MONTREAL — At 12:35 p.m. on Wednesday, Pina Salvaggio got herself a cup of coffee, took out her bag lunch and sat down in her Dawson College office to correct some homework. "All of a sudden, I heard : bang, bang, bang. I immediately thought gunshots."
Ms. Salvaggio looked out her office, and saw students milling around. "It’s a joke," one of them told her. She returned to her office and this time closed her door. Then she heard more shots, many this time, and she knew. She opened her door, saw two students standing in the hall, and yanked them into her office.
"Get under the desk," she ordered. Ms. Salvaggio phoned Dawson security. No answer. And then she lost it. Like an extraordinary number of faculty at this university-preparatory college in Montreal, she had a child studying there, too.
"My son is out there," she wailed, as tears streamed down her face.
At 12:45 p.m., Ms. Salvaggio’s son, Alexander Matthew, was just getting out of class. He took the stairs down to ground level. He had his head phones on and was listening to Sound Garden, a rock band. That’s why he was quite startled when four or five girls burst into the stairwell screaming and crying. One of them screamed, "I’ve been shot."
"I thought they were joking," said Alex, 19. "Then I noticed she was bleeding around the waist."
The girls ran back into the hallway. Still not comprehending, Alex followed them. A staff member, whose office was across from the stairwell, heard the commotion and came out to scold them. "What the hell are you guys doing ?"
"I’ve been shot," the girl screamed. "Call an ambulance."
Stunned, Alex began walking toward the atrium, inside the ground-floor cafeteria. Students were running from there as fast as they could. He inched closer.
"I saw two policemen," he said. "They must have just arrived. They had their guns drawn."
Cara Genest, 17, didn’t hear anything either. She was standing near the atrium when other students stampeded past, shouting to get out. She ran outside, and saw someone lying in a pool of blood.
Upstairs, in another cafeteria, her friend, Erin Neilson, 18, heard the gunshots. "Somebody shouted, ’Get out ! Get out !’ Everyone just got up and bolted for the door."
This week, Montrealers were asking : Why us ? Youths elsewhere in Canada are addicted to violent video games. Youths elsewhere in Canada live in soul-less suburbs. Youths elsewhere are alienated and into Goth culture. Yet while there have been similar high-school tragedies, all three rampages at Canadian postsecondary institutions occurred here, not in Toronto, or Vancouver or Halifax or Calgary.
"A lot of people are saying : Why does this always happen in Quebec ?" says Jay Bryan, a business columnist for the Montreal Gazette, the city’s only English-language daily. "Three doesn’t mean anything. But three out of three in Quebec means something."
What many outsiders don’t realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn’t just taken a toll on long-time anglophones, it’s affected immigrants, too. To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a "pure" francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial "purity" is repugnant. Not in Quebec.
In 1989, Marc Lepine shot and killed 14 women and wounded 13 others at the University of Montreal’s École Polytechnique. He was a francophone, but in the eyes of pure laine Quebeckers, he was not one of them, and would never be. He was only half French-Canadian. He was also half Algerian, a Muslim, and his name was Gamil Gharbi. Seven years earlier, after the Canadian Armed Forces rejected his application under that name, he legally changed his name to Marc Lepine.
Valery Fabrikant, an engineering professor, was an immigrant from Russia. In 1992, he shot four colleagues and wounded one other at Concordia University’s faculty of engineering after learning he would not be granted tenure.
This week’s killer, Kimveer Gill, was, like Marc Lepine, Canadian-born and 25. On his blog, he described himself as of "Indian" origin. (In their press conference, however, the police repeatedly referred to Mr. Gill as of "Canadian" origin.)
It isn’t known when Mr. Gill’s family arrived in Canada. But he attended English elementary and high schools in Montreal. That means he wasn’t a first-generation Canadian. Under the restrictions of Bill 101, the province’s infamous language law, that means at least one of his parents must have been educated in English elementary or high schools in Canada.
To be sure, Mr. Lepine hated women, Mr. Fabrikant hated his engineering colleagues and Mr. Gill hated everyone. But all of them had been marginalized, in a society that valued pure laine.
Mr. Gill, by all accounts a loner, was a high-school dropout who lived in his parent’s basement in suburban Laval. He was 6 foot 1 with light skin, dark hair shaved at the sides and a penchant for all-black outfits. He had no job, but he owned a car, and he bought three expensive guns, including the Beretta, which retails for about $800 (U.S.).
In an on-line journal nine months earlier, he wrote that the day he planned to seek revenge would be grey. "A light drizzle will be starting up," he wrote.
On Wednesday, it rained in Montreal. Mr. Gill donned black combat boots and a black Matrix-style trench coat, and drove his black Pontiac Sunfire downtown. He parked it on Wood Avenue, and pulled three guns from the trunk. He looked through the scope of one, and aimed it at a group of boys. They didn’t run, and he didn’t fire. Later, one of the teens said he didn’t think the gun was real.
He walked past the Dawson daycare centre, which has 48 toddlers, and along de Maisonneuve. Students were smoking outside the main entrance. Mr. Gill, who did not smoke, shot two of them. Then he went inside, through a double set of glass doors, and straight ahead to the atrium. It was lunch time. He began shooting.
Richmond Lam, a photography student at Dawson, was eating a falafel sandwich at the Alexis-Nihon shopping plaza across from the college when students began running in. He went to the window, and saw people ducking for cover. He spotted someone bleeding on the ground.
Mr. Lam, who is 31, grabbed his cameras and ran to the street. He arrived just as the two police officers were running in. He took a few photographs before a Dawson staff member pushed him back. "Go back in the building !" the staffer ordered.
Maro Barcarolo and Denis Côté, the police officers, were at Dawson on a routine call, possibly drug-related. They followed Mr. Gill inside the cafeteria. He had been shooting a Beretta CX4 Storm 9 mm semi-automatic. In minutes, he had shot 18 people. One was a 48-year-old Dawson plant-facilities worker, who hasn’t been identified, who was trying to shelter a student. Another was a student named Anastasia De Sousa.
Mr. Gill shot her. Stacy, as her friends call her, collapsed. James Santos, a fellow student and friend, tried to drag her behind a serving area. Stacy moaned. "Is she alive ?" the killer asked James, who is 17.
"He said, ’Today is the day she’s going to die," James told the French-language daily, Le Journal de Montreal. Then the killer pumped more bullets into her. Upstairs, Ms. Salvaggio heard the shots. Because the atrium allows noise to float to the top floors, she thought the killer was right outside her office. The female student had taken refuge under one desk. She was silent. The boy student sat, on the ground, his back against the door. He was apparently trying to protect the two females. If the killer tried to get in, he would hold the door shut.
Weeping, and sitting under her desk, Ms. Salvaggio feared she might not get through to 911. But she had faith in her office mate, a calm, efficient teacher whose son is now at the University of Ottawa. Ms. Salvaggio called her colleague at home. "They’re shooting here !" she screamed. "Call the police ! My son is in the building."
Tears streaming down her face, she told the students they should call their parents. Then she opened her laptop and tried to figure out her son’s Wednesday schedule. At 1:49 p.m., an e-mail popped up from one of her students. "Miss," it read. "They’re shooting. Do we still have the 2 p.m. class ?"
Meanwhile, Ms. Salvaggio’s colleague, who asked not to be named, dialled 911. At 12:51 p.m., 911 was jammed. She was put on hold for two minutes — she knows because she watched the timer on her phone — and then the operator transferred her — and disconnected her. She redialled and screamed, "There’s a gunman at Dawson College !" Then she called Ms. Salvaggio back and said, "Turn off the lights and close the blinds."
Two floors below, Alex was craning his neck, trying to figure out why everyone was tearing out of the cafeteria. He saw officers Barcarolo and Côté train their guns on something. "That’s when I decided it was a smart idea to move back from there."
Someone slapped him on the back. "Hey," said a classmate he knows only as Shane. He had just come out of the washroom, and was heading for the cafeteria. Teens have always tuned out the rest of the world, but now they have electronic help. The Dawson College shootings may be the first one in which many students remained clueless a painfully long time because they were listening to iPods.
Alex realized Shane was wearing his iPod, and hadn’t heard a thing. He caught up with his classmate, and pulled him back. When other students stampeded past them, they ran, too. Everyone ended up in a computer lab where a class was in disarray.
It wasn’t the wisest refuge. For security reasons — security of the equipment that is — the computer lab had three vast windows that looked onto the hall. All 50 or so students hit the floor, everyone that is, except for a couple of students who continued working at their computers. Were they Asian ?
"Everyone asks me that," says Alex laughing, much later, from the safety of his home. "One was a white guy who was writing an essay. The other was a black guy who was searching the Internet."
His friend Shane had left several friends in the cafeteria. Still prone on the floor, he called his friend, Vince. "Dude, are you still there ?" Shane asked. Alex didn’t know what Vince said, but Shane replied, "Shit ! Good luck !" And then, inexplicably, Shane left the relative safety of the computer room and went back to the atrium.
The two police officers had radioed for back-up before they went in. Now, with Mr. Gill trying to use Stacy’s friend, James, as a human shield, Officer Barcarolo fired shots high, trying to draw the killer’s attention. Mr. Gill hid behind some vending machines on the south side of the cafeteria. Then he pointed at two students, possibly planning to take them as hostages.
"He cried, ’Come here, come here,’ " said one unnamed witness, quoted in Le Journal. "The police officer screamed, "No, no, don’t go there." Officer Côté, who was crouching on the ground, took advantage of the momentary distraction and fired several shots. One of them hit the killer in the right arm. Mr. Gill then pointed his own gun under his chin, and shot himself.
At 1:15 p.m., someone opened the door of the computer lab. A hand poked through, pointing a gun. Everyone screamed. Then they saw the blue uniform. "Go outside and down the hall," the police officer ordered. "Don’t run."
Alex and the students, meek and obedient, walked as fast as they could without actually breaking into a run. Outside, the SWAT team was just arriving. "Go, go, go ! Get out of here !" the police ordered. The students broke into the run of their lives. Once 15 blocks from Dawson, Alex tried to remember his mother’s Wednesday schedule. He thought she was home. He called and left a message : "I’m fine. Don’t go to school."
Upstairs, Ms. Salvaggio called her colleague again. "Call the police !" she screamed. "They’re on their way," her colleague said. "Don’t move."
The young woman under the desk finally opened her mouth. "Miss, I think we should all be quiet. And I think he should move away from the door," she said quietly, pointing at the boy student who was sitting with his back to the door.
The shooting continued. Suddenly there was silence. Ms. Salvaggio peeked out her door. She saw a policeman in the hall and stepped out.
"Get back in, ma’am," he told her. The police were going from room to room, evacuating each, one at a time. They weren’t sure if Mr. Gill had any accomplices. When Ms. Salvaggio finally got the all-clear, she told the students, whose names she never got, to leave. Normally a chic woman, Ms. Salvaggio looked a wreck. She realized she should have been helping the students. Instead, they were helping her.
"Miss, do you want me to carry your purse ?" the boy inquired as they were leaving her office.
"No, just run," she said, wiping her tears.
If Montrealers are asking, why Montreal, then Dawson students and teachers are asking, why Dawson ? The college offers the equivalent of what, in the rest of Canada, would be Grade 12 and 13. It is a CEGEP, which stands for Collège d’Enseignement Général et Professionel. Unique to Quebec, they prepare those in their late teens and above for university and technical schools.
Mr. Gill had no known connection to Dawson. But it was one of only five English CEGEPs in the Montreal area. And Dawson was the biggest and most famous, with 10,000 full- and part-time students and 1,500 faculty and other staff. Also, it was downtown, which was cool, physically straddling Montreal and that bastion of English Quebec, Westmount. Mr. Gill, who said he had been bullied at school, despised his peers. But a high school was no longer the right demographic for him.
Dawson probably looked tempting. Unlike McGill University or Concordia or the University of Montreal, it is housed in one massive, interconnected building, one million square feet in area. At noon, the students congregate in only two places, an upstairs cafeteria and the ground-floor one, conveniently located just off the main entrance.
Mr. Gill’s rampage has resonated through the anglophone community. Although Montreal is a big city, English-speaking Montreal is not. It is more like a small town, where everyone knows everyone else. And because English-speaking high-school graduates must go through the CEGEP system before university, Dawson funnels anglophone kids from across the city into one institution.
"I went to Dawson," said Nancy Essebag, a waitress at Mesquite, a restaurant in the largely anglophone district of N.D.G. She was serving lunch to Ms. Salvaggio and her office mate yesterday before they headed to the college for their first post-rampage meeting.
"I go to Dawson now," said Jeremy Cantor, 19, who overheard Ms. Essebag. He was lunching at another table. He hadn’t been at school that day, but his dining companion, Joel Suss, had. Mr. Suss, 19, attends another CEGEP, but had gone to Dawson to hang out with friends. Like Erin Neilson, he had been in the upstairs cafeteria when the shootings happened.
At the Montreal Gazette newspaper, the news didn’t break the traditional way, through a tip. Reporters found out after the daughter of an employee in reader sales called in hysterics. A Gazette reporter, Susan Semenak, wrote a first-person story about how she panicked when her 17-year-old daughter phoned to say she was barricaded behind tables.
At Lower Canada College, an English private school in N.D.G., the headmaster announced the news and told the students that anyone with a connection to Dawson could make calls. The majority of the students did. "We talked about it in class. One of my Grade 5 students has a friend at Dawson who had a gun pointed at his head," said Laura Mesthene, a teacher at Roslin Elementary School in Westmount.
All Dawson kids interviewed on French media seemed able to speak passable French.
Still, some people felt hurt when the director general of Dawson held a press conference the day after the shootings, and answered questions only in French. "It’s an English-language CEGEP, and some of the parents don’t understand French," one Dawson teacher said crossly.
After he committed suicide, Mr. Gill’s lifeless, bloodied body was dragged onto the street. Mr. Lam, the photography student, shot pictures through the glass window of the shopping plaza’s food court. Stacy’s body remained inside the cafeteria for hours. Other students were variously shot in the chest, leg, arm, abdomen and the head. Two remain in critical condition, including one who is in a coma.
Alex’s friend, Shane, and his buddies in the atrium cafeteria, all got out safely. Ms. Salvaggio was allowed to return to her office yesterday. In the classroom opposite her office, the desks were piled against the door. Ms. Salvaggio dumped out her coffee and retrieved her laptop. When the phone rang, she couldn’t find it at first. It was still under her desk.
Mr. Lam’s photographs were published in the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Gazette this week.
The day after the shootings, he was taking pictures of tearful students dropping off flowers and cards. Erin and Cara came with their friends, Rebecca Watkins, 19, and Carleigh Moore, 18, carrying bouquets of red carnations.
"One of the girls shot, Lisa Mezzacappa, was in a few of my classes. She was shot in the leg. She’s fine. I saw her on the news."
Rebecca wasn’t fine, though. "We go here every day, and yesterday we weren’t safe." She began to cry. Erin cried, too. The girls hugged each other. Mr. Lam took their pictures.
Later, he said his parents were proud that he had gotten his photos published. But they had also been extremely worried. "They said, ’Next time, don’t worry about taking photos.’"
Mr. Lam isn’t sure how he feels about going back. "As a photography student interested in photojournalism, I couldn’t have been in a better place. But this is my school. I’m still trying to make sense of everything."