The sun was shining on the national capital, a brisk but bright fall morning. When four shots rang out shortly before 10 a.m. at the National War Memorial, where ceremonial guards keep watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, bystanders had a clear view of the beginning of a terrifying day – and the end of a soldier’s life.
The shooting would send the Ottawa core into lockdown amid fears that a gunman was on the loose, maybe even perched on a rooftop somewhere. Buildings were evacuated. University exams were cancelled. Alarms rang out alerting people to remain wherever they were and lock the door. Yellow police tape fluttered as sirens whirred. One police officer yelled at bystanders, “Move down! There’s an active shooter! If you want to die, stay here. If you want to live, keep moving!”
From his bird’s-eye view on the third floor of an Ottawa office building, an onlooker heard the first shot ring out and looked out his window to see a gunman approach the cenotaph from the west side. The shooter, described as having long hair topped with a white and black headscarf, aimed his gun at the guard and unleashed several shots, including at least one that killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo.
At 9:52 a.m., Ottawa police fielded multiple 911 calls reporting the shooting.
“After he shot, he pulled the scarf down so you could see him,” said the witness, who asked not to be identified. “Then he held the gun up and screamed something, which I can only imagine what it was, and then ran towards Parliament Hill.”
Given the chaos and conflicting reports, what happened next isn’t entirely clear. A video emerged Wednesday evening of what appeared to be the suspect getting into a car on the north side of the cenotaph. It’s unknown whether he abandoned the vehicle or made a U-turn toward Parliament Hill, but witnesses say the gunman entered the government precinct on foot through the east gate.
That put him just a couple hundred metres from Centre Block, where MPs from all three parties were gathering for their weekly caucus meeting, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was later described by his spokesperson as “safe and not on Parliament Hill.”
Scott Walsh, who was working with a crew on the manholes near the east gate of Parliament Hill, said he saw a man run across Wellington Street toward Parliament Hill carrying a double-barreled shotgun. Once inside the precinct, the man paused near a woman with a stroller; she rushed to hide behind an RCMP vehicle, Mr. Walsh said.
By then, his co-worker, Barry Willis, was alert to the man, who at this point was just three to five metres away. “He looked at me, and the weapon came up to chest level,” he said. “It was pointed at me and my partner.”
Mr. Willis and his partner dove behind their van, while a young man in a three-piece suit threw himself into the back of the vehicle. Mr. Willis peered out to see the gunman continuing up the road toward a line of three black sedans. “And then I start screaming my head off,” he said. “I’m yelling and screaming: ‘Terrorist! Terrorist! Terrorist!’”
“He looked back at me. I think he was going to walk up [to Centre Block’s front doors]. But at that point, I think he realized he wasn’t going to make it [on foot],” Mr. Willis said.
That’s when the man approached one of the sedans and pointed his gun at the window, at which point the driver fled the car and fell to his knees. The gunman got into the vehicle and drove, calmly, past two RCMP vehicles, pulling right up to this country’s most storied government building.
On Wednesday, as any other day, there would’ve been security staff on the other side of the heavy, wooden front doors, ready to inspect the credentials of those entering the building. Beyond that, though, there are no physical barriers – no metal detector, no X-ray machine – preventing anyone from darting up the front stairs, down the Hall of Honour and toward the Library of Parliament.
And that’s precisely what witnesses say the gunman did.
NDP spokesman Marc-André Viau was near the entrance, around 10 a.m., when someone shouted at him to get down. He took cover near the main entrance and saw a man rush into the building, chased by police officers. “Then we heard multiple shots,” he said, adding he was in hiding with a woman worried about her children, who were elsewhere inside the building, too.
Liberal MP John McKay heard the shots from inside his party’s caucus meeting. He had just arrived and was taking off his coat when he heard “Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!” He dismissed it as construction noise, though it was immediately clear he was wrong. He said he spoke with someone in the library who looked out a stained-glass window to see the gunman running down the Hall of Honour, rifle in tow.
Officers could be heard saying there was a shooter in the building and people ran screaming. A video recorded by The Globe and Mail shows security officials walking briskly but cautiously down the Hall of Honour, guns drawn, before one loud gunshot is fired, followed by a flurry of more than two dozen shots.
When the shooting stopped, the officers surrounded the body at the foot of the library doors. Police later confirmed the suspect was dead, and reporters were told that one guard had been shot in the leg but was okay, while another was shot in the pantleg and unharmed.
The entire incident in Centre Block lasted about three minutes. Still, officials did not declare the risk over. Parliament Hill remained under lockdown and employees were told to stay in their offices with the doors locked or barricaded.
Outside the Hill, police expanded a radius into Ottawa’s normally quiet downtown core. During the two hours following the shootings, yellow tape expanded wider and wider, as police appeared visibly concerned that another shooter was in their midst.
At 10:45 a.m., one police officer ordered bystanders “out of the line of sight” from the corner of Sparks and Elgin streets because “there’s a guy running around with a gun.” Fewer than 20 minutes later, police warned there might be a person with a gun on a roof and ordered people indoors.
East of there, officers could be seen crouched down with guns drawn, using their cars or cement pillars near the Rideau Canal as protection. At times it seemed they were in hot pursuit of a gunman, dashing from one side of the street to the next yelling at bystanders to move back. By late afternoon, some people were allowed back into downtown office buildings, but as of late Wednesday evening, the situation remained fluid.
Around 7 p.m., an alert was circulated advising that a lockdown had been reinstated at various buildings in the downtown core.
With reports from Josh Wingrove and Shawn McCarthy in OttawaReport Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter:, ,