Facing her husband’s casket, Christine Russell allowed the tears to flow as she described the bravery of Sergeant Ryan Russell, killed last week in the line of duty.
“Ryan always put others before himself. On January 12, this cost his him life,” Ms. Russell told the thousands gathered for a memorial service at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Tuesday. “Ryan, we are all so proud of you ... You are our hero.”
The service for Sgt. Russell drew more than 10,000 people from across the country and the United States, one of the largest funerals this city has seen. The 35-year-old officer, and father of a two-year-old boy, was crushed and killed by a stolen snowplow last week.
“Thank you for loving us and being a part of all of our lives. I find so much comfort when I look at my little boy, because I see so much of Ryan in him. We will love you forever and always. Thank you. I love you,” Ms. Russell said.
Members of the public, police officers and emergency workers filled the cavernous convention centre. Hundreds lined the walls of the room because all the seats were taken. Those present included Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.
The family of Sgt. Russell stood shoulder-to-shoulder, arms wrapped tightly around each other as they watched his casket, draped with the Canadian flag, carried into the convention centre for a memorial service.
MP Julian Fantino, the former Toronto Police chief who handed Sgt. Russell his badge when he joined the force 11 years ago, called the fallen officer a “modern-day hero.”
“Ryan’s life had no contradictions. He was equally predisposed to do good both on- and off-duty,” Mr. Fantino said in his tribute.
Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair described Sgt. Russell as a role model, a friend and a loving father and husband. “We [have] lost one of our best,” he said.
Earlier Tuesday morning, a sea of police officers marched solemnly along the streets of downtown Toronto and filed into the convention centre to remember the life of Sgt. Russell. Officers saluted the hearse carrying Sgt. Russell’s body as it made its way down University Avenue to the memorial service.
Standing along University Avenue near Gerrard Street were two officers from Corner Brook, Nfld., who had flown in the previous morning. “We send fellows as far away as Florida for police officers funerals,” said Sgt. Rich Wheeler. “I can’t imagine my chief knocking on my door, telling my wife – you know.”
Constable Rick Wallace, who served with the Toronto Police in 1986 and now works in Alberta, felt it was important to attend Tuesday’s service even though he didn’t know Sgt. Russell personally.
“It’s an opportunity to be here and pay respect,” Const. Wallace said.
And it wasn’t just police officers showing their respects. Firefighters from Burlington woke up earlier than usual to attend the funeral of a fellow fallen emergency service worker.
“We come together on certain calls and we work together,” said Josh Cline, who is part of Burlington’s fire department.
“Most of the guys who could make it are coming,” fellow Burlington firefighter Steph Jones added.
As the officers marched, the only sounds heard along University Avenue were their boots stomping and the order of “left, right, left, right” from those leading the groups. Members of the public looked on, and 30 court officers stood in a straight line in front of the courthouse to salute the police who marched by.
The last Toronto police officer who died in the line of duty was Laura Ellis in 2002. Sgt. Russell’s death has turned a tide of public support in favor of Toronto police after a difficult year that included accusations of brutality and misconduct following the G20 summit.
On Wednesday morning, a man allegedly leapt barefoot into a snowplow in the city’s east end, stealing the vehicle and setting off a chase across Toronto's downtown. Police say the man rammed into Sgt. Russell near the corner of Davenport and Avenue roads. The rampage ended when the snowplow ran into the garbage truck, and police shot the man near Keele and Annette streets.
Richard Kachkar, 44, faces a first-degree murder charge in Sgt. Russell’s death.