OTTAWA — The heart of Canada’s democracy came under attack Wednesday in a brazen shooting that left a soldier dead, a parliamentary security guard wounded, and Canadians reeling at images of violence in the national capital.
In an unprecedented morning assault, a single gunman fired on a ceremonial soldier standing guard at the National War Memorial before storming onto Parliament Hill, where he burst through the main doors of Centre Block, ran past rooms where NDP and Conservative MPs, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were meeting.
Behind him in chase was a cluster of security officials and police officers, their guns drawn.
A volley of shots rang out, with Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, a long-time veteran of the RCMP, reportedly shooting the gunman, later identified by a Canadian security source as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau.
At the National War Memorial, bystanders tried frantically to save the life of the young soldier who had stood ceremonial guard next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a 24-year-old reservist from Hamilton, would later die of his wounds.
A scenic fall day turned into chaos, confusion and fear shortly before 10 a.m..
One Ottawa resident watched as a short-man with shoulder length hair got out of a car parked near the war memorial, pulled out what appeared to a bunch of blankets or rolled-up sleeping bag and ran to the monument.
A few moments later, she saw the man coming back to the car. “And I see that he’s carrying a shiny object that, from afar, looked like a pipe, like a silvery-coloured pipe, which I now know was a long gun,” she said.
Other witnesses say Cirillo was shot at point-blank range.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had been evacuated from Parliament Hill, branded the assault a “terrorist” attack. Top security officials were also on the Hill, including the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, along with the deputy ministers of justice and defence.
In a televised address to the nation Wednesday evening, Harper’s voice shook as he paid tribute to Cirillo, slain at a “sacred place that pays tribute to those who gave their lives so that we can live in a free, democratic and safe society.”
He extended condolences as well to the family of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent “who was killed earlier this week by an ISIL-inspired terrorist.”
“But let there be no misunderstanding, we will not be intimidated. Canada will not be intimidated,” Harper said.
Harper had been whisked off the Hill by his protective detail and later huddled with Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney for a cabinet meeting.
Three other patients were taken to the Ottawa Hospital’s Civic campus for “minor, non-life threatening injuries” and were later released, including a Parliament Hill security guard who suffered a gunshot wound to the leg.
At an afternoon news conference, police officers did not say whether they were still hunting for other suspects though the city’s downtown core remained on lockdown. Nor would they confirm whether the man shot by police on Parliament Hill was the gunman suspected of shooting the soldier.
Calls to 911 about the War Memorial shooting began to pour into the Ottawa police at 9:52 a.m.
Construction worker Scott Walsh was working near East Block when he heard one or two loud bangs and spotted a man running in his direction. He was wearing a white scarf and carrying a double-barrel shotgun though the firearm didn’t register at first until a colleague screamed, “he has a gun, get down.”
“I saw people running and screaming. There was a man running. He had a scarf over his face. He ran up by East Block and hijacked a car at gunpoint. He didn’t harm the man inside and then made his way up around the loop in front of Centre Block.
Alain Merizier, a waiter in the Parliamentary Restaurant, was at the main entrance of Centre Block when the shooter arrived.
“He arrived quickly in a black car, right near the main door. I saw a young man, with a beard, and a hunting rifle, he shouldered it and he rushed quickly into Parliament and I heard a shot.”
“He had long hair, he looked in his 30s . . . I saw the police arrive and the Commons security advancing.”
A shaken Marc-Andre Viau, spokesperson for the NDP, saw the suspect run into the main doors of Centre Block, chased by a Mountie. Soon after he heard a volley of shots inside.
“As soon as the police officer walked in, there were a lot of shots, multiple shots fired. There was a pause then I heard another round of shots,” Viau said.
Inside the building, it was caucus day. Party leaders met with MPs and senior staff behind closed doors.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said he and his colleagues heard several rounds of heavy gunfire just outside the door of their meeting room.
Angus said MPs and staffers tried to barricade the door with tables and lay down on the floor as they heard what he said was at least two rounds of gunshots followed by another few shots.
“People put up furniture. We put tables against the door. We lay down. You’ve never been through this before. You don’t know what the routine is other than what you have seen in the movies, so we didn’t know if someone was going to be able to try and get in,” Angus said.
Across the hall, Conservative MPs were dong the same, as shown by a picture taken by MP Nina Grewal, showing a stack of chairs stacked against a door.
Some MPs were evacuated to safety through the tunnels that led to adjacent buildings as well as to the rear of centre block. That’s where Liberal MP John McKay took cover with others behind a monument. He had just arrived for the Liberal caucus in a basement meeting room when he heard gunfire.
Other MPs, including Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, remained locked in Parliament Hill, into the evening after being warned to barricade their doors and not to open them under any circumstances.
It was a stunning assault on a day when the Conservative government had planned to introduce expanded anti-terrorism powers for Canada’s national security agencies. It came on the heels of Monday’s shocking attack in Quebec where a self-radicalized man, identified as a high-risk traveller by the RCMP, ran down two Canadian soldiers at a strip mall, killing one and injuring the other. Couture-Rouleau, too, was shot and killed by police after a high-speed chase.
RCMP assistant commissioner Gilles Michaud, the commanding officer of all RCMP forces in and around Parliament Hill, including the prime minister’s protective detail, said it was too early to say if there had been any warning, but admitted: “I think that from our reaction it caught us by surprise.”
“It’s in our responsibility to protect the public;” Michaud told reporters. “If we would have known this was coming we would have been able to protect the public.”
Michaud said RCMP had been operating at the “medium threat level for the past number of years, and that is the threat level we are operating at now.”
A report of a third shooting near the Rideau Centre shopping mall in downtown Ottawa was later discounted by police.
With files from Tim Harper, Tim Alamenciak and Olivia Carville