Torontonians caught up in Barcelona attack recount horror and humanity

Torontonians recount the details of a night of terror in Barcelona, including one family that says they chose the city precisely because they thought they would be safe there.

One family says they chose Barcelona precisely because they thought they would be safe there

The Gray family from Mississauga, Ont., say they chose Barcelona to visit specifically because they hoped they would be safe there in light of other recent attacks in Europe, including at the Bataclan in Paris. (CBC)

Just thirty seconds had passed from the moment the Gray family took their seats at a picturesque restaurant along the Las Ramblas strip — when terror struck.

"We had not even ordered. The waiter hadn't even come yet and we just heard like a loud shatter," said Daniela Gray.

She turned around to see the glass of the restaurant shattering and a flood of people running into the eatery. Then, within seconds, the family found themselves running along with the rest of those pouring in for safety into the back.

No one knew exactly what was happening in that moment, but the faces of those around her wore a kind of look that mother Delniss Gray says made it clear something was going horribly wrong.

Mississauga family on vacation says, 'We are traumatized for life' 7:51

The family chose Barcelona precisely because they thought they would be safe there. When the girls said they wanted to go to Paris, the recent attacks on the Bataclan immediately made their father, Allan, want to choose somewhere else. He suggested Spain.

But on Thursday, the city where the Grays thought they would be safe turned into the scene of what's believed to be a terror attack, when a van sped down the bustling pedestrian zone of the Las Ramblas district, plowing through tourists, killing some 13 people.

Hours later, Cambrils, a seaside resort town in Catalonia became the scene of another deadly attack, when a car attack claimed another life. Five people wearing fake bomb belts were shot and killed by police. 

'That wasn't normal at all'

Spanish officials say citizens from 34 countries were among those killed or injured in the attacks. Canadian Ian Moore Wilson has been identified as one of the victims.

Injured people are treated in Barcelona Thursday after a white van jumped the sidewalk in the historic Las Ramblas district, crashing into a summer crowd of residents and tourists and injuring several people, police said. (Oriol Duran/Associated Press)

"People around us were crying, really scared. One boy wanted to throw up and we realized that it was either somebody shooting people in the restaurant and something bad was happening out side... That wasn't normal at all," Delniss Gray said. 

Eventually they ran through a door into a hotel and watched the chaos from a large window inside.

"You could see everything," said Allan Gray. "It looked to me that people were really hurt on the streets or even dead. There was one little boy limp, had no life to him. It was so sad."

It wasn't long before they realized being by the window wasn't the safest bet, so it was off to the stairwell. Inside were people from all different nationalities, some vomiting, everyone in a panic.

"You could see it in everybody's eyes. Nobody knew what was going on outside."

All the Grays could think about was sticking together. For a moment they were briefly separated into two groups but they managed to reunite soon after. 

Last night was a sleepless one for the Grays. They're grateful to be safe, but say the horror will remain with them forever.

"We're traumatized for life [over] this," said Allan Gray.

Finding humanity in a moment of terror

Meanwhile, another Torontonian, Kyrsten Howat, was travelling alone for the first time and enjoying a solo walk through the city before meeting her sister later in the day.

That's when she says people started running in some kind of panic. That first frenzy ended quickly, Howat told CBC News, and the self-described "worrier" decided it must have been a false alarm.

Moments later, she heard screaming. Everyone was running again. Howat joined some of them who ducked for safety into a cafe just as its metal grates were closing.

Inside, she said, were about eight or nine people along with four staff members. They barred the door using a chair and a rod to keep it shut.

"I only speak English so I kept saying 'What are you saying? What are you saying?" Howat said.

Fortunately, she says, a young British woman named Tina was among them and translated any updates to Howat. A New Jersey man was also there, she said, and was trying keep everyone calm.

"In addition to that, this girl Tina had a dog there, an older puppy, and I just lay on the floor with him and he was just licking my face because I was crying a lot. I was shaking, I was just so upset, and this dog and I ended up sort of holding each other for most of the experience."

Kyrsten Howat was travelling alone for the first time and enjoying a solo walk through the city when chaos erupted. She says she survived an hour and half boarded up in a cafe with a pup she met during the aftermath of the attack. (Submitted by: Krysten Howat)

Over the span of about an hour and half, as different reports were trickling in — some saying there was a bomb, others that that there had been a hostage taking — Howat says she lay on the floor with the pup, the two lying in each others arms. Its owner told Howat she'd never seen the dog behave that way before. 

Tina, meanwhile, let Howat use her dying phone to get in touch with her sister. When it was all over, Tina invited Howat to stay at her hotel.

For Howat, the British girl was a "a guardian angel" who will always have a place to stay when she visits Canada. 

"It's a very special connection," said Howat, "Especially with so much hate and horrible stuff, to be able to deeply experience that there is still compassion and empathy for strangers."

With files from Malone Mullin, CBC News Network