Thousands stuck outside TD Arena in blazing heat

Charleston police and state troopers hold back a crowd of thousands unable to get into TD Arena for the Rev. Clementa Pickney's funeral. Glenn Smith/Staff

They thought they'd made it to the iron gates, finally 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 suit coats. Many had come before 7 a.m., only to hear the murmur as it spread at 10:40 a.m.: TD Arena was full.

The people had come 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 his eulogy. They waited and waited.

Their anger simmered with the heat, however, as people cut into the line which became an unwieldly mass of humanity at the corner of Calhoun Street. Folks stepped off of shuttle buses and straight into the crowd, resulting in a jostling crush of people that, at times, seemed more mosh pit than funeral line. Those who had waited patiently for hours grumbled about the lack of barricades to keep out the interlopers.

Police officers urged patience while they and volunteers fed the crowd bottles of water to keep them hydrated. Some in the crowd huddled under umbrellas to escape the sun. Others mopped their brows with towels and handkerchiefs, thankful for even the tickle of a passing breeze.

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. Paramedics quickly whisked her away in a golf cart, a passerby pouring cold water over the woman's shoulders.

She'd almost made it through the gates.

Nearby, the Rev. Elma Galbreath took a seat in a shaded stairwell and fanned her face. She had 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 hear earlier,” she said. “But look at all the good we've seen here.”

Thousands still left behind them groaned and turned to find TVs and air conditioning to watch the funeral from afar. The Charleston Museum, a designated spot to watch, already was full as well.

Ouleye Ndoye, a New York resident, was in Atlanta when she heard the news that nine black parishioners had been executed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. 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 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 on a stairstep and got her water and help. The grateful Randall told her she used to live in Syracuse as well. As it turned out, Randall worked for years with Keeton's cousin.

“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., dubbed the City of Churches. He too stood in the steamy line, white collar and 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 his fellow clergy. “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 crowds dispersed, McGreevy and McGill headed off together, a black minister from Indiana and a white native Charlestonian, one's arm around his new friend.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.