A former employee who escaped from Patrick Clayton the day he took nine people hostage at the Workers' Compensation Board office in downtown Edmonton suffers from survivor's guilt because she was able to get away.

Nicole Ferguson, an administrative assistant, encountered Clayton in the WCB offices on Oct. 21, 2009 as he marched a group of employees at gunpoint into an 8th floor boardroom.

Ferguson was able to escape by hiding under a desk and later running down a stairwell. But the emotional toll of that decision still weighs heavily on her.

"I was thinking that I would have traded places with any one of them," Ferguson said Monday with a quavering voice. "I thought that I should have been in there and not them."

Clayton, 40, was sentenced last week to 11 years in prison after earlier pleading guilty to pointing a firearm, possession of a weapon, and taking a hostage.

According to the agreed statement of facts, Ferguson was sitting at her desk that morning, as Clayton marched by with his hostages. Normally she would not have looked up, as people walked by her desk all the time. 

But the smell of cigarette smoke — out of place in a non-smoking building — caught her attention.

"I smelled the smoke first, then I saw just the cherry of a cigarette, and then I saw the gun, and then I saw his face," Ferguson said. "I really didn't understand what was going on.

"Then he looked at me and he looked at my friend and he said, 'You have to come with us.'"

'I was scared for my friends'

Ferguson got up and followed the others, as Clayton forced more employees to join the group.  Ferguson was able to make her getaway after they came to the end of a hallway.

"I turned to my friend Kyla [McDonald]. I asked her if she was OK, she said, 'I am so scared.' And then I said, 'what do I do?' And she said, 'Run.'"

Ferguson fled and hid under a desk. She spoke to a 911 dispatcher who told her to stay hidden until police arrived. However, Ferguson was able to escape with other 8th-floor employees by running down the stairwell.

But once she got outside, she was overwhelmed by the gravity of what just happened.

"The reality of everything came rushing towards me," Ferguson said as she wiped tears from her eyes. "And I was just so scared. I was scared for my friends. I was scared for the other people that he took."

"As far as I was concerned, he'd shot them all. I had no idea."

Over the course of the ten-hour ordeal, Clayton let his hostages go, one by one. The last hostage, Randy Morrow, was able to walk out at 6:10 p.m.

None of the hostages was physically harmed but they bear the psychological scars of their ordeal.

In her victim impact statement, Ferguson told Clayton's sentencing hearing about sleepless nights and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, which has had another long-lasting effect on her life.

Ferguson told the court she was fired from her job at the WCB six months ago "as they felt they could not accommodate my needs."

With files from the CBC's Janice Johnston