Hundreds line highway to pay respect to fallen soldier
TORONTO -- Countless flag-waving Canadians flocked to bridges across eastern and southern Ontario and lined the streets of Hamilton in an emotional tribute to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo as his body returned home Friday.
The remarkable show of solidarity in honour of the slain soldier was much appreciated by the 24-year-old's family, some of whom made the painful trek with their loved one's body while others waited in Hamilton.
"Nathan was Canada's son, he belonged to all of us," Victor Briffa said Friday night, in a statement read by his stepson's company commander, Capt. Robert Andrushko, at the family's home.
"We've always thought we lived in the best country in the world, the people just proved it," he concluded.
Cirillo's trip home began in the afternoon in Ottawa, where two days earlier the single father of a five-year-old boy was shot by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau while standing guard at a National War Memorial on Parliament Hill.
The hearse travelled south under police escort to Hwy. 401, then east along the Highway of Heroes -- making the same journey 158 Canadian soldiers have made before him after dying in Afghanistan.
At every bridge along the route home, the procession was greeted by a sombre throng of Canadians proudly waving their nation's colours, heeding the call issued earlier in the day by Defence Minister Rob Nicholson.
As the hearse passed through Whitby just after 6 p.m., more than 250 people on the Brock St. bridge began singing O Canada.
Many in the crowd also applauded.
Clutching a hockey stick with a Canadian flag wrapped around it and holding his five-year-old son in his other hand, Nicholas Dunham, 30, broke down in tears as he spoke about fallen soldiers.
The firefighter, who once served at CFB Greenwood, became emotional when describing the memorial plaque on the bridge overlooking Hwy. 401.
"A friend of mine is on one of those plaques," Dunham said. "He was killed in Afghanistan. It's just so sad, that's why I brought my boy here. They're all scared for their lives, even in Canada."
Terry Cameron, whose uncle Harold Carrigan, a retired Ontario Provincial Police officer, helped to establish the Highway of Heroes and drove the fallen soldiers to their final destination, said it is always emotional watching the procession.
"He died in 2012 at age 67, but he drove every soldier, except the last one, through," she said. "It means a lot. My uncle would be so proud of me coming here. I needed to be here."
John Dolstra, the chairman for Highway of Heroes, said Canadians won't be intimidated by violence.
"What happened in Ottawa with this guy getting killed is sending the message: When these things happen, they're not going to fool around," Dolstra said. "They're going to move forward. This is a wake-up call to the government."
Dolstra said people flock to bridges along Hwy. 401 in such sad times to "reflect" as well as to "pay respect to the sacrifices" our soldiers have made.
Michele Huinink, 56, said she wanted to be on the bridge to show her support for the young soldier because her uncle, too, was in his 20s when he was killed in the Second World War.
"We lost him so young and so close to home," she said. "They shipped him out of Montreal and they were torpedoed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He never got to leave Canada."
A similar sea of red greeted the procession as it passed the Simcoe St. bridge minutes earlier.
"I'm a Canadian and this guy gave everything for us to have freedom," said Michael Monk, who was among the hundreds on the Oshawa overpass. "He shouldn't have died at home standing guard at a memorial for dead soldiers."
Walter Mills, 88, agreed, calling the shooting in our nation's capital "unbelievably horrific."
"He was one of our men," said the 88-year-old, whose older brother died in WWII. "The fellow who killed him got his just rewards."
Andree Lafeamce said she needed to be on the bridge to show Cirillo's family they weren't alone.
"I have to show my respect because I'll never forget him," Lafeamce said. "We will continue because we aren't intimidated by what happened."
And Brittany Fice brought her eight-year-old son Jason to learn pride in country.
"We have to remember what we have - life - is a gift," she said.
Nicole Fisher said she brought her four-year-old son, Cohen, as a lesson.
"He doesn't really understand right now, but one day we can look back and I can tell him what today was about," she said.
When Cirillo and his mother, who made the arduous journey with her son's body, finally arrived home just before 8 p.m., some 500 people lined both sides of the street in front of the Markey-Dermody Funeral Home.
Many in the crowd waited hours in the cold to pay their respects.
Longtime Hamilton resident Heather Morgan said giving up a couple hours of time was the least people could do considering Cirillo's parents lost their son.
She and many others were moved to tears as members of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, wearing their full-dress uniforms, carried their fallen brother's casket into the funeral home.
Although Morgan has seen other soldiers return home in caskets from Afghanistan in the past, this time was different.
"This happened on Canadian soil," she said. "And it was the second one this week.
"I really hope this is the last one because I can't take any more," Morgan added.
Cirillo's stepfather also fought back tears earlier in the evening as Andrushko, who was also the slain soldier's civilian employer as well as his company commander, helped him express the family's gratitude to all of Canada.
"On behalf of our family, we want to say thank you to the entire nation," Briffa said. "We are not only mourning as a family, but also a country."
"There are no words to express the sadness that has fallen upon us all," he added.
However, Briffa said the outpouring of support from Canadians "in this devastating time" has made their loved one's death "almost bearable."
The grieving stepdad also offered "a special thank you" to the "wonderful" people who were at Cirillo's side comforting him and trying desperately to keep him alive after he was shot.
Briffa said his stepson "loved the army" had an "unwavering devotion to duty" and "understood what it meant to sustain freedom."
"He was fearless," Briffa said. "Nathan would have done his duty even if he knew this tragedy was coming."
Visitation, which will be open to the public, will be at the funeral home on Sunday and Monday.
And Cirillo will be laid to rest Tuesday following a service at Christ's Church Cathedral.
--with files from Kevin Connor
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