PHOENIX (AP) – Sen. John McCain was eulogized as “a true American hero” – and a terrible driver with a wicked sense of humor – in front of an estimated 3,500 mourners who crowded into an Arizona church to pay their final respects to the maverick politician.
The service unfolded at North Baptist Church after a motorcade bearing McCain’s body made its way from the state Capitol past Arizonans waving American flags and campaign-style signs for the Republican lawmaker.
Family members watched in silence as uniformed military members removed the flag-draped casket from a black hearse and carried it into the church for a service featuring former Vice President Joe Biden.
McCain died last Saturday of brain cancer at 81.
At the church, a choir from the Jesuit-run Brophy College Preparatory school that two of McCain’s sons attended sang “Amazing Grace.”
McCain’s longtime chief of staff Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general, drew laughs with a eulogy in which he talked about McCain’s “terribly bad driving” and his wicked sense of humor, which included calling the Leisure World retirement community “Seizure World.”
Woods recalled the way McCain would introduce him to new staff members by saying, “You’ll have to fire half of them.”
Another friend, Tommy Espinoza, president and CEO of the Raza Development Fund, called McCain “one of the greatest American heroes in our lifetime.” The church’s senior pastor Noe Garcia called McCain “a true American hero.”
Twenty-four sitting U.S. senators, four former senators and other leaders from Arizona were expected at the service for the statesman, former prisoner of war and two-time presidential candidate.
As the 11-vehicle motorcade with a 17-motorcycle police escort made its way along the 8-mile (13-kilometer) route, people held signs that read simply “McCain,” and cars on the other side of the highway stopped or slowed to a crawl in apparent tribute.
A few firefighters saluted from atop a fire engine parked on an overpass as the motorcade passed underneath on Interstate 17.
One man shouted, “We love you!”
The music chosen for the recession was Frank Sinatra’s signature song, “My Way,” paying tribute to a man who became known for following his own path based on his personal principles.
On Wednesday, a private service was held at the Arizona Capitol for family and friends. Cindy McCain pressed her face against her husband’s coffin, and daughter Meghan McCain erupted in sobs.
McCain sons Doug, Jack and Jimmy, daughter Sidney and daughter-in-law Renee shook hands with some of the estimated 15,000 people who filed past the senator’s casket to pay their final respects.
On Thursday, Michael Fellars was among those awaiting the motorcade outside the church. The Marines veteran said he was also the fourth person in line Wednesday to attend the viewing at the Capitol for the Navy pilot held prisoner by the North Vietnamese for 5½ years after being shot down over Hanoi.
“He was about the only politician that I have ever known who cared for the people in his country, and he tried his level best to make it a better place in which to live,” Fellars said.
Honor guard member Valentine Costalez praised McCain for championing the military during his Senate career.
“He’s done so much for us,” said Costalez, who stood watch earlier this week while McCain’s body was at a funeral home.
After Thursday’s church service, a military aircraft was scheduled to take McCain’s body back east for a lying-in-state at the U.S. Capitol on Friday, a service at the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday, and burial at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Associated Press writers Anita Snow, Jacques Billeaud and Nicholas Riccardi in Phoenix contributed to this report.