I should have stayed in my penguin pants
I work for myself as a freelance researcher for hire. I live in the woods about an hour from Parliament Hill. I have the option to stay at home, in pyjama pants and walk the seven paces to the home office.
So why, why, did I suddenly decide at 740am that I HAD to go downtown and visit the iPolitics staff in their digs in Centre Block. First bad decision of the day.
Off I went, making the nearly hour long drive downtown. I parked in “the pit”, a river level parking lot made of old garbage and infill down below the Confederation Building in the Parliamentary Precinct.
From down there you walk up a wooden staircase to the street level north of Wellington Street. Hard left at the new bollards just beyond the vehicle inspection area and up past the West Block (under renovations forever) and along the lawn of Parliament towards the Centre Block.
Cue the cliches. The weather was nice, the massive lawn of Parliament looked all soft and welcoming. There was nothing out of the ordinary as I pass staffers and security guards. I show my press pass at the front door of Centre Block and walk by three unarmed, blue shirted House of Commons security staff. Down the Hall of Honour, past the two caucus rooms I stroll. Just before the Library of Parliament, turn right and pass by Kevin Vickers office, deek around the temporary privacy screen at the back door of the NDP caucus room and up the stairs to the third floor.
Liz needs breakfast
Sometime between 0930 and 0940, after our morning news meeting, Elizabeth Thompson, Kristie Smith and I head to the 5th floor cafeteria. I leave my mobile office (knapsack, laptop, wallet, keys, cell phone charger – you get the picture) in the Hot Room. We’ll be gone 5 minutes, 10 at the most.
Bad decision #2. Still, not the worst decision of the day.
Since I’m not on the Hill very often, I don’t know all the nooks and crannies of the place. I also don’t have a map in my head of the location of the bathrooms. I need to visit the loo but I’m sadly oblivious that a ladies bathroom is just next door to the cafeteria door, I decide to wait. Really bad, terrible decision #3 of the day.
Hi Justin, bye Justin, Hi Justin
There is a lineup in the cafeteria for hot food. Having safely deposited their MP bosses at caucus, Hill staffers are ordering big meals.
Freelance reporter Justin Ling arrives after us, evaluates the slow line and decides to head to the hot room. He leaves through the large glass doors of the caf. (Google has let me down, no photos of the cafeteria to be found)
Let me try and describe the layout of the cafeteria. It is divided into three ‘zones’. The dining area to the right of the door. The food prep, purchase area immediately in front of the doors to the left. Looks like every other cafeteria you’ve ever been in. Coolers of prepped food, then a hot counter that curls around to the right to the cash registers. There’s a kitchen area behind the hot counter.
The three of us are yakking in line when I observe a House of Commons security guard run out of the caf and down the corridor at top speed. Two other men also dash out. They might also be security. I cannot quite remember. I point with my chin to Liz. “Something’s going on. He’s in a hurry”. Liz and Kristie exit the caf and turn right down a secondary hallway.
With my friends gone, I jump ahead in the line and pour coffee.
Reporter Justin Ling comes running back to the cash register area. “There’s a shooter”
I’m either dead inside, or slow to process the english language (or both). My first reaction is pay for my coffee and tell the cashier in an off-hand way. “There’s a shooter in the building”.
“What?” What her eyes really ask (in French) is “what the fuck is wrong with you moron, why say something like that?”
I turn to Justin again. “Say that again. A shooter?
Phones begin to ring, cellphones begin to vibrate.
This is confusing
The next few minutes are a bit vague. News of the shooter travels around the caf. Two guys in Kevlar vests and important looking utility belts are security staff but not really it turns out. They make mall cops look important. They are the guys who scan purses through the x-ray machines before you’re allowed in the public galleries of the House of Commons. They have no idea what to do.
A tall, calm staffer (belongs to Kevin Sorenson I think) quietly gives Scanner #1 suggestions and instructions. He’s amazingly discreet so when Scanner 1 barks a few orders – lock the door, turn off the tv, hide back here – people respect him.
Liz and Kristie reappear. They heard the shots, or echoes of the shots, and ducked into the nearest room – a bathroom. They were hustled back into the caf after a few minutes of hiding in a stall.
Did I mention I need to pee?
We quietly assemble at the back of the cafeteria behind a baffle, next to the emergency exit. We’re squashed and in each others personal space. Being Canadian, we are not comfortable with this arrangement.
If this were a made-for-tv-movie
In the movies, when there’s a crisis and people are trapped, they still have the Internet. This is Canada. My telecom provider was metaphorically hiding under the furniture all frigging day. I can text and make calls, but beyond posting a few tweets and one Facebook message – forget it.
Luckily 20 people in a room means every single telecom provider in the nation is represented times 7. We share some basic information. There is a body near the Library, many people heard shots, the honour guard at the War Memorial was shot, no one is sure how many attackers there are.
I text my wife. “I’m fine, I’m safe. Shots fired in Centre block but with security in cafeteria”. Now in hindsight my next few texts don’t really clarify that the cafeteria is in the same building as the shooter. She thinks I’m a kilometre away at the iPolitics office. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” she writes after I explain things. Oh crap, now I’m in the doghouse.
Meanwhile back by the emergency exit, we’re crowded and getting restless. Then someone hears banging in the stairwell behind us.
Jello and pudding
Scramble. That was my only moment of fear during the entire ordeal (well, almost. There may have been one or two more passing in front of the enormous glass doors). We all run and hide behind the serving counters, sitting on the dirty floor. The young intern, on his second day with Senator Yonah Martin, is more concerned that his one suit will need to be cleaned than the possibility of a gunman outside. He’s 20 and that’s his only suit. I see where he’s coming from.
We sit on the floor for awhile. My view is a cooler full of pie, jello and pudding. Perfectly fine in my books.
This is a representation of the cafeteria. It is in no way accurate. There is no jello or pudding. Also, I don’t think the parliamentary cafeteria has trees painted on the walls. Nice idea though.
My companion to the right pulls out some aluminum serving trays from a shelf. Can they be used as a shield, she muses.
Meanwhile my quest to connect to the Internet continues. The phone battery is dying and my charger is down in the Hot Room.
I still need to pee.
Smiths – you can never have too many
I loan my phone to an older woman next to me. Turns out, she’ a Smith. There are four of us out of the 20 or so people in the caf. What are the odds? (okay, they are pretty high, but still – cool!)
The minutes drag by. No gunmen burst in. Nothing happens. The hallway is eerily silent. We begin to relax, to move around, to get off the sticky floor. This article says there was praying. in the caf. There probably was. Guess I was eating pudding at the time.
Time passed slowly. Very. Very. slowly.
I text my brother and some friends, reassuring them I am safe but that my phone charge is waning.
One of the staffers pulls up the Josh Wingrove video from the Hall of Honour. We crowd over him to watch it on his phone. He has the sound turned low or off. I don’t appreciate the horror of the soundtrack until I listen to it at home.
People share tweets and emails: shots at the Rideau Centre, shots at the Chateau Laurier; the entire downtown is in lockdown (Ha! suckers!). The Speakers office politely reminds us to stay hidden, away from windows and with the doors locked. Police are clearing the building room by room.
Lockdown, smockdown. My cellphone is dead
At 7 percent battery life, my iPhone 4S says‘b’uh bye’ and shuts down. No no no! I had no idea how much longer the lockdown would last. Not good.
I’m in a lockdown with 20 other people and no one brought an iPhone charger with them?! Most Hill staffers use Blackberries and have several chargers to share. I pictured my knapsack down in the Hot Room and hope everything is still there, still safe.
Note to self, never leave your mobile office in another room, not even for 10 minutes.
The anxiety of being disconnected from the internet is worse than any anxiety from a lunatic gunman. (note to self – I may want to talk to someone about that.)
The caf has a land line. I call my wife and father. I wish I had my computer or a newspaper or something to do. I’m so bored and restless, I’m willing to try and figure out how Sudoku works.
Mmmmm, free food
The wonderful cafeteria staff open up the coolers to us. Sandwiches, hard boiled eggs and desserts. They put on more pots of coffee and haul out soda. Best. lockdown.ever.
Don’t eat the salad from the cafeteria for the rest of the week
I asked Scanner 1 if I could go to the bathroom just next door. No one leaves the cafeteria, he was firm.
The calm, tall staffer confers with cafeteria staff and Scanner 1. Back in the food prep area of the kitchen, discreetly tucked behind a trolley of salad fixings and other food supplies, two small plastic pails and a roll of paper towel.
Minutes turn into hours with nothing to do. The anxiety of lost internet begins to lessen, just a tiny bit (not really). I find resting my forehead on the table is a relaxing pose. A modified yoga position. Let’s call it ‘downward facing no internet’
Where we sit around and speculate even without social media
90 per cent of the shut-ins are political staffers and cafeteria staff. The rest are the two scanner guys, four reporters and one construction worker (kind of a nouveau Village People à la Canadian)
After that first hour or two, once the immediate sense of danger passed, we break into small groups. The caf workers sit together, talking in very fast French. They laugh – a lot. Justin Ling, who’s been on the phone non stop giving media interviews to the entire world is chagrined that belly laughter is the soundtrack to one interview.
The French dude who works for the Senator Carignan, the construction worker, the intern on his second day and a 75 per cent of the Smiths sit around dissecting ridiculous statements whispered on the all news channels. Someone at the table blames the media for the hyperbole, then pauses and asks me “who do you work for again?” Others blame social media. We all agree on one thing – it’s too soon to say “terrorism”.
We use common restaurant accessories to theorize what happened downstairs.
The news conference
That table is too small for those big policey dudes and Jim Watson.
Why won’t they say the operation is over? Does that mean there might be more shooters? Well, that settled nothing.
Yay! The cavalry – with semi automatics and a sniffer dog
4pm and a tactical team arrives at the front door of the cafeteria. Liberty is near at hand!
No, no it isn’t.
Despite the combined will of the cafeteria staff, who lock coolers and grab coats, we aren’t going anywhere fast. We are told the nice men in the black uniforms with the big guns will now secure the rest of the 5th floor. It’s been six hours.
On the plus side, we can now visit the toilet 10 feet away, with a sniper standing guard between the potty and the main corridor. (for the love of gods, don’t toot, I beg my colon)
Plus, plus side. The tactical guy with the dog has the name “Smith” on his helmet. We are safe.
Terrorism vs angry people vs crazy people
Even this subject is getting boring. We mostly just stare blankly.
50 per cent of the journalists in the room are working
Kristie and I hang out. Justin Ling never STOPS working. Liz keeps walking away when someone tries to chat with her. The French guy is concerned she’s not coping. She’s working I tell him. Writing a first-person account. That’s her game face.
A Liberal invasion
About 5pm an invasion of Liberals, including the other Justin, begins. About 13 MPs and three times as many staffers arrive in the caf. They’ve been hunkered down in various offices on this floor all day. Liberals hold regional caucus meetings, then gather at 1000 for their main caucus. Most were enroute to the meeting when the shooting started and were scattered when the lockdown was imposed.
So near and yet, so very far away.
We exchange tales of improv toilets made from garbage cans and pails; and the surprising number of offices that, until midday, had a liquor stash.
Many Liberals look tired. Some MPs are on the phone almost non-stop. Some are giving interviews to hometown media, many trying to rearrange meetings, or just talking to loved ones.
Cheer up I say. “There is food”. Pillaging begins anew.
With Liberals come iPhone 4 charging cables
Huzzah! A liberal staffer, one of John Duncan’s staffers and myself bond over one precious cable for an iPhone 4. As soon as one phone reaches 20 per cent charge, the next person charges. Now that is democracy.
Tory senators arrive
Half a dozen Conservative senators and a few staff are found on the east side of the 5th floor and straggle in. They look super unimpressed to be here. Perhaps it is the preponderance of Liberals already in the room. The caf staff find the very last sandwiches, fruit platters and sodas. They are resigned to never leaving this room again.
Most of the Senators stay in the serving line area. Liberals are now crowding out the eating area. I’m sitting on the counter near empty soup urns, hogging an electrical outlet. I can text again but still no luck connecting to the internet. We hear Harper will speak to the nation about 7:45.
Okay, this is getting boring again
I’m officially out of small talk. Looking at photos of police cars taken from office windows has lost it’s allure. It’s about 8pm. I’ve resigned myself to sleeping in the caf tonight.
We’ve already exhausted the toilet paper supply in one of the stalls and, and, even in these trying times – someone felt the need to hover over the seat.
The tactical guy standing guard in the hall has removed his helmet and leans against a wall, weapon pointing down. He’s clearly not worried.
The Leaders speak
That’s the first time I realize Trudeau and his entourage have left the caf. They were evacuated so he could appear on tv after Harper and Mulcair. No ‘speak to the nation by phone’ for the leader of the third party.
I listen but I don’t really hear. We are gone before Trudeau comes on tv.
Liberty – for real this time, well, sort of
At last. About 840 pm a House of Commons Security team arrive. They take down names and numbers and the bulk of the group heads to an ‘evacuation room’ somewhere else in Centre Block.
There are hugs and handshakes all around.
The caf staff don’t just leave the room, they evaporate. I’m in awe of their powers. Liz, Kristie and I and a few others who need to gather personal belongings from offices stay behind. I look around. The caf is a mess. Every table is covered in plates, glasses and garbage. I haul out a garbage can and begin to tidy because:
- A) the caf staff have been wonderful
- B) I’m way too Canadian to leave the place so messy.
Sneaking along the hallways of power
Officer Paget takes us to the Hot Room. We must walk quietly, in single file, hug the wall and stop if he motions. It’s 9pm. Hundreds of emergency personnel have been scouring this building for 10 hours and yet, Officer Paget acts like the boogeyman could leap from behind a door.
We arrive at 350-N. The door knob has been pounded out by a battering ram. A single women’s shoe sits abandoned in the doorway. It’s a comfortable flat. More unsettling. Liz and I really, really want to photograph the door and the shoe. Officer Paget is not to be trifled with. We grab our things. I actually hug my backpack.
Liberty maybe – no
We follow Officer Paget to a Senate committee room. There are hundreds of exhausted people slumped in chairs, sitting on the floor next to electric outlets – oh wait, that’s just me.
We share our stories. Eight hours with no food; Peed in a can; hid under my desk for six hours; haven’t eaten since breakfast; women in high heels complain about their feet. Did I mention everyone looks so tired.
This is a staging area. From here, 20 people at a time go the portico of the Senate entrance. Police officers record our names, employers, home address, drivers licence, phone numbers, location at the time of the “incident” and if we saw anything. This information is carefully written in green notebooks.
Tales from the OCTranspo to somewhere
From the portico we hop on an OCtranspo bus. It’s a crowded as the 96 in rush hour. How comforting. Under a police escort (front and rear) we leave the Hill.
It’s pitch dark. I think its about 930pm. There are police cars everywhere. I ask about my car in the “pit”. It’s a crime scene the police officer tells me. “You can get it tomorrow”.
We’re told the bus will drop us on the bridge by the Rideau Centre, along the transit way. Instead it dumps us just east of the police perimeter on Rideau Street. There are no city buses, no cabs and access through the Rideau Centre is cut off. A sad stream of tired people trudge in different directions. I call my wife. “meet me at Eagleson. I’m on my way home”
Hi Justin, hi Anderson
I’m on the 96 west OCTranspo bus heading out of the downtown. I think it’s about 10pm. the streets north of Albert are barricaded with police checkpoints. It’s surreal. As we cross Elgin Street, there’s a tv news remote set up on the island at Albert Street. The War Memorial is up the hill in the distance. It’s Anderson Cooper from CNN. He’s interviewing Justin Ling. Somehow that brings closure to the day.