Time sensitive: Upcoming tribute for late federal attorney stirs a wave of emotions

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(l) - Ellen and her sister Carol (left) were frequent travel partners, and enjoyed the sights of Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona on one of their trips out west. (r) - A 1980 photo of Ellen ­Christensen is a family favorite and was taken just two years before she joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, where she would spend the balance of her ­distinguished legal career.

Photos courtesy of Lyle Russell

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Next month, more than two years after she died of lung cancer, Ellen Christensen will be posthumously honored at a special gathering of family, friends, and former colleagues of the late Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.

The upcoming tribute is being planned by her husband, attorney Lyle Russell, who was in the midst of his own life-and-death struggle when his wife died on April 6, 2019 at the age of 69.

The adopted daughter of Veronica and Bill Christensen, she grew up on the east side of Detroit and graduated from the all-girls Dominican High School. A gifted student, Christensen took her academic talents to the University of Michigan and then to law school at the University of Detroit, where she first crossed paths with her future husband.

A year later, she transferred to Wayne State University Law School, where she obtained her degree with distinction in 1976. Her smarts helped land a job as a law clerk to then Chief Justice Thomas Giles Kavanagh of the Michigan Supreme Court, a two-year assignment that led to an opportunity in private practice with Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss.

“She spent a year there, working in the First National Building before she made the move to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where she was able to really put her courtroom skills to good use,” said Russell.

From her start in January 1982, Christensen would spend her entire career there in the office’s Civil Division, becoming the first chief of the Affirmative Litigation Unit when it was created in the late 1980s. She held that post for nearly 30 years, retiring in the spring of 2017 due to her declining health situation.

As husband and wife, Russell and Christensen defined the term “soulmates,” enjoying a special love and respect for each other that transcended their time together.

Their bond was cemented early on by their shared fascination with outdoor adventures, whether it be in some far-flung place overseas, at a remote location out west, or at their vacation property on the beautiful Leelanau Peninsula. It was a passion they shared with their two sons, Ryan and James, with whom they frequently visited the East Coast where Christensen’s sister Carol lived.

It was on one of those trips—20 years ago this month – that their family came to grips with the reality of perhaps America’s darkest day.

9/11.

Christensen, by chance, was in Washington, D.C. that fateful day, attending a conference presented by the National Advocacy Center of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“The location was near the J. Edgar Hoover Building, not far from the Pentagon,” Russell indicated. “I was in my Troy office early that day, immersed in a client matter and unaware of the events that were transpiring until a client called and mentioned that one of the World Trade Center towers had been hit by a plane. The NBC sales office was in the next suite, and I went there to watch the live, unedited satellite feeds and listen to the background chatter as the network anchors tried to figure out what was happening before going on air with edited images and commentary for its viewers. The raw footage and comments were emotional and electrifying as the broadcasters tried to make sense of what was happening in the moment.  Except for the live coverage of the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald in the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy, I could not recall such a momentous event taking place on live television. 

“Shortly after the plane hit the Pentagon, Ellen and all of the large group of attendees were told that Washington might be under attack but that information was still coming in,” Russell said. “They were informed that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been hit by jet airliners, but not much else. The conference was summarily cancelled, and they were told to immediately return to their accommodations and from there return home. Ellen’s hotel was in Virginia, as was also the case with many of the attendees.”

What followed would leave a lasting impression on his wife, said Russell.

“When Ellen stepped outside, she was confronted with mass confusion,” Russell related.  “Public transportation was not working. Bus service could not function due to uncontrolled traffic congestion, much of it due to vehicles abandoned in the streets. The subway system had just been shut down out of concern that it might be a terrorist target. Trains were also shut down, and all airports were either shut down or in the process of shutting down. The most obvious alternate route out of the Washington area, the light rail connector to BWI airport, was shut down.

“Walking was the only alternative,” he indicated. “Cell phone usage was impossible due to overwhelming volume, so streams of people evacuating the government and business agencies and offices could not communicate except verbally with those in close proximity. As there was no central information source, a tsunami of speculation and rumors was being exchanged as pedestrians did their best to get away from D.C. as quickly as they could. Ellen described the streets as a mass of people walking away from downtown D.C. in an effort to get away from the chaos and fear that other attacks might be imminent. The atmosphere was one of very high anxiety, but not of panic or uncontrolled flight of the sort to endanger others. At that point no one knew what might be next. Because the pedestrians crowding the streets made vehicular traffic impossible, abandoned vehicles, including city busses, created a logjam and chokepoints in the flow of walkers that added to an already difficult walk out of central D.C.”

At one point, en route to her hotel in Virginia, a walk she estimated at about 5 miles, Christensen came upon a woman, probably in her 60s, wearing bedroom slippers and carrying an empty Mr. Coffee carafe. 

“She appeared dazed, but was cogent,” Russell said of the woman. “A conversation ensued, in which Ellen learned that her walking companion was a librarian with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. She had been asked to bring a pot of coffee to a meeting that was just getting started at the Pentagon, and had walked away to fill the coffee pot when the plane crashed into the building. Its impact point was at or near to the meeting room, which was obliterated in the crash, apparently resulting in the deaths of at least some of the attendees who had arrived a bit early. The librarian was also walking to Virginia, and in the duration of that walk, Ellen did her best to offer what comfort she could.

“I was, of course, aware that Ellen was in D.C., but in her rush to get to the conference, she had neglected to provide me with information as to her accommodations. I knew she wasn’t at the Pentagon, but was deeply worried as to her safety. Her Detroit office could not provide me with information to identify where she was, and I was unable to get a cell call through.  At the time, our two boys were about 14 and 11 years old. I left my office, picked them up at their schools, which were closing early due to security concerns, and together we strategized how to reach Ellen while I did my best to assure them that she was safe. They knew I didn’t really know much, but did their best to think of a way to reach her. As it turned out, we were not able to do that for hours.”

When Christensen was finally able to reach her hotel, she was confronted with the same dilemma everyone else trying to leave Washington faced:  How to get out? 

“There was no cell service, land lines were overwhelmed, no bus service, no airplanes, no trains, no cabs, no rental cars, as all available ones were gone,” Russell recalled of the situation on 9/11. “This was before the advent of Uber and Lyft, and no taxis were on the streets, which by then were pretty well deserted. There was no way home for Ellen, and no immediate way to even leave metro D.C.

“Late that evening, Ellen had been able to reach her sister, Carol, who lived in New Jersey, half an hour’s train ride from Manhattan,” Russell indicated. “After a couple of days, they devised a plan that was contrary to what everyone else was trying to avoid:  Ellen was able to get on a bus going into Manhattan and got off in Newark, where Carol picked her up and took her to her home. Several days later, with commercial air traffic grounded or overwhelmed, and trains going west still not available, Ellen was able to get on a bus to Cleveland, and from there back home.”

But two weeks later, Christensen would return to New Jersey, this time visiting her sister while accompanied by the rest of her family. As a group, they headed to what had now come to be known as “Ground Zero,” the once bustling site of the twin towers.

“Late day turned into evening; the streets of lower Manhattan were almost empty, an eerie contrast to the usual frenetic scene we had previously experienced,” Russell said. “The site was still smoldering, ruined buildings remained with their facades sheared off. Tableaus of half-destroyed offices fronted the silent streets. Plainly visible were cluttered desks, photos on the wall behind them hanging cockeyed, filing cabinets with their doors blown off, kitchens with dishes still on tables, bathrooms with their fixtures dangling in open air, and swirls of papers drifting down through the smoke made an impression that still has the power to haunt.

“Posters placed on the fences that separated us from the site were everywhere: ‘Have You Seen...?’, and ‘Missing, please call’, with photos attached and information containing the last place the loved ones were known to have been that morning. Some repeated the message in various languages other than English. At the commuter train station in the small New Jersey town where Carol lived, cars belonging to those who were never coming home still sat in the parking lot, posters and official notices taped to their windows in the hope that somehow, someone would arrive on a return train and come back to their loved ones.”

The trip to Ground Zero would underscore how suddenly the world changed that September day two decades ago, said Russell.

“The dimensions of the carnage and the overall scene were immensely more striking than any photo I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was also a thought-provoking counterpoint to the assumption that just about all of us make every day that ours is a civilization of indestructible permanence. We are no different in the end than ancient Rome or the Mayan Empire, or countless other civilizations that have ended up in history’s dustbin. And, of course, with Ellen’s death, that sense of fragility has returned.”




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