By John Raby
Associated Press Writer
Hundreds of mourners lined the streets leading to West Virginia’s state Capitol on Thursday night to say goodbye to Robert C. Byrd, the nation’s longest-serving U.S. senator.
Byrd’s body, which lay in repose for six hours in the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C., was flown to Charleston’s airport and brought by hearse to the downtown federal courthouse bearing his name. A horse-drawn hearse then carried the state flag-draped casket along a 2.2-mile route to the Capitol for a 12-hour public viewing.
Following close behind were a riderless horse, a bagpipe player, three cars carrying Byrd’s family members and a walking procession led by Gov. Joe Manchin and the state’s congressional delegation.
“We’ve lost a hero,” Manchin said. “We’ve lost a giant that can never be replaced and his shoes will never be filled. We’re just following in his footsteps as we’re doing right now.
“We’re just so appreciative that people have come out to honor him.”
The 15-member Kanawha Valley Pipes and Drums ensemble took part in the procession.
“We feel very privileged to be asked to come out and play for him,” said bagpipe player Steve Hendricks of Scott Depot. “As much as he’s given to this state his whole career and to come out and give him a special sendoff means a lot to us.”
Onlookers clapped and waved U.S. flags. Many took cell phone snapshots to capture the moment. Some placed ballcaps over their hearts as the hearse went by.
Rick Wahrhaftig of Bear, Del., brought his 14-year-old daughter to West Virginia for a soccer tournament this week and found out the procession would pass in front of the riverfront hotel where he was staying.
“It’s just impressive to see something like this,” Wahrhaftig said. “It’s unexpected. To be here for the tournament and to kind of have everything change right in front of us, I think it’s a historical event.”
Planes from Charles-ton’s 130th Airlift Wing based at Yeager Airport flew over the Capitol at the procession’s conclusion.
Earlier, a plane from the Airlift Wing brought the late senator’s casket from Maryland’s Andrews Air Force Base to Charleston. Byrd’s close friend, state Adj. Gen. Allen Tackett, was in charge of seeing that the casket and body are returned to Andrews this afternoon.
Byrd helped secure federal funding in 1995 for new C-130s for the Airlift Wing and thwarted attempts to take them away, first as part of Defense Department cutbacks in 2005 and again in recent months.
“So it’s only fitting that one of those aircraft is bringing him home for the last time,” Tackett said.
The public viewing that followed the procession was scheduled to last until 9 a.m. today. At the start of the viewing, several hundred people were lined up from the door of the Capitol to the steps of the state Culture Center.
Raymond Pittman of Campbells Creek said a prayer and snapped some photos as he stopped at the casket in the Capitol’s Lower Rotunda.
“He’s personally blessed everyone in West Virginia at one time or the other,” Pittman said.
Onlookers also were able to view the senator’s memorabilia and sign a guest book.
Environmental activist Maria Gunnoe of Bob White, who for years has fought the coal industry’s practice of mountaintop removal mining, brought a bouquet of yellow flowers to place at the casket.
“I’m here to pay my respects to a senator that I feel like was a part of my growing up, a part of my learning experiences,” said Gunnoe, who met Byrd and worked with his staff on environmental issues in West Virginia’s southern coalfields.
A red carpet, white benches and U.S. flag banners were installed on the Capitol’s northern steps to accommodate a memorial service at 11:30 a.m. today.
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., were expected to attend the service.
Manchin has given state employees today off as part of a day of mourning. State judicial system employees also were given a four-day holiday weekend and West Virginia and Marshall universities will be closed today.
Byrd, who served 51 years in the Senate, died Monday at age 92.
“He’s the closest thing West Virginia’s ever had to a president,” Tackett said. “This is West Virginia’s last chance to pay respects to our greatest senator.”
Byrd is to be buried Tuesday beside his wife, Erma, at a cemetery in Arlington, Va. Obama has ordered federal flags at half-staff until sunset the day of Byrd’s interment.