Emergency crews rushing to respond after reports of gunfire in a quiet Nova Scotia town were taken aback when they encountered thick clouds of smoke at the scene.
“Is there also a structure fire out this way?” one first responder asked his dispatcher. “We’re seeing huge flames and smoke.”
Soon afterwards, when a number of gunshot victims were found, an emergency worker asked if the gunman had been detained.
“No, not for sure,” the dispatcher replied. “They don’t know if they’ve caught him.”
Audio recordings from the night of 18 April capture the atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty as emergency teams grappled with the Nova Scotia mass shooting.
The confusion partially explains how a dental technician named Gabriel Wortman was able kill at least 22 people, including a police officer, firefighter, nurse and teacher. For more than 12 hours, the gunman evaded police, traveling across the province before he was shot dead outside a gas station.
As Canada reels from the worst mass shooting in its history, new details of the slaughter and its aftermath have emerged – raising fresh questions about the shooting and the response of the emergency services.
Among the revelations is the fact that for nearly seven hours, authorities did not realize the murderer was disguised as a police officer and driving a replica police cruiser.
Clinton Ellison and his brother, Corrie, were staying at their father’s home in Portapique when they heard a single gunshot on Saturday evening.
Heading outside to investigate, the brothers spotted a large fire up the road. Corrie walked ahead, but he soon called his brother and told him to contact the fire department.
When Corrie failed to return home, Clinton followed his path towards the smoke and found his brother’s body in the road.
“I shut my flashlight off, I turned around – and I ran for my life in the dark,” Clinton told CBC News. Sprinting as fast as possible, Ellison turned up the driveway of a cottage.
“I turned around and looked towards the road I had just run from to see a little flashlight flashing around, looking for me,” he said.
Realizing the gunman was searching for him, Ellison ran blindly into the woods.
For nearly four hours he hid among the trees – praying for help amid bursts of gunfire and explosions from the fires – before officers led him to safety.
“To walk up and find my brother dead, and to be hunted by this fella that killed all these people, I’ll be traumatized for the rest of my life,” he said.
Police have not yet identified the first victims, but a number of news outlets reported on Friday that it was his longtime girlfriend, who he assaulted and handcuffed following an argument.
The woman, who has not yet been identified, survived his attack and managed to escape, hiding in the woods for hours as gunshots rang out in the dark, before finally emerging and contacting police.
It was then that authorities received their most critical tip: the woman told authorities that their suspect in the shootings was dressed as a police officer and driving a replica police vehicle. She provided the RCMP a photograph of the car, kicking off the frantic, hours-long search across the province for Wortman.
The head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Brenda Lucki, has said that several of the victims were known to the gunman – but that he later simply opened fire at anyone in his path.
According to the Globe and Mail, detectives found a “kill list” at Wortman’s house on Saturday night, with the names of potential victims.
Late on Saturday night, an officer in tactical equipment arrived at Nathan Staples’ house, warning the Glenholme resident that his name was one of them.
“The investigator said I was seventh or eighth on the list. I didn’t know what to think,” Staples told the Globe. “He came to apologize. He said: ‘We’re sorry we couldn’t have been there quicker.’ That’s when I got angry.”
By dawn on Sunday, police had developed a clearer picture of their suspect, but confusion and uncertainty remained.
During the manhunt, two officers discharged their weapons at a fire station in the town of Lower Onslow, leaving a string of bullet holes in the facade.
Several people were inside the building but the suspect was not known to be in the area at the time. The serious incident response team – an independent body that intervenes after police shootings – is investigating.
“We don’t know what they were firing at,” the SIRT director, Pat Curran, told the Toronto Star.
Nearly 12 hours after police received their first 911 call, the murder spree came to an end at a gas station outside the town of Enfield, more than 50 miles from where the first victims were found.
Jonathan Heffernan, a firefighter at the Halifax international airport, had pulled in to refill his truck. Thanks to the coronavirus lockdown, the station – usually bustling on a Sunday morning – was largely empty, but the quiet was soon punctured by an exchange of gunfire.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Heffernan told the Guardian. “A guy was running around the corner of the building. He yelled to me that someone was shooting. We both hid behind my truck. We still had no idea what was happening.
“I’ve been a firefighter for 14 years. Absolutely the most terrified I have ever been.”
The two hid behind Heffernan’s truck as heavily armed police swarmed the area and helicopters circled overhead. Ten minutes later, the two men were told they could safely come out of hiding.
It wasn’t until later that Heffernan realised that he knew one of the victims: Tom Bagley, a volunteer firefighter whose generosity and unflinching kindness were praised by friends and colleagues.
“Learning that a former member of our fire family was also killed just added to the emotion,” said Heffernan.
The maritime province has been deeply shaken by the killings. “There are just so many pieces left to pick up before people can even begin to start grieving,” said Tiff Ward, a lifelong resident of the region who knew several of the victims.
Police believe Wortman acted alone – although they are investigating whether he was helped in obtaining firearms and the police uniform. The RCMP said Wortman did not appear to have a firearms licence.
Because the coronavirus pandemic has prevented mass gatherings, community members have a planned an online vigil for Friday evening, said Ward.
“Everybody’s dropped their work and they’re bringing their very best self too,” she said. “And we need this. We need a really big light to shine up into the biggest darkness imaginable.”