Blue lights were flashing and his siren was wailing when Keith Slay's truck left the road, and as the police officer's vehicle slammed into a utility pole on Veterans Parkway Tuesday afternoon, an entire community cringed at the impact.
Word spread quickly that Slay was dead and that Russell County Deputy Sheriff Brad Evans was seriously injured. This spurred a familiar reaction that began here at home and bounced across the nation.
Word reached faraway colleagues before the Columbus Police Department sent out the predictable Teletype message announcing the death of an officer in the line of duty. Mourning began at the first mention of the fatal wreck on the social media.
The medium was new but the response wasn't. When an officer goes down, brothers and sisters in uniform remember the risks they take every day, and civilians offer prayers of gratitude for a group whose jobs put them on the thin blue line between life and death.
Slay, a 32-year veteran, was assigned to the Metro Narcotics Task Force and was the primary pilot of the department's rescue helicopter. He's the 25th local law enforcement person killed in the line of duty since Chief of Police Matthew Murphy was shot and killed in 1874. Around the country, he was the 58th officer to die this year and the fourth in 10 days.
His death set off a chain of events that are spelled out in police manuals and training sessions. It began with that Teletype confirming his death and will continue until the closing prayer at Slay's funeral Monday morning.
Officials at McMullen Funeral Home expect more than 400 police cars from around the region will join the funeral procession and anticipate around 2,500 uniformed officers to be among the mourners at Cascade Hills Church. That does not include police choppers flying above the line of cars.
But not every thing will be by the book, said police Capt. J.D. Hawk.
"Theoretically, they all should be the same. Theoretically. But every one is different. If the officer was a member of a SWAT Team, that changes things. If he was a motorcycle officer, that changes things. Keith was a helicopter pilot, so that will change things. Each one adds something unique," Hawk said.
Hawk has represented the department at many police funerals. It isn't unusual for visiting officers to be left standing outside the church or chapel. "I have stood in many hallways," he said.
Nor is it unusual for the hearse and the families
at the head of the procession to reach the cemetery before the cars at the end of the line even leave the church.
Allen McMullen has officiated at other police funerals and he remembers the respect: "In the Deep South, we always pull over out of respect, but when it's a dead officer there is a special respect. I remember a man on a lawn mower getting off and saluting when the hearse passed by."
We're thankful Deputy Evans is rallying, and we pray for his recovery. But the next few days belong to Slay's family. They have made a sacrifice for us.
It's like the police cars say: "To serve and protect."
-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him on Twitter @hyattrichard.