowd grew as the day lengthened, and at lunchtime so many who work at the Capitol waited to enter the Rotunda that the line went down the stairs, filled the Crypt and extended the length of the subterranean corridors. The 7 p.m. deadline for viewing passed and people were still allowed in.
One of the most emotional moments occurred in the morning when Rep. Tom DeLay, the majority whip, entered with his entire staff, about 40 people. Gibson was DeLay's security detail, and the officer is credited with saving lives by stepping in front of the alleged gunman, Russell E. Weston Jr. Several staffers cried and embraced, the only sound the shutters of photographers.
The mournful pace of the day was set by the slow parade of visitors and by the periodic changing of the ceremonial guard. Many people wore police-blue ribbons, often attached to an American flag. A bomb scare that delayed the viewing and forced the police to clear the east plaza did not seem to alter the mood. At 8:37 a.m., the building opened to the public, and Jeffrey Barrow, 12, wearing jeans and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, slowly walked into the Rotunda.
The boy and his father, Don Barrow, were inside the Capitol on Friday when the shootings occurred. Jeffrey Barrow saw a police officer crouch down, pull his gun and then order him to move away. They spent part of the harrowing next few minutes in Rep. Richard K. Armey's office, watching the events on television. Now they were the first in line to pay their respects, arriving shortly after sunrise. "I feel sorry for the officers," Jeffrey said before walking inside.
Afterward, surrounded by television cameras, Jeffrey Barrow elaborated on the experience. "When the officer kneeled down and pointed his gun, then I knew it was serious," he said, demonstrating how the officer went down on one knee and drew his gun. "When I saw the gun in his hand, it scared me. Weston could have come up the stairs where we were and he could have started firing at us."
His father, a Vietnam veteran, said seeing the flag-draped coffins "gave me the chill bumps, literally. It was very solemn, very sad. I just wish the whole thing had never happened."
At one point, 41 cadets from the District's police academy, dressed in crisp navy blue uniforms, entered in unison. About half of them have been at the academy for less than two months. "It has affected everybody," Sgt. B.M. Sickon said of the shootings. "We thought it was important to bring the students here because they wanted to come."
Shortly after noon, the sound of bagpipes filled the air outside the Capitol as the three police bands scheduled to play en masse at the start of the memorial service warmed up in the shade nearby. Some of the men had placed flags at the end of their instruments. Police Cpl. Michael D. Lederer, wearing a woolen, navy blue kilt and carrying his bagpipe underneath his arm, said he had come to Washington "to pay tribute to the . . . " He stopped, his voice shaking, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. "It's difficult to talk about," the New Jersey officer said.
The combined group consisted of the Prince George's County Police Pipe Band and two bands from New Jersey.
About 2:10 p.m., the families of the two officers, in a motorcade led by rumbling police motorcycles, filed past the impromptu flower memorial on the east steps of the Capitol. The bagpipe bands began marching, slowly, to the tap of a single drummer, the sound echoing off the building.
Many in the crowd stopped to sign condolence books for each family. Dressed in Army fatigues, a soldier who had been waiting in line for an hour and a half leaned over the one for the Chestnut family and wrote "Thank You. Specialist Eliot Barron USA" with a straight, crisp signature.
"I want to pay my respects to the officers who went down in the line of duty. It's a situation I can relate to," said Barron, who is stationed at Fort Belvoir. "It's something you don't want to think about. But when reminded, you have to pay respects for people who did what you are supposed to do."
Eighty-one law enforcement officers have died this year, as Clinton noted. But the deaths in the Capitol had a particular resonance. "It's hurt the nation as a whole, because of what the Capitol stands for," said D.C. police Inspector Michael J. Radzilowski. "This is a really big, big deal."
Gillian Fontaine, 30, who moved to Washington just two weeks ago from the Caribbean island of Dominica, was one of the last members of the public to pay respects. As she stood clasping her 2-year-old daughter's hand outside about 7:30 p.m., she explained: "We just moved to Wasington, and I heard about this on the news. I was very touched. . . . I just wanted to pay my respect. As a wife, my heart goes out to both wives."
She and her daughter, Kyla, then hiked up the steps and walked into the Rotunda. As they slowly circled the coffins, Kyla, in braided hair and pigtails, and looking a bit inattentive, looked up and asked: "What are we doing in here?" Her mother silently pointed to the display.
Afterward, outside, Fontaine said: "I just pray . . . they have gone home to the Lord. It's very important to know there's another life and they'll be happy in heaven."
Staff writers John W. Fountain, Steven Gray, Jennifer 8. Lee, Allan Lengel, Cheryl W. Thompson and Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company