A plaque was presented in November 2000 by the Anna Maria City Commission and The Islander to Ralph Russell for his heroism while vactioning in Ireland. With Ralph are wife Doreen and grandson Tyler, then 2 1/2.
Island legend 'Rotten Ralph' dies
Ralph Russell, who left Canadian business successes behind to make his name and restaurant famous throughout the Gulf Coast, died in his sleep at home Wednesday night, Oct. 27, two days after his 77th birthday.
Visitation and memorial services were Monday afternoon at Roser Memorial Community Church.
The restaurant will continue "just as it always has," said son David, who with wife Kay had relieved Ralph of much of the day-to-day operation for a couple of years as Ralph battled cancer.
It will still be Rotten Ralph's, the name Russell senior brought with him from Canada - he acquired it jokingly when he was elected treasurer of his Lion's Club there and started collecting overdue dues, his son said.
He was born in Toronto Oct. 25, 1927, and went into the printing business as a very young man. In September 1956 he married Doreen, and they were a 24/7 couple from then on, said David. "They were together day and night as they worked together and raised the family, in Canada and Anna Maria."
After selling his printing business, he worked for DuPont, then in 1977 went into the restaurant business with a pizza franchise. Soon he bought an independent pizzeria, then expanded to Tartan Annie's fish and chips and acquired Bramalea Place restaurant and tavern in Bramalea, near Toronto. From those businesses he went to another fish and chips, the Heritage, which his son said "he made very successful."
In 1977, the family began vacationing here, buying a condominium on Lido Key. Ultimately they decided to leave cold winters behind and came here permanently. Russell bought the old Oyster Steamer in Anna Maria in 1986, renamed it Rotten Ralph's and was on his way to becoming an Island icon.
He was honored in November 2000 by the City of Anna Maria and The Islander newspaper for his lifesaving effort at the scene of a horrific accident in Ireland. A plaque similar to the one given Russell hangs at city hall.
The couple lived in Anna Maria until five years ago, when they gave up their big house and moved to Ellenton. He was generous to local charities, his son said, and suggested that memorial tributes be in the form of contributions to any local charity of choice.
Surviving are his wife, Doreen; sons David of Anna Maria, Paul of Wichita, and Steve in Peterboro, Ont.; sister Audrey and brother Paul in Canada; and seven grandchildren.
Local citizen, business owner, lauded for heroic rescue
The Islander, Sept. 13, 2000
When Ralph Russell of Anna Maria vacationed in Ireland, it never occurred to him that he would become an international hero.
It happened when the owner of Rotten Ralph's restaurant rescued a toddler from a burning car Aug. 26, 2000.
The next day under a 4-inch-tall headline "Miracle," the Irish Sunday Mirror reported: "An American tourist was hailed as a hero yesterday after plucking a toddler from a blazing wreck."
Everything happened so fast, Russell said of the incident. As traffic approached a curve on a narrow road, he saw the impact of a head-on collision between a red Mitsubishi and an oncoming delivery truck. The Mitsubishi was two cars in front of the one in which he was traveling.
"Within five seconds of the crash there were flames beneath the truck," Russell said.
"My first thought was to get the people out of the car, if they were alive, before there was an explosion," he said.
Russell said he desperately worked to rescue a surviving toddler, a boy thought to be 3 or 4, from the burning car.
With the help of his stepson and brother-in-law, he was finally able to pull the child out past another victim.
How long did the rescue take? Russell isn't sure.
"Time doesn't mean anything when you're working on adrenalin," he said.
As soon as the little boy was rescued, a nurse who happened to be traveling the same road, helped the child to breath, Russell said, and according to the Sunday Mirror, the child was taken to a hospital.
An autopsy report later revealed all four victims remaining in the car had died on impact and not as result of the fire, he said.
Russell said it was important to note that the children were not secured in safety seats, no seatbelts were in use at the time of the accident, and the car had no airbags.
In an attempt to stop the fire, Ralph's wife Doreen and his sister-in-law tried to locate a fire extinguisher from people in other cars, while his brother-in-law and others asked for water at nearby pub. But the fire was already out of control, he said.
The driver of the "lorry," a truck transporting pigs, walked away from the accident and was treated for shock, according to the Sunday Mirror. The victims in the car were vacationing from Wales when the accident occurred.
After the surviving child was released from the hospital, his aunt and uncle took him to their home in Wales, Russell said, and they phoned Russell's stepson at his home in England to thank him.
Doreen is from England, and although Ralph has been there several times, this was his first visit to Ireland, he said.
"Talking about the accident brought it all back," Russell said. "It was horrendous, and I was left with the helpless feeling that I couldn't do more."
Still, a little boy in Ireland has much to thank Russell for.