At least 1,500 people paid their respects to U.S. Sen. John McCain on Wednesday, standing for hours in the broiling Arizona sun before filing past the flag-draped casket that his tearful wife, Cindy, lovingly pressed her face against after a ceremony for the former North Vietnam prisoner of war who represented Arizona for decades.
Former military members in shorts and T-shirts stopped and saluted the closed casket flanked by National Guard members at the Arizona Capitol. Families will small children came by, and several people placed their hand over their heart or bowed, including Vietnamese residents who traveled from Southern California.
The private service held earlier marked the first appearance of McCain’s family since the Republican senator died Saturday of brain cancer. It also began two days of official mourning in Arizona before his body is taken to Washington for a viewing at the U.S. Capitol, followed by burial at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
At the emotional private ceremony in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey remembered McCain as an internationally known figure and “Arizona’s favorite adopted son” on what would have been his 82nd birthday. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone while his father, who went on to become an admiral, served in the military.
“Imagining an Arizona without John McCain is like picturing Arizona without the Grand Canyon,” Ducey said.
Former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl said he had been with McCain across the world and he had better instincts on when to assert U.S. power than anyone else he knew.
“I will miss him as a friend, and a strong force for America, and the world,” Kyl said.
Sen. Jeff Flake offered the benediction, expressing gratitude “for his life and for his sacrifice” and “that John made Arizona his home.”
By the time the ceremony ended, crowds had gathered to wait for the public viewing of McCain’s closed casket, seeking shelter from Phoenix’s summer heat under tents with coolers filled with ice and water bottles.
The line snaked down streets even as a continuous flow of people flowed past the casket. The visitation was to continue as long as people waited in line, said Rick Davis, McCain’s former presidential campaign manager.
Some people traveled for hours, including a group of Vietnamese-born residents of Orange County, California, who arrived on two buses and wore yellow T-shirts reading, “We salute our hero Senator John McCain.”
McCain was beloved among many Vietnamese-Americans for his history of fighting alongside the South Vietnamese and for supporting the families of political detainees, said Derrick Nguyen, who was with the group.
Nguyen said that in the 1990s, McCain pushed an amendment to a law that allowed for unmarried, adult children of political detainees to come to the U.S.
“Many, many of the families that wouldn’t have made it to America made it here,” he said. “And they have become U.S. citizens and good Americans.”
Ray Riordan, an 87-year-old Navy veteran who fought in the Korean War, came from Payson, Arizona.
“I grew up where a handshake was a contract and your word was your bond,” Riordan said. “He represented the last of that as far as I’m concerned.”
Kassandra Morales, 44, stood in line with her sons, 8 and 2. The Democrat brought a bouquet of flowers and said she had always looked up to McCain and voted for him.
“Yesterday I asked my son who his hero was. He gave me a rapper’s name,” Morales said. “I brought my children here to show them what a real hero was.”
For some Arizona residents, McCain has been a political fixture their entire lives. He took office in the state in the early 1980s, first as a congressman and then as a senator.
Phil Hubbard, a health care recruiter who lives in Scottsdale, held a cold water bottle in each hand as he waited for a chance to pay his respects. The high temperature Wednesday was 104 degrees.
“He believed in something,” Hubbard said. “That’s what he did, and that’s what a lot of people need to do in this country. If you believe in something, stand up for it, whether it’s popular or not.”
On Thursday morning, a procession through Phoenix will bring the casket to a memorial service at a Baptist church, with the public invited to line the route along a highway. Former Vice President Joe Biden will speak.
McCain will then depart Arizona for another viewing Friday at the U.S. Capitol, with a final memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral, followed by burial at the academy.