Mourners shut out of arena vent frustration, help others

Mourners who were unable to make it inside TD Arena sing gospel music Friday in honor of Sen. Clementa Pinckney.

They made it to the iron gates, at long last to enter. Then the gates closed.

Thousands of mourners stood in thick lines down Meeting Street under a brutal Charleston sun, sweat dripping down the backs of ladies in black dresses and men in dark suit coats. Many had come before 7 a.m., only to hear the murmur spread at 10:40 a.m.: TD Arena was full.

The people had trekked from far and near, black and white, to pay respects to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and to see the nation's first black president deliver the state senator's eulogy. They waited and waited.

As they lingered, members of Emanuel AME Church filed out of their church home, site of unspeakable terror a week ago, with hundreds of AME clergy and their spouses from around the state following in support.

“I'm really glad to see everyone pull together for Mrs. Pinckney and her family,” said Lakesha Adams, a local church member and pastor's spouse.

After families of the fallen passed, the crowd left behind grew and grew. Many huddled under umbrellas to escape the sun. Others mopped their brows with towels and handkerchiefs, thankful for even a tickle of breeze.

But anger simmered with the heat as people cut into the line, some stepping off shuttle buses, creating an unwieldy mass of humanity at the corner of Calhoun Street. Those who had waited patiently for hours grumbled about the lack of order while police urged patience and helped pass out water to the weary and parched.

So when police shut the gates to the arena's front entrance, a furious mass up front pressed against the bars, desperate to get through. Seconds later, police called for paramedics to help a woman in her Sunday best overcome by the heat, sobbing, collapsed onto the sidewalk. They soon whisked her away, a passerby pouring cold water over the woman's shoulders.

She'd almost made it through the gates.

Nearby, the Rev. Elma Galbreath sat in a shaded stairwell and fanned her face. She'd driven two hours from Florence to pay her respects to Pinckney, a friend and fellow clergy member.

“I am disappointed, and like everyone else, I should have gotten here earlier,” she said. “But look at all the good we've seen here.”

Ouleye Ndoye of New York was in Atlanta when she heard the news of the shooting. The college history teacher came to witness history.

“I'll be teaching about it,” said Ndoye, 30. “This is our Birmingham.”

Rona Keeton drove more than 900 miles from Syracuse, N.Y., also wanting to see history in the making. She, too, was turned away. But as she stood outside the arena's closed gates, she noticed a stranger, Ruby Randall, fading in the blistering sun. Keeton guided Randall, a retired teacher, to a seat and got her water. Turns out, Randall worked for years with Keeton's cousin in Syracuse.

“I was glad I was here to help,” Keeton said. “When we were all in line, you heard all these people out here fussing. But you know, all things happen for a reason.”

The Rev. Bill McGill came from his Baptist church in Fort Wayne, Ind. He, too, stood in line, white collar peeking from a dark suit, a Martin Luther King Jr. pin on his lapel.

“I wanted to let the community know it's not suffering in isolation,” McGill said.

He, too, didn't make it through the gates.

Instead, he struck up a conversation with the Rev. Brian McGreevy, head chaplain at Porter-Gaud, who'd also gotten shut out at the gate.

“We need our voices heard louder and more consistently,” McGill urged. “If we could just take this momentum — and make sure it's not just today, just not next week, not just next month. This is the main thing.”

“That's right,” McGreevy agreed.

As the crowd dispersed, McGreevy and McGill headed off together, a black minister from Indiana and a white native Charlestonian, one's arm around his new friend.