OTTAWA - The lockdown of Parliament Hill lasted hours but the stunning assault inside was all over in a matter of, at most, a couple of minutes.
Lone gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau is believed to have been shot first by a plainclothes Commons security guard before he died in a hail of bullets led by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers at end of the Hall of Honour.
Through several interviews with law enforcement, security, government officials and civilian witnesses, the Star has pieced together a clearer picture of the chaotic events of Wednesday, Oct. 22.
The RCMP says the shooter breached the heart of Canada’s democracy at 9:53:46 a.m.
It was Wednesday, caucus day.
Const. Samearn Son, a 10-year-veteran of the Commons security staff, is normally an armed plainclothes officer, but he had come in on a day off and donned the blue Commons uniform, which meant he was not carrying a weapon.
Zehaf-Bibeau entered at the left-hand door, carrying a Winchester .30-30 rifle that he’d just used to fire at least three shots at the War Memorial, according to the RCMP.
As the gunman yanked open the heavy glass-paned door, it was Son who saw him and lunged for the rifle barrel, yelling out to alert his Commons colleagues: “Gun, gun, gun, gun!”
The brief struggle bought valuable seconds for other guards stationed in the Hall of Honour. Several rushed forward, some unholstering weapons as they did.
Zehaf-Bibeau’s rifle went off, hitting Son in the leg, the report cracking through the marbled hallway, and using up a fourth bullet in the weapon’s magazine, which can hold seven shots, at most eight.
Zehaf-Bibeau bolted up the steps into the Rotunda, past the massive central pillar, racing toward the Hall of Honour. A plainclothes Commons guard, armed with a semi-automatic weapon, fired at him as he ran.
One of those bullets may have broken a south-facing window at the front of Centre Block. Another is believed to have hit Zehaf-Bibeau, likely in the right shoulder.
Zehaf-Bibeau flinched, and it appeared to some watching that he had difficulty cocking his weapon, but he may have fired another shot or two before he reached the end of the hall, all in a matter of seconds.
Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, the retired RCMP veteran in charge of Commons security, emerged from his east-side office near the end of the hall. Several sources say he heard gunshots, grabbed his sidearm: a semi-automatic 9-mm pistol that can hold 15 bullets.
Armed Commons guards and uniformed RCMP officers who chased Zehaf-Bibeau inside were moving down the hallway, some taking cover behind stone pillars.
A video shot by the Globe and Mail’s Josh Wingrove captured the pursuers carefully advancing. Several hollered out to Vickers, inching along the east wall a few feet away.
“Sergeant, he’s in behind. He’s in the alcove. He’s in behind that pillar there,” staff yelled out.
Zehaf-Bibeau’s rifle is still visible in the footage.
Vickers threw himself to the floor, firing upward as his body twisted and landed on his back as the rest of the guards converged. He sat up and emptied his gun at Zehaf-Bibeau, as did a clutch of officers.
An autopsy on the bullet-riddled body may never in fact reveal which was the fatal shot, but most there credit Vickers with bringing down a man Prime Minister Stephen Harper later called a terrorist. (Vickers, in a public statement, spread the credit amongst his colleagues.)
Vickers then stood, returned to his office, reloaded and walked back out to the Hall of Honour, and went to the Conservative caucus room where he told MPs that an armed gunman had entered the building and exchanged gunfire with Commons security.
“He’s dead at the end of the hallway. I engaged the suspect. He’s now deceased,” he told them.
Now there are tough questions for all.
Harper did not have a guard inside the room when the attack came because caucus meetings are sacrosanct, held in secret behind closed doors.
But the outside perimeter of those meetings is secured by armed Commons guards, and in the aftermath of the attack, Harper was hustled into an anteroom, where he awaited extraction by his RCMP protective detail, who normally hand off protection to Commons guards at the building’s doors.
It took up to 15 minutes for Harper to be brought out by his elite protective detail. MPs at first would not believe it was the RCMP outside, banging on the door to get in, and many thought Harper had already left.
Meanwhile, a claxon was sounding at Langevin Block, which houses senior PMO and Privy Council staff.
It signalled “emergency.” Now.
It is not the same sound used to alert people of a fire or a drill, and Langevin Block staff know exactly what it means: a small group of people close to the prime minister had to leave, the rest were locked down.
In the Blackburn Building, no claxon. National security adviser Stephen Rigby had been meeting with top security officials: deputy justice minister Bill Pentney, deputy defence minister Richard Fadden, CSIS director Michel Coulombe, and the chief of defence staff Gen. Tom Lawson, among others. That small group, key in a national security crisis, left immediately.
Staff went door to door to alert the rest of those in PCO offices in the Blackburn Building of the emerging crisis. Privy Council Clerk Janice Charrette has asked for a review of why there is no claxon in the adjacent building.
In the anxious minutes and hours that followed, conflicting reports of whether there were other gunmen on Parliament Hill and in the downtown core kept postponing the safe exit of MPs. Most waited up to nine hours before the lockdown of was lifted.
The big iron doors that can be closed over the glass-paned doors might have blocked Zehaf-Bibeau from entering.
But it appears there was no formal warning through official police channels that a soldier had just been shot and lay dying at the National War Memorial. Some speculate that the time it took for passersby to make 911 calls that poured into the Ottawa police, and the lag for details to be established, ambulances dispatched, and police agencies alerted bought Zehaf-Bibeau the precious time he needed to cross the street by car.
He wheeled up to the base of the East Block gate and 83 seconds later, after hijacking a ministerial car, was barging in on foot through the glass-paned door at Centre Block.
The physical damage he inflicted is there to see.
A bullet is lodged low in the western stone wall near the entrance of the Reading Room where the Conservative caucus was meeting, believed to be from Zehaf-Bibeau’s weapon.
Facing that, another bullet went through a wooden door on the east side of the hall, piercing it and lodging in a second, thickly padded soundproof door behind it, that opens to the NDP caucus. That hole is high, more than 5½ feet from the floor. On Friday, with the Railway Room then restored to the usual caucus setup for the NDP meeting, it was possible to look straight from the hole to across the room where the leaders of the NDP meeting would have been seated on an elevated podium, facing the door.
However the psychological damage is even worse.
MPs spoke emotionally about the toll on Friday.
Conservative MP Erin O’Toole said “The whole environment needs to decompress,” he said.