When Toronto Police Sgt. Ryan Russell was killed in the line of duty last month, the entire city mourned. It was a sad story made even more tragic by the fact the 11-year veteran left behind a beautiful young wife and an adorable two-year-old son.
However, when Russell’s widow, Christine, spoke for the first time at his funeral, her strength was so evident that she managed to make us all feel better — like everything was somehow going to be OK.
Now this woman’s strength shines through again in an incredibly touching letter published in the February issue of the Toronto Police Association’s magazine, Tour of Duty. It’s meant to be a thank you to her late husband’s fellow officers but Christine’s words also offer a heart-breaking glimpse at the moment she learned the love of her life had been run down by a stolen snowplow:
You never think this day would happen. Sometimes I thought about it just before falling asleep, because I was at home safe while he was out working the shifts that leave us all so vulnerable to these worrisome thoughts. But those are just silly thoughts, a last moment to ponder before drifting off.
I honestly never worried about Ryan’s job. I knew he was well trained, I knew he worked in teams, I knew he knew what he was doing out there. I admired him for being a Police Officer. I respected the job. I knew when we got married that I was marrying a cop. Marriage to a cop comes with many days, nights, weekends, holidays, and special occasions spent alone. I knew that, I got that. I also worked shifts, so we both understood the importance of making the most of our time together.
When you think about the "day" it happens, you get this visualization of sorrowful Police Officers knocking on your door to break your heart and deliver the tragic news. Unfortunately it was not that Hollywood moment, it was much worse than anything Hollywood could produce.
Ryan was on day shift January 12th. I heard him showering around 4 a.m., and as usual I fell right back asleep. I was up and out of the house by 7 a.m. I dropped off Nolan at daycare, and then began my usual drive into work. The roads were in terrible condition, so much snow and poor visibility.
My SUV struggled to make it out of our neighbourhood onto Kingston Road. I listened to the radio for updates on road conditions and accidents. I heard the news that a Police Officer had been injured by a snowplow, but thought nothing other than it must have been a vehicular collision.
Finally I made it onto the Gardiner and I called Ryan and left him a message that Nolan was dropped off and the roads were terrible and I was going to be late for work. Not 5 seconds later my phone rang, blocked caller ID, I naturally assumed it was Ryan calling me back.
The voice on the other end was not Ryan though. It was his friend and colleague, Tom Steeves. I just started blabbing, telling Tom, Ryan was on day shift and he had court today, and try him on his cell. I got the awkward pauses and sighs and then Tom asked me where I was? I said I was driving to work, why? Tom said where are you exactly? I knew from that moment … I don’t know how or why, but I just knew.
I exited at Spadina in a panic and tried to figure out how to flag down a cop for help. Tom begged me to pull over and wait, saying they would come to me. I just kept driving focused on finding St. Mike’s hospital.
I hung up on Tom and somehow I was able to continue driving, while barely seeing through my tears, and made the dreaded Hollywood calls. First call was to my mom in Peterborough. I told her Ryan was hurt and she needed to come to Toronto right away. Second call was to Ryan’s parents in Florida. I told Ryan’s dad, Glenn, he needed to come home, get on a plane and come home now. I found out later, strangely enough, both my mom, and Ryan’s dad had been watching CP24 in two different countries, at the same time, and happened to see the same footage, and they both knew that Ryan was more than hurt.
I finally pulled over at Queen and Yonge and waited. I could see St. Mike’s hospital one block away. I wanted to run there as fast as I could but my legs would not move.
Finally I saw a cruiser coming for me. The Sergeant who drove me one block to St. Mike’s could not look into my eyes. I asked him if Ryan was ok. He kept his eyes forward while the tears poured down his face. I knew it was fatal.
I was swarmed by a sea of high-ranking Police members as they whisked me through the emergency unit and into a small room. The lights in the room were dim, and I was forced to sit down. Finally the Hollywood moment …
After Chief Blair informed me Ryan had been killed, all I could ask was what Ryan was doing out there? Ryan’s a Sergeant, why was he out there? How did this happen? Ryan spent many dangerous years at Guns and Gangs, if it was going to happen during his career it would have been then not now, not as a Sergeant.
I remember crying but then the tears just stopped. I think my emotions went from shock, to grief, to disbelief, to anger, to resentment, to frustration and finally to self-pity. It was at the self-pity point (not even 20 minutes after being informed of my loss) that I was asked to consent to donate Ryan’s eyes. Ryan’s eyes. The most beautiful baby-blue eyes. His perfect 20/20 vision eyes. They told me it was the only part of him that could be salvaged. The most beautiful part was the only part. I immediately consented and I immediately began to feel better.
Ryan’s body was taken to the Coroners, and I was taken home. I was never allowed to hold his hand or kiss his face. Evidence needed to be preserved.
Family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, all began to fill up my house, all there to comfort me. Somehow I was fine, somehow I was comforting them?
From that point on I found strength. I was surrounded constantly by people who cared. I was assisted constantly by the Police Association. I was supported constantly by the Police Service and the public.
All of Ryan’s courage and bravery jumped into my soul and helped me get through the next week.
The visitation was overwhelming but I insisted on greeting every single person who wished to offer their sympathy, or gratitude, or last respects. I did it all for Ryan.
On the morning of Ryan’s funeral service, I was able to hold his hand one last time and kiss him goodbye. I told him I would make him proud and raise our son to be just like him.
As we followed the hearse, I took every moment in. Citizens outside the funeral home lining the streets, opposing traffic stopping, on ramps blocked off, motorists saluting, the vacated highways, the peaceful journey into Toronto along the Highway of Heroes.
We staged in front of 52 Division. The bagpipes began, and slowly the crowds marched. I saw the faces, the tears, the hands over the hearts, the saluting I heard the K9’s crying, I heard the sounds of silence in the busiest city in Canada.
It was all for Ryan. It was all from you.
Thank you for allowing me to tell you about the day you think will never happen.
Thank you for being brave and for being supportive.
Thank you for serving and protecting.
You are all heroes in life, and remember, there will be an answer, let it be.
With the utmost respect,