How luck – and bravery – were on our side on October 22nd

The mood on Parliament Hill remains fraught. It’s a bit hard to describe, but the hugging hasn’t stopped and neither has the need to share and talk about what happened.

As details emerge, the questions pile up. Based on the media coverage, a lot of the questions focus on the vulnerabilities of Parliament Hill and the security failures.

It was a shock to hear that the gunman stuck a gun in the face of a ministerial chauffeur telling him he would be killed if he didn’t get out of the car. The quick-thinking chauffeur ran the car in reverse to hit the ministerial limo behind him. (You may have wondered why the car went backwards, as visible in the video.) It was the bashing of the next limo that alerted the RCMP parked in cars all around the area that something was amiss. Many are asking why the RCMP cars followed the gunman in the hijacked car to the front doors of Parliament, rather than attempt to ram the car. Others wonder why the RCMP did not turn on their sirens to alert the House of Commons Security officers inside Centre Block. It is well known now that the RCMP radios did not communicate directly with the House security. Others are wondering who monitors the CCTV of the area surrounding Parliament Hill. It was only a matter of minutes between the murder of Cpl Nathan Cirillo and the gunman’s entrance to Centre Block, but every second mattered.

As questions mount, there are a lot of acts of personal courage and “lucky breaks” that saved lives.

What I keep hearing over and over again, from other MPs, from security guards, from members of the media as we exchange notes is “it could have been so much worse.”

From what I have been able to piece together, the warning to the security guards at the front doors below the Peace Tower came from a Global TV cameraman (I am leaving out all names. Those details are personal but I know from reliable sources everything I am sharing here from eye witness accounts.) The cameraman saw the gun and yelled repeatedly “He has a gun! He has a gun!”

The first security guard from the House Security team to get to the door was unarmed. His act of bravery is under-reported. The gunman brought the rifle barrel directly to his chest. The guard stood his ground, grabbed the barrel of the gun and forced it down. As he struggled, he continued to yell to alert the other guards “Gun!”

The gun went off, shooting him in the ankle, but he had succeeded in holding the gunman off for critical moments. In that time, security guards went into both caucus rooms where on one side of the hall the Conservative MPs were gathered, and on the other the NDP MPs. The guards secured the doors and called for MPs to take cover. Inside Conservative Caucus former RCMP members now MPs organized to protect each other. Two sides of the room have large double doors into the room. They open out. Hence piling the chairs to attempt to block any gunmen if the doors opened. At this point, based on the gunfire, MPs in those caucus rooms assumed there were many gunmen. In the Conservative Caucus, organized by former RCMP officers now MPs, one man on either side of each door volunteered to be prepared to stop the gunman, even at the cost of his life to protect the others. By now you have likely heard of them sharpening flagpoles to prepare for gunmen. People in the hallways scattered for safety, except for one either very brave or foolhardy Globe and Mail reporter who ran toward the Hall of Honour, videoing with his cell phone.

Most of us now speculate the gunman had no idea where he was headed. As he ran toward the elaborate doors of the Library of Parliament at the end of the hall, we speculate that he must have thought those doors led to the House of Commons. (Another theory is that he was running anywhere due to the gunfire.)

The room within which the entire Cabinet and Conservative caucus was meeting was marked with a prominent sign “Conservative Caucus.” The gunman raced by as one of the Prime Minister’s security forces took aim at him. The bullet missed the running gunman, and travelled through the wood of the door across the hall, behind which the NDP caucus was meeting. This room, the Railway Committee Room, was the only room along that corridor with double doors. The bullet passed through the first door and lodged in the second door — with the security guard physically barring the door on the other side.

As the gunman ran down the hallway and bullets were flying, it is time to mention a large number of “lucky breaks” on an unlucky day. You have likely seen the video of the marbled hall of honour on that day. Note it was empty but for security and the gunman. Normally the hall is full of people.

It was Wednesday morning so due to the fact of caucus meetings being held, no visitor tours were taking place. Due to the presence of the caucus meetings, more guards with weapons were stationed in the hall of honour than on a typical day. Had the gunman entered the House a half an hour earlier, many MPs would have been milling about in the hallway. An hour later and the hallway would have been full of reporters awaiting a chance to scrum MPs after caucus.

Another lucky break was the lack of preparedness of the gunman. He had no clear plan or idea of Parliament’s lay-out or schedule. And, although there are no words for the tragedy of him obtaining a gun of any kind – the lethal weapon that murdered Cpl Nathan Cirillo – it is likely more lives would have been lost had he been better armed. I keep thinking of that expression “loaded for bear.” This gunman was “loaded for deer.” To reload he would have had to insert one bullet at a time in the barrel of his Winchester – just like Gunsmoke.

We cannot ever thank the brave security staff of the House of Commons enough, starting with our extraordinary Sergeant at Arms, but including his whole team.

We will undoubtedly learn more. But this much is clear. Many people took large risks to protect the lives of others. All of us who work day to day with the guards from the House of Commons Security team will never take their presence for granted again. I do not believe the gunman can be described as a “terrorist.” It was the act of a deeply disturbed man with mental health issues and drug addictions. But while we should not associate the attack with the word “terrorism,” we should mark the heroic multiple acts of bravery that morning.