On the sidewalks outside the Little Chapel of the Dawn, they came carrying American flags and digital cameras, waiting in silence for the hearse.

It began as just another sunny day in California, with ocean breezes tickling the palm trees. But as word spread that former president Ronald Reagan had died in the afternoon after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease, it ended in hasty but solemn rituals of grief.

Outside the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, mourners dropped flowers at the base of a statue depicting the late president and former actor in cowboy attire. After Reagan's death was announced, library officials ushered out all visitors and began preparing for his burial there. In the stately enclave of Bel Air, where Reagan and his wife, Nancy, lived for decades, police blocked streets to keep legions of well-wishers from invading the family's privacy. And here in Santa Monica, a crowd in shorts and sunglasses spent hours waiting for Reagan's body to arrive at the mortuary attached to the chapel.

"I just wanted to be close to him," said Gloria Kabbash, a retiree who lives in Santa Monica. "I think he had a very good heart. A lot of us out here have never met him, but we feel like we did."

Tom Gorman stood nearby, holding a small American flag. He had rushed to the mortuary with his neighbor when he heard that Reagan had died and would be brought there.

"What a full life he had," Gorman said. "You've got to take your hat off to him. I wasn't always in agreement with his politics, but I have to respect a man who achieved as much as he did in his life."

Gorman paused, then made one other disclosure: He is a Notre Dame fan.

"The Gipper movie has always been big in our house," he said, referring to a movie in which Reagan starred as Notre Dame football legend George Gipp.

Some in the crowd waiting outside the mortuary began clapping when they heard police sirens wail in the distance, presuming the late president was on his way.

"I think he did a lot for our country when you look back at that time," said Frank Bennett, a financial manager. "I believe he had a vision and had a way of stating it clearly."

What does he remember most about Reagan? "That's an easy one," Bennett said. "His 'tear down that wall' speech during the Cold War."

Many in the crowd said they had not gotten any glimpse of Reagan for many years. After he left the White House and returned to Southern California, he was frequently spotted around Los Angeles -- emerging from an office tower in Century City, strolling in local parks or even on the beach. But as his health deteriorated, he disappeared from public view. Some mourners said that they have been prepared to hear news of his death -- and some said they were relieved.

"I think the disease he had is one of the cruelest ones anyone can have -- to get to the point where you don't even know your own children," Kabbash said. "My own father had it. I know what it's like."

Just past 5:30 p.m., in the golden California twilight, the hearse carrying Reagan's body arrived at the mortuary. It was escorted by a swarm of police officers riding motorcycles and shadowed by six helicopters. Marine snipers watched from the rooftop of an office building across the street.

By then, the crowd of Reagan admirers had swelled to more than 500. Some sprinted toward one of the mortuary's driveways when the motorcade came into view, raising cameras above their heads and clicking wildly.

Gloria Lambden just watched. She is an older Democrat who had come to pay her respects. She had a hard time explaining why. Maybe because he always seemed to have time for a joke, she said. Or maybe because of his long love affair with his wife.

"He certainly was popular," she said. "It's hard to believe he's gone."

Special correspondent Kimberly Edds contributed to this report.

"I think he had a very good heart," one admirer said of Ronald Reagan. "A lot of us out here have never met him, but we feel like we did." She was one of hundreds who gathered to pay their respects.

Reagan's flag-draped casket in a hearse en route to a mortuary in Los Angeles.