Thousands mourn fallen city police officers



There were police officers from nearby towns and far-away cities. Combat veterans and young children. Family members and strangers, gathered in a line that seemed to grow endlessly, even as daylight slipped into darkness.

Through a chilly day and night, thousands of mourners had 20 hours to file past the bodies of three slain Pittsburgh police officers, and to try, however impossibly, to come to terms with their deaths.

"Every day when you leave for work, you lie to your family and say 'I'm going to be all right.' But you never really know," said Carmen Robinson, a former sergeant for one of the officers, Eric G. Kelly.

Many who grieved for officers Kelly, Paul J. Sciullo II and Stephen J. Mayhle tried to remember happier times but were still coping with the shock of the officers' violent deaths.

As a string trio played mournful songs, they moved from the sidewalk into the grand, gold-columned lobby of the City-County Building on Grant Street.

A portrait of each officer stood before his casket, along with tables that filled up through the afternoon with flowers and "Thank You" cards. An honor guard stood sentry behind.

"This is not a burden, this is an honor," said Joseph Simunovic, a sex assault detective who was part of the honor guard last night.

He stood stoically behind Officer Kelly's casket, working in 15-minute shifts. But when the 10-year veteran spoke, there were tears in his eyes. "How can you not do this?"

With his gaze fixed on the casket, he said his thoughts ran a gamut. He remembered working with the slain officers. He thought of the detectives working around the clock to piece together that deadly morning in Stanton Heights. He thought of his colleagues, of his own experiences responding to domestic disputes. "Mostly I think of my wife and how she would be," he said.

At the east end of the block-long lobby was a black banner with three gold badges that read, "The Fightin' 5th. Stood Together. Fell Together. 4-4-09." The three officers all worked at the city's notoriously tough Zone 5 station.

Scores of family members first gathered on the steps of the portico on a sunny but bracing day and then followed as the flag-draped caskets were carried into the building. Bagpipers played and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl opened the building's doors for the caskets, and for hours afterward the usually busy building was eerily quiet.

Relatives were followed by some 500 uniformed police, then government officials, then members of the public. Police were largely from Western Pennsylvania, though through the day others arrived on site from as far as Boston, Chicago, San Francisco. More than 15,000 are expected for a memorial service today.

"We're just here for the families," said Chicago police Officer Michael Carroll, who last week drove 38 hours in a squad car to mourn four dead officers in Oakland, Calif. This time, he and officer Casey O'Neill traveled seven hours in their personal car and found themselves on Third Avenue at the end of a steadily growing line. "It's really disheartening that folks think its so easy to shoot police. They don't have the respect for police that they should."

About 100 officers came from the Boston area, some of whom had just traveled for the services of four slain officers in Oakland, Calif.

"We have the same jobs. We are different people from different departments with the same job," explained Boston Sgt. John Fitzgerald, a 13-year police veteran. Asked how many police services he had attended, tears welled in his eyes. "Too many," he said.

Sgt. Eric Washington, a 24 year veteran, arrived with 12 other San Francisco police, with memories of the police services in Oakland -- and the shooting deaths of police everywhere -- fresh on his mind.

"It continues to reiterate that we need to do something about these assault weapons -- these weapons of war," he said.

Former Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. was one of the mourners. "There are a lot of strong men and women in there," he said.

"It seems like we've been putting the black band on our badges a lot more lately," said Dave Richards, president of Chapter 16 of the Blue Knights law enforcement motorcycle club in Washington, Pa.

Although the public didn't enter until around 4 p.m., hundreds gathered hours earlier on Grant Street as the caskets were carried into the hall. Lines moved quickly down two sides of the long lobby, though by the end of the afternoon the lines grew slower, as visitors instead did a long circle around the caskets.

Hard-nosed city detectives and other police gathered at the exit from the lobby on Ross Street, their eyes welling with tears. Among them were members of the homicide squad who commonly face grief-stricken family members and friends, but who were now looking in from the other side.

"Every police officer is grieving," said Sgt. George DeVault, who clutched his 4-year-old daughter, Delaney, to his side as he moved past the caskets. "They gave us everything. What can you do in return?"

Many other visitors cried as well, though they had no personal connections to the officers.

Turtle Creek's Darryl Whiteside had waited outside the building since 9 a.m. and was one of the first through the line. "I'm a Pittsburgher. That's what Pittsburghers do," he said.

The 55-year-old saw similarities between the long miles police had traveled to get to the city with the outpouring of support from Pittsburgh locals. "We take care of our own," he said.

Visitation ends at 10 a.m. today, when preparations begin for a procession to a public memorial at 1 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center at the University of Pittsburgh.


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Sadie Gurman can be reached at sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878. First Published April 9, 2009 4:00 AM


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