Weather forces U.S. reps to miss funeral, but Dingell arrives in D.C.

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
A hearse carrying the casket of former Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., departs the East Front of the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, in Washington.

Washington — Two military aircraft transporting about 60 members of Congress to the funeral of former U.S. Rep. John Dingell could not land in Michigan due to bad weather and had to turn back, members said. 

The planes were unable to land at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, where the National Weather Service was reporting freezing rain and mist Tuesday morning.

The planes returned to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C., and then members were transported back to Capitol Hill, said Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph. 

Leadership had canceled votes in the House on Tuesday to allow members to attend Dingell's funeral Mass, whichwas briefly delayed before starting around 11:40 a.m. at the Church of the Divine Child in Dearborn. 

When the military planes reached airspace over Detroit, an ice storm kept them circling the area, waiting for the temperature to go up one to two degrees to above freezing, Upton said. 

Debbie Dingell, U.S. Congresswoman and widow of the late John Dingell, Jr., waves before leaving the funeral.

"They can land in snow but they cannot land in freezing rain," he said. 

The pilots waited as long as they could before turning back due to concerns about fuel supply, he added. 

"We all were just really disappointed we didn't get there," Upton told The Detroit News. 

"He was a wonderful man. Great tribute. Really sorry it didn’t work. It's pretty unusual that you can’t land at a major airport, but that's what happened."

Upton, a longtime friend of Dingell's, was scheduled to speak at Tuesday's funeral, along with Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy — who were also on the military flights to Michigan. 

Members, including Rep. Billy Long, R-Missouri, said they held an "impromptu service at 30,000 feet" for Dingell, led by Upton, Lewis and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California. 

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said Pelosi assembled about 30 members in the middle of the aircraft, and she, Upton and Lewis each spoke about Dingell. Lewis offered a prayer as the members held hands. 

"It was a really beautiful moment," Kildee said in an interview. "It was a small but really emotional little ceremony. We just did what we could flying back to Washington."

Kildee saw several other Michigan members during their aborted trip, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit; Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills; and Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly. 

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Reps. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton; John Moolenaar, R-Midland; and Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, were also on one of the military planes, aides said. 

There had been a waiting list for members who wanted to go, Levin said. 

Kildee said he expects many members will instead attend the funeral planned for Dingell in Washington on Thursday.

"Obviously, we all care a lot about Debbie and wanted to be able to be there for her, and we wanted to honor John. We felt like it was something he was owed," Kildee said. "There was disappointment for sure."

Some members of Congress from Michigan were able to make the funeral, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing; Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; and Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland.

Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, and ex-Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, were there, too.

Huizenga said it took him over four and a half hours to drive from West Michigan to Dearborn because the storm was so bad Tuesday. 

He and Stabenow flew with the Dingell family and Dingell's casket on a military cargo plane from Michigan back to the Andrews base, he said. 

"It was very moving. The ceremony of bringing him on board was very solemn," Huizenga said. 

"I have taken the flight to Washington with John Dingell hundreds of times to work for Michigan," Stabenow tweeted. "I am deeply touched to join him for his last flight to DC. May you Rest In Peace, John."

Upton had been scheduled to also fly with the Dingell family and to ride in a motorcade to the U.S. Capitol. 

Instead, he and several dozen members of Congress stood on the House steps to pay their respects to the motorcade bearing Dingell's casket, which drove across the East Plaza the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday afternoon. 

Several stood with their hands over their hearts and greeted their colleague Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who succeeded her husband in Congress in 2015 and stepped out of the motorcade to receive hugs and condolences. 

"She had a little nugget for all of us," Upton said. 

Upton was unsure if he and Lewis would be invited to speak at Dingell's funeral Mass on Thursday at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, where former President Bill Clinton is set to speak.

Twitter: @nannburke