Convinced there was a killer outside the firehall where he worked, Nova Scotia firefighter Darrell Currie recalled Monday how he was overcome by a deep sense of dread as he hid behind a stack of metal chairs with two other men.
“I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to die?”’ the deputy fire chief told a federal-provincial inquiry investigating the mass shooting in Nova Scotia that claimed 22 lives in April 2020.
“Am I going to bleed out on the floor? Are they going to shoot through the wall? It was pretty horrific.”
Currie’s dramatic testimony related to events on the morning April 19, 2020, when the RCMP were still searching for the suspect, who had fatally shot 13 people the night before in Portapique, N.S., and would kill another nine people that day.
At the time, the firehall in Onslow, N.S., had been designated as a comfort centre for people evacuated from Portapique.
The inquiry has heard that Currie was in the building with fire Chief Greg Muise and evacuee Richard Ellison at 10:17 a.m. when they heard gunfire outside. Seconds later emergency management co-ordinator David Westlake ran inside yelling, “Shots fired! Shots fired! Get down!”
Muise and Currie said they assumed the killer had fired the shots, which prompted them to hustle into a back room. “We had no idea what was going on outside,” Muise told the inquiry. “It happened so fast and everything was chaos.”
Within minutes of the shooting, Currie described hearing someone banging repeatedly on an outside door next to where they were hiding.
“That few seconds with the banging on the door, they were the worst seconds of my life,” said Currie, a firefighter with 25 years of experience.
As for Ellison, his reaction to the high-stress event was matter-of-fact: “I just followed orders to get down.”
The inquiry heard that Ellison was already in a state of shock that morning. He was worried that one of his sons, Corrie, had been killed in Portapique, which later turned out to be true.
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As for the firefighters, both confirmed it was about an hour before they learned the bullets that hit the building had been fired by two RCMP officers who mistook Westlake for the killer.
“We had no reason to believe that RCMP had opened fire on a local fire station,” Currie said. “That never crossed our minds. We were terrified.”
Muise said that having to wait 57 minutes to learn what had happened was torture. “We were like hostages,” he said.
One of the RCMP officers, Const. Dave Melanson, entered the building to confirm with Westlake that no one had been injured, but neither of the officers checked on anyone else in the building, the inquiry heard.
As well, Muise and Currie said that had they known more about what was going on with the search for the killer, they would have recommended against opening the firehall to evacuees.
“The fact was that the perpetrator was not contained,” Currie said. “There was a threat that we were never made aware of ? If we had had more information prior to 8 a.m., that might have made a difference.”
It would be another 11 months before senior RCMP staff showed up at the firehall to talk about what happened, Muise said.
“I don’t think the RCMP wanted anything to do with the firehall,” he told the inquiry. “They were shoving us under the table and hoping this would go away. I don’t think they realize what they put us through.”
The firefighters told the inquiry that the close call was so terrifying that both have required medications and counselling to cope. “It took a part of my life from me,” said Muise. “I fight with it every day.”
Currie said he has attended workshops for those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I couldn’t function and I couldn’t focus,” he said. “Fortunately, I didn’t lose my life that day. But I lost the life I had.”
When asked about how the incident had affected him, Ellison responded by thanking the firefighters for keeping him safe. “At least there’s some humanity out there,” he said, adding that his religious faith has helped him cope with the loss of his son.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2022.