The news reports began rolling in around 10:15 am on Wednesday, 45 minutes after everything had started. Shots in the downtown core, an honour guard shot at the National War Memorial, gunmen on the loose, everyone in lockdown.
This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in our quiet, regulated town. It was the kind of thing you heard about on the news, about other places, bigger places. But this is a capital city, after all, so I guess it wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility.
I was at work, which felt uncomfortably close to the action. After the initial flurry of panic and the exchanging of stories and rumours in the hallways, staff gradually returned to their work. There was not much else we could do with the building in lockdown and telephone and internet communications working only intermittently, so the day continued mostly as normal.
Mid-morning, I went to a meeting in a room on the second floor of our building. Its full wall of windows looked out over the eerily deserted street. Partway through the meeting, a voice came over the PA system: “A situation is unfolding. All employees are asked to take cover away from windows and remain in the building. We will notify you of any changes.” Before the announcement was over, the automatic blinds in the room began to close ominously. We suddenly felt more vulnerable.
“Of all the other buldings in the downtown core, could ours potentially become a target?” the people in the room wanted to know. No one could be sure.
When I returned to my office, our boss had his TV on and had invited employees to drop by to watch as things unfolded. It was an uncomfortable sensation to see our building and the buildings surrounding us featured in a news story beside images of SWAT teams and armed police running through our streets. To suddenly have become part of the news, no matter how marginally, was surreal.
After lunch, the clouds began to roll in. Their shadows reached through the windows and fell across the floor and the desks, contributing to the feeling of foreboding. Every now and then that same announcement sounded over the PA system, which didn’t help either. The situation was continuing to unfold, stay away from the windows, do not leave the building.
After an hour of failed attempts, my husband and I finally connected and he told me he was outside our son’s school, which was also in lockdown. He and the other parents were unable to get in but he would bring him home when they opened the doors. I had a mental image of parents milling about outside the locked down school. I didn’t feel it was particularly safe but there wasn’t much I could do about it.
At the time, we thought there were at least two gunmen on the loose, we didn’t know who their other targets were or where they would strike next, so we were all in potential danger, everyone who was downtown. We live in the downtown core, so our home was, I suppose, part of that vaguely defined “danger zone.”
I felt slightly better when I got my husband’s message that he and our son were at home, but I couldn’t help wondering whether those who were homebound were also supposed to stay away from the windows.
As evening approached, employees began to wonder what was going to happen when they wanted to, or had to, leave. With nothing other than the repeated standard message to inform us, some wondered if we would be spending the night in the building. No one wanted to have to leave after dark.
But just before 4:00pm, the lockdown was lifted and we were told we could leave at our own risk, as long as we stayed outside a core section of city blocks. The gunman had apparently been shot hours before but there was no confirmation one way or the other about accomplices or additional gunmen. My husband said he and our son would drive up to get me.
When I left to meet them, I emerged onto streets full of people. The sun was shining again. It was even warm. Tourists were taking pictures of the historic church across the street. It was as though nothing had happened, as though all the warnings and news and sirens were part of some horror that belonged somewhere else after all.
But they didn’t. They happened here. Down the street from my office, down the street from my home, in the neighbourhood where we walk and cycle and run.
I could drive myself crazy thinking that if I had gone to work later or had taken a different route, if I had been at an appointment or had biked instead of getting a drive to work, I could have been there. Just as randomly as anyone else. The gunman could have started his rampage at a different place downtown, on a different day. So many possibilities, so many small alternate realities and any one of us could have been caught in the crossfire.
And now, to complicate the emotions and our understanding of the situation even further, details are starting to emerge that suggest the gunman wasn’t some evil extremist bent on terror, but actually an individual with mental health issues who had tried to seek help but hadn’t been successful. Perhaps the two descriptions aren’t even mutually exclusive. Perhaps he was both. Like most situations involving human motivation, it is not simple. Heartbreakingly, a young soldier lost his life while he was out there, undefended, in a position of honour. Beyond that one sad fact, I don’t think we have a full picture of the whys or the hows yet.
My story is pretty similar to most from that day. We were all in it together and there is nothing particularly special about my recounting. I’m sure this week, and in the days to come, others will write about what happened, just as I have done, as a way to try to make sense of the experience and the after-effects.
There are those who were closer to the events, those who were affected more directly. They are the ones with the stories to tell. They are the ones who lost a loved one, or tried to save a life.
I think it is human nature to wonder, though, what small little twists of fate tied them tragically or heroically to the events, and what small little twists of fate spared the rest of us.