For the first day of the rest of our lives, Benjamin Phillips arranged a bus of Trump supporters from Pa. He died in Washington.
On Wednesday, Ben Philips rode to Washington in a white van, smiling at the steering wheel as he described the day's significance.
"To be honest, it seems like the first day of the rest of our lives," he said, ready to denounce what he claimed was a stolen election with crowds of other Trump supporters, including a party he brought to Washington from Pennsylvania. "They ought to name Zero this year, because something's going to happen."
After suffering what fellow demonstrators said was a stroke in the nation's capital, Philips, 50, of Bloomsburg, died that day. Policemen from Washington confirmed his death.
Without him, the group of Pennsylvanians he assembled returned on a peaceful, somber ride home, following a violent day when the Capitol building was targeted by insurrectionists incited by President Donald Trump's false allegations of election rigging. One of the four people who died in the chaos was Philips. There's no evidence that Philips himself took part in the Capitol raid.
Philips, a computer programmer who founded a website for Trump supporters on social media and arranged transport for several hundred people, arrived in Washington about 10:30 a.m. with the party
Honesdale group member Gordy Smith said he and others were calling Philips when it was time to leave and he hadn't arrived. One of those calls was answered by the Washington police, telling them that Philips suffered a stroke and died at George Washington University Hospital.
"They were all shocked," said Smith. "It was a very somber home drive."
Before dawn Wednesday, the party left for Washington, sleepy but happy, from the Bass Pro Shop in Harrisburg and picked up additional passengers in York. A separate van was operated by Philips, trailing behind the bus. He split off to find a place to park once everyone arrived in Washington and the party went to hear Trump talk near the Washington Monument.
"That was the last time we saw him," said Smith.
No one from the Pennsylvania party, Smith said, was with him throughout the day. Police in Washington did not immediately answer requests for more detail about the death of Philips. The department reported that three more people died outside of medical emergencies, including Philips, in addition to one woman shot by police inside the Capitol.
It was a surprising end to a day for the Pennsylvania party, most of whom had met Philips that day, which started out peacefully but turned into a Capitol uprising, with some of them fleeing the region once things became violent.
"The event seemed to be spreading an important message until ignorance began," said David Stauffer, a member of the York party. "As far as I have noticed, those people who broke in did not fit the pattern of the day's protesters."
Those in the group who were afraid of standing in the crowd were followed by Stauffer back to the meeting area to wait for the bus.
"There wasn't much talk coming back at all," said Stauffer. "People were mostly on their phones or staring out the window the way I was."
The day was characterized as violent, special, and sad by Smith, who was not far from the melee at the steps, the degree to which he only came completely into focus once he saw the news of the Capitol breach.
"Smith said, "We knew less about what was happening than people sitting at home in front of their TVs. You're on the field, and all you see are thousands of people, but what seemed unusual about the situation was why there wasn't more security than there was? ...You knew that at the drop of a hat, every group of people would turn into a mob. All it takes is one person to incite a riot.
Before recently moving to Bloomsburg to help care for his mother, who has Alzheimer's, Philips had spent 25 years in Philadelphia, he said this week in an interview. According to a listing on LinkedIn, he earned a degree in computer science from Temple University. Philips was a fervent Trump supporter who created many websites using his programming experience, including "The Scummy Democrats" and "Trumparoo," a social network named after a stuffed kangaroo he had built with a tuft of orange hair and red, white, and blue boxing gloves intended to imitate the president.
In order to combat Democrats and more moderate Republicans, Philips decided to create a political action committee, and he imagined setting up a network of conservative pages. "More uncensored spaces need to be in place," he said Wednesday on his way to Washington. "I imagine a whole network of interest-based niche social networks. Twitter and Facebook are not what you need. They hate us. There, they don't need us.
He strongly distrusted the media, along with many on the bus, but invited a reporter onboard to chronicle their trip.
Some Trump supporters who had come from out of state remained ahead of the trip at Philips' apartment and reflected on his generosity and openness to relative strangers on Wednesday. Philips himself said that the familiar feeling of the caravan had taken him away.
"It's all so nice, it's the coolest thing that you can just put a bunch of Trump supporters in a tiny apartment and just let them have them in and they're going to get along great," he said as he drove the van to Washington. "For some reason, they feel like a part of your family."
Some of the people who rode in the van with Philips were trying to find out how to recover their belongings on Thursday. There were bags of stuffed Trumparoos still covering the floor of the locked van, souvenirs Philips intended for those who made the trip with him.