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Dignitaries, citizens pay their final respects

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Robert C. Byrd returned to West Virginia one final time for a grand sendoff.

Dignitaries greeted his flag-draped casket as it was unloaded from a C-130 aircraft, and large crowds of West Virginians lined the streets of Charleston for a procession to the state Capitol, where Byrd's body would lie in repose.

It was an event that many West Virginians somehow thought they'd never witness -- the senator they'd known all their lives, who so often in recent years had battled back against illness -- coming home for a historic funeral.

At Charleston's 130th Airlift Wing, the plane carrying Byrd's casket landed about 6:10 p.m. Thursday. Earlier, Byrd's body lay in repose in the U.S. Senate Chamber while senators, staffers and others paid their respects.

As the four large propellers on the C-130 slowed to a stop, a lone bagpiper stood on the tarmac and began to play. A hearse drove slowly toward the aircraft.

Awaiting the plane's arrival was a line of dignitaries including Gov. Joe Manchin, first lady Gayle Manchin, former governors Bob Wise and Gaston Caperton, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and his wife, Sharon.

As the plane taxied toward them and the music played, many of them placed their hands over their hearts in respect.

The flag-draped casket was carried off the C-130 first by eight guardsmen. It was followed by Byrd's daughters, Marjorie Ellen Moore and Mona Carol Fatemi, and members of their families. Some of Byrd's great grandchildren could be seen in the small group.

The casket was flanked by a long, double line of 300 guard members, an Honor Cordon in dress uniform holding U.S. and West Virginia flags.

The 249th West Virginia Army Reserve National Guard Band played "Stars and Stripes Forever" and then "The Old Rugged Cross."

Major Gen. Allen Tackett accompanied Byrd's body from Washington, D.C., to West Virginia aboard the C-130 and will fly back with the casket after today's memorial service in Charleston. Tackett called the senator one of the West Virginia National Guard's best friends.

In downtown Charleston, West Virginians gathered for a procession between the federal courthouse bearing his name on Virginia Street and the state Capitol. They were packed together as far as the eye could see, lined one and two people deep all the way. 

The sound of bagpipes filled the air, and the evening was breezy and warm -- as if Big Daddy had somehow appropriated perfectly mild weather for his final send-off.

Flags were at half-staff, as ordered by both Manchin and President Barack Obama.

Onlookers, some dressed in their Sunday finest, waited in near silence -- some with cameras hoisted, some with rapt attention and others seemingly lost in reflection.

During the 16-minute pause while the casket was moved to a horse-drawn hearse, a military policeman standing guard said, "Amazing how quiet it is."

The black hearse emerged from the courthouse pulled by four white horses with red roses. Atop it was an arrangement of white roses.

Byrd's casket, visible through glass panes, was draped in the state flag.

The hearse then began its sad drive some two miles to the state Capitol, where Byrd began his more than half-century of public service as a member of the House.

At the courthouse square, the horses paused, and state officials fell in behind.

Manchin and the first lady led the cortege. They were flanked by Caperton; Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and her husband Sen. Erik Wells; state Treasurer John Perdue; Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin; House Speaker Rick Thompson and his wife.

Delegate Josh Stowers, D-Lincoln, said it was the end of an era.

"I'm tickled to death to show we're doing something to show not only the state but the rest of the country what he meant and what he brought to the state of West Virginia," he said.

Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the day was a celebration of a wonderful life and career.

"And it's fitting the weather is so accommodating today, with the blue skies and the gold sun, because he was always a son of the Mountaineers," he said.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, said he was pleased the senator would be honored with two ceremonies -- the Thursday procession and a Friday memorial led by Obama.

"It's a testament to the senator, and I think, West Virginians," he said.

As the hearse left the courthouse square, the crowd of onlookers started to follow -- a quiet, automatic tribute to a man who few had lived much of life without.

William Page, 63, and his wife Marilyn, 56, of Charleston were among those who gathered early on for the historic procession.

"The man was just a genius," Marilyn said. "It's sad, but still a great honor to be here. Big Daddy's gone. Who's going to look after us as a state now?"

They both said they wanted to pay their final respects. William referred to the senator as a "true statesman."

Sandy Blair, 64, a retired teacher from St. Albans, said, "I want to show my respect to the senator. We're living history as we sit here today."

Max Humphreys, a retired firefighter, and his wife Kitty, both 60, drove from Morgantown. They had other business in Charleston on Thursday but decided to stay the night for the services. Both said it was the least they could do, considering how much Byrd had done for the state.

Both said they admired how Byrd earned his law degree by taking night classes while in the Senate. Kitty said she recently read Byrd carried a brown paper bag lunch to work in the Senate every day.

"He is a good example for every American living in poverty. If you work hard, just look at what you can become.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us all."

The event brought out young and old alike.

Makayla Hays, 15, of Elkview said she was just curious. She said it was a historic moment, and that Byrd would be most remembered for how he helped the state financially.

She was sitting with her friend, Chelsea Mullins, 14. Neither had ever met Byrd or seen him speak, but both were rapt with the spectacle of the ceremony.

Once the procession reached the Capitol, guardsmen removed the casket from the hearse and carried it up the south portico steps. By the time it reached the south plaza of the Capitol Complex, the procession included thousands.

Just moments after the playing of the National Anthem, four C-130 aircraft roared overhead.

Manchin briefly addressed those in attendance. He read the poem "Crossing the Bar" by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Byrd recited the poem from memory in 2001, as part of National Poetry Month, Manchin said.

His remarks after the poem were short. "Senator, we love you, and welcome home," the governor said.

Gloria Bromfield was one of the many who made the 2.2-mile trek from the federal courthouse to the state Capitol.

Bromfield, 62, a retiree, said she had the honor of meeting Byrd about 25 years ago at Yeager Airport.

She had taken her husband to the airport to catch a flight for a business trip. Along with them were their two young children.

Bromfield said Byrd approached her family and struck up a casual conversation.

"It just impressed me that he took the time," she said. "We didn't solicit anything from him; he just came over and was being friendly and kind."

Bromfield decided to walk the entire procession route out of respect for the senator's service, she said.

"I wanted to pay tribute," she said. "The ceremony was very dignified and well done, I thought."

Also making a trek was Charleston resident Sandy McNealy, who said she walked from the South Side Bridge.

Decked out in red, white and blue, and carrying a Byrd campaign sign in one hand and an American flag in the other, McNealy said she wasn't about to sit at home and watch the ceremony on television.

"I'm very proud of Robert Byrd," she said. "He truly makes you proud, and I wanted to come out and pay my respects to him."

When asked what she thinks Byrd will be remembered for most, she said his greatness, generosity and humility.

"He always remembered where he came from," she said.

Durand Brown, 63, sat with others in silence at the base of the Lincoln statue as the crowd began to disperse. He said he was moved deeply by the event, and that he found it "beautiful and peaceful."

Byrd's body was to lay in repose in the Rotunda overnight.

A memorial service will be held Friday at the state Capitol.

Among the dignitaries expected to speak are Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Representatives Alan Mollohan, Nick Rahall and Shelley Moore Capito.

Former President Bill Clinton also was expected to attend, according to the governor's office.

The Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority is urging everyone to make use of its free event shuttle services for the memorial ceremony.

KRT will provide shuttles from Greenbrier Street at the governor's driveway, returning to the Robert C. Byrd United States District Courthouse, Charleston Civic Center and Laidley Street Transit Mall every 20 minutes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Byrd is to be buried Tuesday in Arlington, Va., next to his wife, Erma.


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