Police Officer Sally Zheng was stood at attention alongside her fellow cops at Transit District 30 in Downtown Brooklyn, New York. It was May 25, 2017, and NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill was on his way, so all of the officers waited in an orderly fashion.
But once the commissioner arrived, it became clear he wasn’t just there to inspect the police station. Instead, he stood in front of the officers and asked a question that would have meaning to only one person in the room: Sally Zheng.
“You know Officer Ralph Torres?” he asked. The untrained eye would have barely noticed that Zheng did, indeed, know him. But as soon as O’Neill asked the question, she glanced left and right, looking for the retired cop.
Then the commissioner asked the question Zheng had been waiting for since she was 14 years old: “Would you like to meet him?” On hearing those words, her guard dropped and she let herself crack the slightest of smiles.
It’s not surprising Zheng’s emotion got the best of her in that moment: she had spent 20 long years searching for Ralph Torres, after all. Torres changed her life when she was just 14 years old.
“It started from a memory, a memory from my childhood,” an emotional Zheng recalled to CBS New York in July 2017. “I wasn’t in a good situation, but he was there with me.”
Torres himself was once an NYPD police officer, and he came to rescue a teenaged Zheng from her abusive parents. The warmth and protectiveness he showed on that fateful day stayed with Zheng for more than two decades.
“He calmed me down, and he said, as long as he’s there, no one is going to hurt me,” she said. “For someone who went through many years of abuse, it was the first time I felt safe.”
Torres must have felt moved by the wounded young woman, too: he left her his phone number in case she needed him down the line. “She was scared, a scared little girl, and I felt that I had to do something at the time,” Torres told CBS New York in July 2017.
So, as soon as Zheng settled into her new foster home, she tried to reach out to Torres and thank him properly. There was only one problem: she had somehow lost the officer’s number.
From there, the young woman spent years trying to track down the man who had saved her. She even wrote him an emotional letter, saying, it “was just [her] dream of meeting [him] again, the hero that once gave [her] courage.”
She even went so far as to become a police officer herself, thinking a place on the force would make it easier to locate Torres. “As soon as I got on the job, I was out there, I was asking, ‘Do you know an Officer Torres? Can you help me?’”
But despite her best efforts, she was never able to find the retired cop. Perhaps that’s why she looked so shocked on the day she finally had her reunion with Torres – she had no idea her dream was about to come true.
And then, all of the sudden, her “hero”, as she described him to CBS New York, was standing right in front of her with a bouquet of roses in his hand and a beaming smile on his face. Zheng could hardly move.
The two embraced, putting an end to Zheng’s 20-year search. The other officers in the room broke into spontaneous applause, though it’s unlikely they knew just how much the moment meant to both Zheng and Torres.
“It felt like I just gained another daughter,” Torres said in an attempt to describe his emotion after the two reunited. Warming to his theme, he also vowed to never miss another one of Zheng’s milestones in life from that day forward.
Zheng wanted more than to thank Torres for changing her life and for inspiring her career with the NYPD, of which she is extremely proud. She wanted to know if Torres ever thought of her – and if he would take pride in her success.
“Maybe in the back of his head, he’d be thinking, ‘I wonder how that little girl is doing,’” she told CBS New York. “So I just want to tell him that I’m doing very well, that’s my whole point. I want to stand in front of him and say, ‘I’m doing so good.’”
Zheng paused and looked over at the retired officer. “Are you proud of me?” she asked, her voice cracking with emotion. Torres smiled and nodded for a few seconds. “Very much so,” he replied.
And he’ll likely continue to feel a sense of pride in his new daughter, as she hopes to use her story to inspire other foster children. She wants them to know “there’s always hope out there,” and that they can achieve all that she has, too.