This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 2, 2006. Partner content is not updated.There were students smoking on the steps of Dawson College just before 12:40 p.m. on Sept. 13 when Kimveer Gill extracted a Beretta Cx4 9-mm semi-automatic rifle, a Glock .
Gunman Opens Fire at Dawson College
There were students smoking on the steps of Dawson College just before 12:40 p.m. on Sept. 13 when Kimveer Gill extracted a Beretta Cx4 9-mm semi-automatic rifle, a Glock .45 pistol, a Norinco HP9-1 shotgun and a tote bag full of ammunition from the trunk of a Pontiac Sunfire parked alongside Boulevard de Maisonneuve. A 9-mm round is a lethal thing, but it makes a dry, almost discreet pak-pak-a-pak sound. That's what some bystanders remember as Gill, clad in a long, black overcoat, walked toward the school's main entrance in long deliberate strides, holding his gun at the hip, swinging it left and right, shooting sporadic bursts. Many witnesses first thought the shots were firecrackers, and the first cries of pain and shock were the sound of students horsing around. Then the shooter entered the sprawling, busy junior college, Quebec's largest with an enrolment of nearly 10,000, on the western edge of downtown Montreal - and disbelief quickly morphed into confusion, horror and panic. Some 20 minutes later, Gill had killed one student and injured 19 others - four critically - before turning his gun on himself to end one of the worst shooting rampages in recent Canadian history.
Conflicting reports emerged in the days following the rampage, but interviews with witnesses and police now reveal a complete picture of what happened inside Dawson College on that overcast day, and of an official response that saved countless lives. It began with the police. At 12:41, when Gill left two students wounded on the college's esplanade and entered the building, two rookie members of Montreal's police force - one male, one female, still unnamed - scrambled back to their cruiser after hearing the first shots, and frantically radioed "dix-zéro-sept," 10-0-7, the highest-urgency police code, signalling that a violent incident involving firearms was unfolding.
The two officers happened to be on the scene by pure coincidence, responding to a call about a minor drug violation. Newspaper reports quoting unnamed police sources initially suggested these two rookies were the first "heroes" who followed the killer indoors. But a senior police source told Maclean's that when the two thought they were being shot at, "they played it by the book; they ran for cover and ducked." Still, their presence, and their quick call for assistance, prevented a much worse catastrophe.
Sadly enough, Montreal police had learned from previous experience, this being the third major shooting in a Montreal college. And the response was fast and sharp. "Other cops from everywhere, some who happened to be very near, swarmed to the scene within minutes," the police source said. "I'd say some arrived even within that same minute." That would be 12:42, or 12:43 at the latest. The first paramedics also arrived - they'd been having lunch at Alexis Nihon Plaza, just across the street. In the end, there were officers from several districts, plainclothes cops from the narcotics or vice brigades, "deskers," the SWAT team, off-duty officers, cavalry (without the horses, though), even shorts-clad cops from the bike patrol. "At times, it looked like a jamboree, or a Sunday morning drill," one officer quipped.
Such a massive display of police power did not deprive Kimveer Gill of the time he needed to act out the violent scenario that had germinated in his clinically depressed mind during the long nights he spent drinking whisky, alone with his computer, playing his favourite video game, Super Columbine Massacre. At around 12:45, he stepped into Dawson College's main hall, climbed up a flight of stairs, and then entered - shooting all the while - the cafeteria, where at least 70 students were lounging, and where police would quickly trap him. He made his way toward the south end of the rectangular room, where vending machines are aligned in an alcove. Anastasia de Sousa, 18, a business student, was sitting at a table with her back to Gill. She was turning around to see what was happening when he shot her, according to James Santos, who was with her. De Sousa was in pain but still alive when, as Santos said in media interviews, he pleaded with Gill to let him take her to safety. Instead, Gill emptied a clip into her body, and then said "now she's dead."
By then, several police officers had taken up positions, trapping Gill in the alcove. They stood behind a wall just a few feet away but out of Gill's line of fire - and he out of theirs. A standoff followed, during which Gill fired short bursts with his semi-automatic, then remained quiet for a moment before starting to fire again. "Several dozen empty shells from his guns were found at the scene," police spokesman Yves Lafrenière told Maclean's (according to some TV reports, Gill brought 1,000 rounds of ammunition with him, but fired only 60). Witnesses said police officers repeatedly ordered him to drop his weapon, while Gill taunted them with defiant lines such as, "Hit me with your best shot."
Most students had retreated to a snack bar at the far end of the cafeteria, many of them hurt and crying. Gill had hostages, though, Santos and another male student, and he ordered them to move to a spot where they would shield him from police fire. But the end was near. Two veteran cops from two different divisions, Marco Barcarolo and Denis Côté, had taken up a position at the top of a staircase at the opposite end of the cafeteria. Various police sources told Montreal crime reporters that Côté, a bulky, bald and tough-looking veteran of east-end Montreal's mean streets, was the one who shot Gill in the arm.
Just minutes before the end, Gill told Santos, his human shield, that he was going to die that day. Death had been a recurring theme to him: earlier, in his illustrated profile on the website www.vampirefreaks.com, he'd said that someday he would die "on a rainy day, in a hail of bullets." The rain did come - it started falling on this city in mourning some two hours later - but he died by his own hand: shortly after 1 p.m. Gill jammed his pistol under his chin and pulled the trigger. Police pulled his bloodied remains out on the sidewalk, fearing that he might have wired himself with explosives.
The massive panic triggered by Gill's rampage persisted long after the authorities had announced the perpetrator had been "neutralized." A full hour later, police were still searching the building for possible accomplices, while others, guns drawn, were evacuating students who had hidden in classrooms and labs, making them run from the scene with their hands held up. SWAT teams even invaded Alexis Nihon Plaza after a mentally deranged man pretended to have a gun in his pocket, and the subway station serving the college was temporarily closed. Police later explained that citizens had called 911 to report several men carrying handguns. "They likely were officers in plain clothes, but we couldn't take any risk," Lafrenière said in an interview.
In the minutes following Gill's entry into Dawson, more than 400 calls jammed Montreal's 911 switchboard. A flurry of cellular calls overloaded all carriers in the area. Shortly after 1 p.m., CNN was broadcasting footage filmed by the TVA helicopter, and the world was hooked on Canada's drama. But it was a drama that would now be played out a short distance away, on the southern flank of Mount Royal at the Montreal General Hospital, one of the city's two top-tier trauma centres.
There, at 1:05 p.m. on that fateful Wednesday, trauma surgeon Kosar Khwaja was in his office on the sixth floor of the Livingston wing, idly talking about the upcoming Habs season with an orthopaedic resident, when his beeper and resident's cellphone went off in tandem. The hospital had been placed under a level one orange alert, meaning some sort of disaster involving at least seven casualties had taken place somewhere in Montreal.
Khwaja took the elevator down to the first floor and went out, intending to use a well-known shortcut across the Côte-des-Neiges Street parking lot toward the emergency room. He was greeted not only by sirens but by the wind whipped up by helicopter blades. That's when he realized how much trouble would be coming his way: never had he seen so many helicopters hovering over downtown.
The first victim arrived by ambulance at 1:03 - 22 minutes after Gill fired his first shot. Trauma team leader Dr. Bruno Bernardin received the patient, who had sustained gunshot wounds to the abdominal area. Bernardin had to yell to be heard over the din. Media reports, as well as sporadic police dispatches, suggested a second and even a third shooter still at large in or around Dawson. No one, least of all Bernardin, knew how many beds they'd need.
Dr. Tarek Razek was walking through the intensive care unit, on his way to visit ICU director Dr. Ash Gursahaney, when he received the page announcing the orange alert. Gursahaney also received a page, and set to work freeing up ICU beds: one patient was transferred to the Montreal Chest Institute, three others were moved to the Royal Victoria Hospital. A total of eight beds would be cleared in the 24-bed unit.
Razek, who has been the hospital's trauma director for about a year and a half, rushed to the emergency room to join Bernardin. Both began triage in the emergency trauma room, with Razek assessing torso and head injuries, and Bernardin taking care of those with non-life threatening "secondary shots." Razek says he likes to think the hospital staff prepares for a Dawson-scale disaster a little bit each day, and what he saw in the few fleeting moments when he wasn't dealing with the injured was impressive indeed: everyone - from technicians delivering X-rays, to nurses running from patient to patient, dressing wounds and readying beds, to orderlies moving equipment and mopping up the tremendous amount of blood on the floor - was operating as they might on any other day, but at four times the scale. Razek thanked heaven for small mercies: the shooting occurred in the middle of the day, when practically every doctor was on site.
By the time Khwaja got to the emergency room there were six patients, four of them critically injured. For roughly 15 minutes, Khwaja helped Razek and Bernardin until a young woman arrived on a stretcher at 1:29, covered in blood. She had extensive injuries to her liver, stomach and spleen, and was hemodynamically unstable - a dangerous combination of low blood pressure and a high pulse. For the next four hours, Khwaja and Dr. Paola Fata, another member of Montreal General's trauma team, would perform two operations that saved her life. The young woman remains in critical but stable condition.
Dr. David Mulder was doing rounds when his beeper went off at 1:11. Somewhat confused, he called into the hospital's general operator. "I'm not on call for another two hours," he said. "Don't argue with me, just get down to emergency," the operator said. He did, and arrived shortly after Khwaja. For Mulder, who has been at the General since 1970, it was a tragically familiar scene: he'd operated on several of the victims of the Polytechnique massacre, and now saw a similar array of abdominal, chest, head and extremity wounds as he saw that cold winter night in December 1989. What he couldn't believe was the speed at which the victims had been sent to hospital: it literally took hours for him to see any patients in 1989.
The state-of-the-art emergency trauma room near the hospital's ambulance bay is designed for three patients; when Mulder arrived, there were four. Having been in the emergency room for all of 90 seconds, Mulder took this fourth patient, a young man with a gunshot to his lower abdomen, and wheeled him out into the corridor, where he waited nearly a minute for one of the General's notoriously slow elevators. Once on the eighth floor, he wheeled his patient into the first OR room - which was occupied by a cardiac patient scheduled to undergo open-heart surgery. This patient, who was mercifully still awake, was taken out. The attending anesthesiologist, Richard Robinson, stayed on. At 1:17, within six minutes of receiving the page, Mulder made the first incision of what would be a four-hour operation that stabilized the patient's major bowel injury. The victim is expected to recover.
By 1:35, less than an hour after the first bullets were fired, emergency and trauma staff had received what would be their last patient - though they had no way of knowing this yet. The code orange would only be rescinded at 4:57, some three hours later. Out of surgery at about 5:15, Khwaja went straight to the waiting room where his patient's parents were waiting. She'd sustained extensive injuries to her organs, he explained. She had been stabilized, but remained in critical condition. He could tell his words weren't registering; only shock prevailed. And also among hospital workers: by the end of the afternoon, the scope of the tragedy was beginning to register with the staff - how they'd just helped save the lives of several teenagers who should not have been injured like that. Over the next few days, a full 20 per cent of the hospital staff would call the hospital help line set up for them.
On that Wednesday evening, the emergency room remained practically empty. The Dawson tragedy had pushed aside every other emergency that might have been fielded that night. In the following days, the shock and horror subsided somewhat, to be replaced by expressions of grief and - a remarkable occurrence in Montreal, a city long divided by languages, cultures and politics - solidarity. Throughout the weekend, citizens lined up to sign a condolence book at City Hall, or to light candles and leave flowers and testimonials near Dawson College, which reopened its doors Monday. One message, scribbled by a student, said, "Life is not a video game. We don't get a second life."
Maclean's October 2, 2006