Acting Captain Bill Pollock has watched a soldier’s funeral procession before as the hearse, carrying the trooper’s casket, drives by the Bloor St. fire station on its way to the coroner’s office.
But this time was different. This time, the tragedy had hit one of his own.
Pollock and hundreds of other firefighters lined several downtown streets Sunday afternoon as the body of Pte. Kevin McKay, son of a Toronto fire captain, was brought home.
“This is a hurt because we’re a brotherhood. This is a hurt felt by all of us,” said Pollock, whose known the dead soldier’s father for 20 years.
On Grenville St., McKay’s family walked down a line of fire officials, their whispered condolences almost audible over the din of city.
McKay’s father, Fred, and younger brother Riley, 19, remained stoic as they shook the firefighters’ hands, but the soldier’s mother, Beth, broke down, clinging to an official’s chest for more than a minute as two of them cried.
McKay — or Mickey, as everyone called him — was killed by a roadside bomb on Thursday while walking on a night patrol southwest of Kandahar City.
The 24-year-old Richmond Hill native was set to return home at the end of April. He had been in Afghanistan since October and was nearly finished his first tour with the Edmonton-based 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. “We were kind of celebrating that he had made it and that he would be home soon,” Fred McKay said earlier in the week.
At the end of the ceremony, the crowd of about 350 people broke into applause for the family. “Canada’s proud of your son,” called out one man, a member of the Canadian Army Veterans Motorcycle Unit. “(It was) a fitting tribute to a fallen hero and his family,” said Toronto fire division chief David Sheen. On Bloor St., about 16 fire pumpers and other emergency vehicles turned on their lights and dozens of firefighters saluted as the procession passed by.
At one point, the grieving father reached his hand out the window and waved. While some firefighters wanted to park their trucks on Toronto’s bridges, which is popular among other fire services along the Highway of Heroes, the rigs stayed on the roads for “safety reasons,” said Captain Keith Hamilton. “The bridge has become the iconic photograph. Unfortunately, we don’t have the opportunity to do that,” he said.
Donna Milton and her husband were passing by when they noticed the ceremony and decided to stay and pay their respects. “His father has done nothing but serve Toronto and his son was serving his country,” she said. “It chokes me up.” Earlier Sunday, McKay’s body arrived at CFB Trenton aboard a military transport plane that was also carrying a contingent of about 100 soldiers, still in their sand-coloured fatigues, returning from their deployment.
Governor General Michaëlle Jean and Defence Minister Peter MacKay were among the dignitaries there to greet the soldiers on their return. At the base, McKay’s family laid single red roses on the soldier’s flag-based casket. McKay is the sixth Canadian military member to die in Afghanistan this year and the 144th soldier killed since the Afghan mission began in 2002.