By Melanie Creamer
Mourners are expected to pack Bibber Memorial Chapel in Kennebunk on Thursday to honor Derek Russell, a Hollis Center native and member of the Coast Guard, who died Dec. 22 after a hiking accident in Kodiak, Alaska. He was 20.
Russell, who served aboard the cutter Munro, left the base in Kodiak around 10 a.m. Dec. 22 to hike the nearby Barometer Mountain.
He was reported missing around 6 p.m. Sunday and the search began. Members of the Coast Guard, along with Alaska state troopers and Kodiak Island Search and Rescue assisted in the search.
Russell's remains were recovered on Christmas Day following several searches for him.
Officials say he slipped on a trail, fell more than 500 feet and died instantly.
His mother, Suzanne Russell of Kennebunkport, broke down on Wednesday when recalling the moment she was notified that her son's body had been found.
"I was relieved that they found him because I could stop picturing him lost on the mountain feeling cold, hurt and afraid," his mother said in a shaky, somber voice. "I imagined, what if he's alive and conscious and seeing the helicopters miss him. I was scared. When they found him, I felt this sense of peace. It's the peace that passes understanding. My heart ached and I cried, but that peace flooded in. For me on Christmas, it was a gift they found him."
Russell's body was transported to the Portland International Jetport Wednesday, where he was met with plane-side honors from members of the Coast Guard and his family.
Russell grew up in Hollis Center. He attended Master's House School at the New Life Christian Fellowship in Biddeford.
He then attended Biddeford High School for two years, where he excelled at soccer and track.
He left Biddeford High after his sophomore year to attend Calvary Chapel Christian Academy in Orrington. He graduated in 2011.
Ken Graves, pastor at Calvary Chapel Central Maine, remembered him Wednesday as a "cool and easy-going guy," who stood out among his peers.
"He wanted to be more than a typical church kid -- he really wanted to know the Lord," Graves said. "This tragedy isn't Derek's. It's ours. Derek is the luckiest man I know right now. He's in the presence of God. I believe that Derek is unique and God has a plan for him that is better than what we had for him here on Earth."
Following graduation, Russell spent three months in Italy with his sister and uncle.
His mother joined them in Italy for the last three weeks of their vacation. The family hiked extensively.
His mother chuckled, recalling a few outings where they hiked much longer because they couldn't read the signs.
"It was precious time," she said. "It was my last hurrah with my boy."
Soon after, Russell left for the Coast Guard training center at Cape May, N.J. He graduated in late February.
He was assigned to the Munro in Kodiak in March. He was a fireman on the ship and worked in the engine room. His mother said he intended to make a career in the Coast Guard.
"He chose the Coast Guard because he felt a very strong desire to be close to home so he could protect it. He wanted to be right here," she said.
In addition to his mother, Russell is survived by his father, David Russell, and his sister, Mercedes Russell. He also leaves his siblings, Josiah Bruns and Eliza Hennessey.
He was remembered by his family for his love of the outdoors and his passion for life. He was a bit of a risk-taker, who thought nothing of diving from the cliffs at Indian Cellar into the Saco River.
"He lived on the edge," said his uncle, Mahlon McLean. "He was very adventurous. He tried to push the envelope. When everyone wanted to stay in, he wanted to go out. He was just a good kid. He was one of the most sensitive people I have ever known. He had a kindness beyond words."
Russell had a close bond with his sister Mercedes.
"He was my best friend. I always felt safe with him," she said. "He was so humble and so willing to be close. I thought his eagerness to get to know people was beautiful. It made me a better person to be around him."
Visiting hours will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Bibber Memorial Chapel, 67 Summer St. in Kennebunk.
A service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at New Life Christian Fellowship Church in Biddeford.
Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Munro renders honors to their fallen shipmate Fireman Derek Russell at the Kodiak State Airport in Kodiak, Alaska, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012. Russell, who suffered a fatal fall while hiking on Barometer Mountain Sunday, was recovered by Alaska State Troopers, Kodiak Island Search and Rescue and the Coast Guard Tuesday following several searches for him. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis.