It was a sunny, quiet morning Wednesday at the Western Forest Products mill and workers were getting ready for work, drinking coffee, some smoking, when the radio erupted with desperate calls for help.
Bobby Johal, a lumber grader at the plant for 30 years, said he thought it was someone having a heart attack.
“Then we got a call on another radio saying there had been gunfire, gunshots. So that’s when we heard sirens … That’s when we heard a shot in the office,” said a shaken Mr. Johal.
Two of Mr. Johal’s colleagues were killed and two others injured as gunfire broke out, first in the mill’s parking lot, then inside the main office building.
RCMP say a lone gunman, a 47-year-old former employee who was later arrested at the scene, entered the mill yard carrying a shotgun and started shooting in the parking lot. A union spokesman said three of those shot were office administrators and one was a union member.
“One was shot outside in the parking lot when he was getting out of the truck,” said Mr. Johal.
He didn’t know where the other three victims were shot – but moments later he saw two co-workers running toward him from the main office, helping Tony Sudar, the vice-president of marketing for Western Forest Products Ltd.
The RCMP had not confirmed Wednesday the identities of any of those shot or the suspect. Mr. Johal said he was certain Mr. Sudar was one of those injured.
Keith Starkiewicz, who did some electrical and maintenance work at the mill, confirmed Fred McEachern was one of those killed. Mr. Starkiewicz stopped by the mill site late Wednesday afternoon to leave behind a large bouquet of flowers.
“I knew Fred,” said an emotional Mr. Starkiewicz, 26. “I didn’t know him [well], but I sat and chatted with him while I was working here, having a break or whatever. They’re all good people, just trying to make a living for their families. It breaks your heart. Why would someone do that?”
Mr. Johal said Mr. Sudar was shot in the face.
“I’m sure of that. I saw him come to the first aid. I seen two of the employees helping him, rushing him to the first aid room, which is right below the lunchroom in the sawmill.”
He said Mr. Sudar was running, with two men helping him.
Within minutes the lumber yard was swarming with police, who cordoned off the dock area and blocked roads leading to the plant where about 75 people work, milling and shipping wood.
RCMP and B.C. Ambulance Service helicopters were soon landing or flying overhead and police began sweeping the area.
Mr. Johal said the shock set in later, when he learned that four of his co-workers had been shot and two had died.
“Never thought it would happen here,” he said.
Within hours people had begun to leave flowers at the mill gate. Nanaimo is a city of about 88,000 that has been hard hit by a forestry downturn in recent years, including layoffs at the sawmill.
Nanaimo’s NDP MLA Leonard Krog, who lost his own father in a workplace incident when he was a child, was reduced to tears at the scene.
“It is one thing when you have a chance to say goodbye to somebody, who has a lingering illness, who is old or ready to go, but all of the victims today set off for work healthy … and two of them are not going home. It’s just awful,” he said. “This is a profoundly sad day. We watch this on TV. This happens in other places; this doesn’t happen in our community.”
Charlie Gallagher, a supervisor with Western Forest Products Ltd. in Ladysmith, about 20 kilometres south of Nanaimo, dropped four white roses at the mill for his colleagues.
“I believe everybody [at the company] is as devastated as the general public is. It’s an unfortunate situation today,” a sombre Mr. Gallagher said.
“It’s a sad day for Nanaimo. Very depressing. Very upsetting,” said Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan.
Early Wednesday afternoon, investigators in white coveralls could be seen collecting evidence from the mill parking lot. Several yellow evidence markers were visible between cars on the gravel lot.
There has been a long running dispute at the mill over severance pay for laid-off workers, but Pat Kinney, financial secretary for United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 said it would be unfair to draw a link.
“We don’t know what the reasoning behind it was,” he said of the shooting.
Don Demens, president of Western Forest Products, declined to discuss the ex-employee arrested at the scene. “What we’re doing is providing grief counselling … It’s very tragic,” he said.