Over a 1,000 people are waiting in line to pay their respects to Sen. McCain. Tents are set up and ice water is handed out by several volunteers.
Bayan Wang, The Republic |

The mourners waited in silence. They stood in neat lines and clutched short flagpoles trying to make the flags flutter on a summer day without wind. Then they heard the helicopters and the motorcycles and the strange sound of grief, and now the hearse came rolling in.

It parked in front of the state Capitol, flanked by SUVs and black vans. Three flags waited at half-staff. Then the back doors opened, a military guard lined itself up, and out came the casket carrying the late Sen. John McCain. 

As a line of mourners looked on, the guard carried McCain’s casket inside. They set it in the rotunda, atop the state seal and beneath the Capitol’s copper dome, where McCain’s family, dozens of dignitaries and more than 6,000 people would soon arrive Wednesday morning for the first of what will be almost a week of memorials. 

McCain, who died Saturday and would have turned 82 on Wednesday, will be honored at North Phoenix Baptist Church on Thursday morning before two more weekend memorials, including a formal funeral service, in Washington. He will be buried at the U.S. Naval Academy on Sunday. 

But first, he was to lie in state at the Capitol of his adopted home state, where a private ceremony marked the impact of his loss.

‘Trusted and tested’

“His talk of country first wasn’t simply a slogan on a campaign yard sign,” Gov. Doug Ducey said at a private ceremony. “This man was trusted and tested. Qualities in short supply.”

McCain’s family and a high-profile list of Arizona politicians watched from white chairs. Friends and staffers filled the rotunda’s second floor, looking down on the man who Ducey said had become as much a symbol of the state as the Grand Canyon.

“John McCain believed in America. He believed in its people, its values and in its institutions,” former Sen. Jon Kyl said. “He represented our values all over the world. … We can be proud he was our senator.”

The ceremony was small and intimate, but a video board broadcast the prayers and the tears to the line that was beginning to form outside.

Alex Hurtado, stood first in line, arms folded, as politicians and McCain’s family filed past the casket. He watched the video feed as McCain’s widow, Cindy, pressed a cheek against the casket, and stood stoically as McCain’s daughter Meghan broke into tears.

“It’s unfortunate we didn’t get more time with him,” said Hurtado, a community college student living in Tonopah. He had skipped class and asked to come late to work, arriving four hours before the Capitol doors opened. “He said his final goodbyes. And now we get to say ours.”

Hurtado, 20, never met the senator. But he tried. He asked for a meeting when his culture club went to DC, but McCain didn’t have the time. All Hurtado could do that day was break away from a group tour and stand speechless before McCain’s Senate office.

This is where greatness is happening, Hurtado thought back then. He respected McCain’s strength, the quiet dignity that marked his later years. He took pride in the single vote he was able to cast for him, in 2016. 

“It meant a lot,” he said. “I knew what he represented.”

And now he had come to mourn a man he had never met.


Senator John McCain arrives to lie in state at the Arizona State Capitol. Thousands are expected to pay their respects to the late Senator.
Arizona Republic

A chance to say ‘good-bye’

That was his McCain story. Everybody had one. Louise Benson, a former chairwoman of the Hualapai Tribe, met frequently with the senator and always felt like she was being heard. Julie Jacobs, who works with local progressive group Stand Indivisible AZ, wrote him so many letters that they felt like pen pals. Her friend, Janie Shiel, saw him at a baseball game and asked him to keep pushing against President Donald Trump. She swears she saw McCain give a thumbs-up.

As the sun peaked, the line stretched down Jefferson Street. People arrived in bunches and traded stories of the trips they had made to be here. They came from Mesa and Glendale, Tucson and Peach Springs, New Mexico and California — all to see the senator. 

People skipped work and cut class. One woman canceled her vacation. A group of about 100 people traveled from a Vietnamese community in Southern California. Two Hualapai women left their house at 6 a.m. and already dreaded the long drive back.

Mike Foley flew in from San Diego, with only one event on his schedule. He stood a few feet behind Hurtado, wiping mid-morning sweat from his eyes and tugging a straw hat tighter onto his head.

“A guy like that, you say, ‘OK, what do you do?’” Foley said. “How do you reinforce his message?”

After he heard of McCain’s death, Foley wrote letters to Republican senators, urging John Kasich and Lindsey Graham to act more like McCain. He saw McCain as a holdout of his fading Republican Party, the one whose recent choices forced Foley to take a “temporary vacancy” from the party. 

He didn’t know what else to do. So he boarded a plane and made the hour-long flight to Phoenix. His flight landed at 8 a.m. Twenty minutes later, he was standing within sight of the Capitol, searching for water and practicing what he was going to tell McCain.

With two hours still to go, Foley had decided on only two things: “Thank you,” and, “Why did you pick Sarah?” he said, referring to McCain’s controversial pick of Sarah Palin as vice president. 

Support for the family

But most of the growing crowd shied away from talking politics. They identified themselves as “soft Republicans” and “maybe Democrats.” The protests that have haunted American politics never arrived.

“Everybody is just so peaceful here,” Susan Virrey said, dropping onto a hot metal bench near the line’s halfway point. A floppy hat draped around her head. Sunglasses covered her eyes.

Her cousin, Rosa Lara, nodded. “So quiet.”  

“Just happy to be here,” Virrey said.

She was supposed to be on vacation. Virrey’s week started in Southern California, then her cousin called. Theirs was a military family, Lara reminded her. A family with scars from the Vietnam War. It was important that somebody be there. So Virrey came home.

“I feel for his family,” she said. “I want them to know that we’re here to support them.”

She finished the last of a water bottle and reached for another. It was almost noon, and sunlight threatened to sneak through the tents above. More than a dozen people were treated for heat-related symptoms. Volunteers and McCain staffers walked up and down the metal gates, handing out cold bottles and collecting the empties. Each time they returned, fresh bottles in hand, they found a longer line.

Filing through the Capitol

It had stretched over a thousand people by the time a state trooper waved Alex Hurtado forward. It was only 12:40 p.m., still more than an hour before the Capitol was supposed to open, but the building was empty and the temperature was still rising. The doors opened early.

Hurtado led the line forward, across the street and underneath a row of tents that offered only sporadic relief. Some foreign emotion grew inside of him. For years he had waited to meet John McCain, and now he had only the chance to say goodbye.

He reached the Capitol and looked through the open door. Inside waited a wreath of white roses and McCain’s flag-draped casket. Cold air leaked into the courtyard. A trooper waved a metal detector over his pockets, then pointed him to a table filled with loose pages of a guest book.

A McCain staffer said the pages would be bound into a book and presented to the family. 

Hurtado leaned over and signed his name. Next to it, he scribbled RIP. He had more to say but didn’t know how. How could he possibly describe what he was feeling? There was so little room, and he didn’t want to take up any more space, because behind him stood thousands of mourners.

Republic reporter Yvonne Wingett Sanchez contributed to this story. 


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