'A grateful nation' says farewell Thousands pay tribute to two slain heroes

Capitol Memorial Service

July 29, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The nation mourned two fallen heroes yesterday in an extraordinary outpouring of grief, as thousands of Americans streamed through the Capitol to pay tribute to Jacob J. Chestnut and John M. Gibson.

On behalf of "a grateful nation," President Clinton thanked the grieving families of the two federal police officers who were gunned down Friday in the halls of the nation's Capitol. He was joined by Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, lawmakers and law enforcers -- and Americans from all walks of life.

"They saved lives," Clinton said in an emotional memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda. "They consecrated this house of freedom, and they fulfilled our Lord's definition of a good life. They loved justice. They did mercy. Now and forever, they walk humbly with their God."

From morning to evening, the two flag-draped caskets rested at the center of the Rotunda, bathed in sunlight and klieg lights, under the celestial domed fresco of Poseidon, Mercury, Athena and the banner, E Pluribus -Unum: Out of Many, One.

Chestnut's and Gibson's caskets were the 26th and 27th to lie in honor under the Capitol dome, "this hall of freedom," as Senate Republican leader Trent Lott called it.

Every 20 minutes, a four-member Capitol Police honor guard entered at a slow march, fanned out around the caskets, took its place next to the officers already on guard and slowly raised white-gloved hands in salute. Then, just as slowly, the first four marched out.

Vice President Al Gore called Gibson, 42, and Chestnut, 58, "two watchmen who guarded not just a building but an ideal."

"As much as any soldier who ever landed on a beach, last week the gatekeepers of our Capitol became the front-line guardians of our freedom," Gore said. "In defending each citizen's right to cross through that doorway in safety, they defended democracy itself at its core."

The stream of well-wishers seemed endless: a cook in white, with a slightly soiled apron; young groomed professionals; chubby tourists in shorts; the grief-stricken; the curious; waves of police officers who entered in formation, doffed their caps, stood silently bowed, then moved on.

"My father was a policeman," said Shery Kearney of Peachtree City, Ga., who waited with her family for 2 1/2 hours before reaching the caskets. "I understand what these families are going through.

"Every time your father walks out the door, you don't know if he's coming back."

The wait, she said, was worthwhile.

Tourists and well-wishers began lining up before dawn. Jeffrey Barrow, 13, and his father, Don Barrow, an Atlanta locksmith, took the first spots in line at 5 a.m. They had been in the Capitol when the shooting began Friday.

"I've been asking myself why would he want to kill them?" Jeffrey, an aspiring police officer, said of the suspected gunman, Russell E. Weston Jr. "They didn't do anything to him."

Laura Dolan of Alexandria, Va., said she has long taken it upon herself to be at these solemn occasions in Washington, to represent those who could not attend. She remembered how her sister had asked her to attend President Lyndon B. Johnson's memorial service in her stead in 1973, when he lay in state in the Rotunda.

With her cashier's shift at a local grocery store not set to begin until 2: 30 p.m., she decided to watch the early-morning procession and to pay her respects near dawn.

"I chose to be here for a lot of other people who could not be here," she said. "It's something I could do."

At 7: 05 a.m., in an eerie quiet, the first phalanx of motorcycles entered the Capitol's East Plaza, lights flashing, sirens silent. Four Capitol Police cars, their insignia shields adorned with a black slash, escorted the first hearse and a long black limousine with the officer's family. The second contingent followed seconds later.

As if to underscore the Capitol's renewed sense of vulnerability, a bomb scare shook the somber scene.

At 7: 30 a.m., police discovered a suspicious white-and-blue cooler on the floorboard of a police golf cart. The Capitol plaza was cleared. At 8: 15 a.m., an officer waved the all-clear signal.

"This is a difficult day," said Capitol Police Sgt. Dan Nichols. "Everybody's a little on edge."

By 8: 30 a.m., when the first contingent of mourners was escorted up the steps to the Rotunda, the line stretched a half-mile long.

"It's very touching to see people from all over the United States -- and really all over the world -- lined up to pay their respects," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said as she walked past the queue. "This is a deeply touching and grief-stricken day."

They were mothers with infants, teens in bell bottoms, Cub Scouts, people in wheelchairs, the blind, the young and the old. District of Columbia firefighters, Secret Service agents and police officers -- from Maryland, Idaho, Ohio, Minneapolis, New York City, Jersey City and dozens of other cities, counties and states -- lined up in dress blues, military browns and crisp whites.

Indeed, officers said Chestnut and Gibson have come to represent each of the nearly 15,000 U.S. law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty -- the first one in 1794, according to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat.

In the same vein, Clinton honored "the quiet courage and uncommon bravery of Americans like J. J. Chestnut and John Gibson, and indeed every one of the 81 police officers who just this year have given their lives to ensure our domestic tranquillity."

It was a sentiment not lost on the officers who converged on Washington.

"Regardless of anywhere in the country anyone is stationed, we share the same events day in and day out," said Al Stevens, a Montgomery County police officer. "It's a senseless loss of life. I don't say their death is any more tragic than any other police officers' deaths. But it's the symbol of our nation's Capitol."

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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