British Columbia

Dziekanski's death at airport 'unbelievably shocking,' border officer testifies

A Canada Border Services Agency officer wept at a public inquiry Thursday as she described how unbelievably shocked she was to learn about the death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport.
Tina Zadravec told the inquiry into Robert Dziekanski's death that she could have paged Dziekanski when she was asked about his whereabouts, but she didn't. (CBC)

A Canada Border Services Agency officer wept at a public inquiry Thursday as she described how unbelievably shocked she was to learn about the death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport.

Tina Zadravec told the inquiry into the Polish immigrant's death that she had tried to help find him at Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 13, 2007.

Zadravec received a call on an airport phone from Richard Hutchinson, a friend of Dziekanski's mother, Zofia Cisowski, who said the two had been in the airport for hours trying to find him, the inquiry heard.

Zadravec testified she scanned the immigration inspection area and the examination area, but there was no sign of Dziekanski, who had arrived at the airport on a Frankfurt-to-Vancouver flight.

She then made several suggestions to Hutchinson, including heading home to Kamloops, B.C., to wait for a phone call, the inquiry heard.

Dziekanski died at the airport on Oct. 14 shortly after he was stunned up to five times by a Taser when confronted by four RCMP officers. He had been wandering the airport for hours and became agitated after a series of communications breakdowns kept him in a controlled area.

Zadravec also testified that though she could have paged Dziekanski, she didn't. A couple hours later, she saw Dziekanski in the care of another border services officer, looking tired and dishevelled but calm and quiet.

Zadravec said it didn't occur to her to try to contact Dziekanski's mother. Then, at the end of her shift, she heard about Dziekanski again.

Robert Dziekanski wandered the Vancovuer airport for hours and became agitated after a series of communications breakdowns kept him in a secure area. ((CBC))

"It was just unbelievably shocking because the earlier interaction was just absolutely fine; it appeared pleasant, calm, relaxed," Zadravec told the inquiry as she held back her tears.

"And it was really shocking because becoming a permanent resident is generally an absolutely joyous event, and it was just truly horrible that this person died."

Zadravec had told police in a statement in December 2007 that Dziekanski appeared like he had been sleeping off a bout of heavy drinking, and lawyers for the RCMP officers involved in his death took aim at that Thursday when cross-examining her.

At one point, Cisowski, who was sitting in the gallery, shouted out, "Liar."

An autopsy found no alcohol or drugs in Dziekanski's system.

Zadravec told the inquiry she was aware there were translators available but didn't call one. She added that even if she did find out any information about Dziekanski, the federal Privacy Act would have prevented her from telling Cisowski or her friend.

That revelation prompted a question from retired judge Thomas Braidwood, who is overseeing the inquiry.

"How can someone outside [the customs area] determine whether their friend has come?" Braidwood asked.

"I'm not aware of any way they could do that," Zadravec replied. Cisowski's lawyer, Walter Kosteckyj, said staff had numerous opportunities to help Dziekanski and his mother, but instead their response was, at best, "benign neglect."

"This whole mess that we have going on where we hide behind the Privacy Act to claim that we can't help people, it's just a bunch of nonsense," he told reporters during a break in the hearings.

Zadravec testified that more than a year after the incident, there is still no system to alert border officers when someone takes too long to show up for a customs inspection. But now, at the officer's discretion, the RCMP can be alerted if a relative waiting outside has concerns about someone.

With files from the Canadian Press

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