'I can't breathe': Witness, Muslim leader question how Hamilton paramedics treated dying teen

Witnesses including a local Muslim leader are questioning Hamilton paramedics and police after what they say was an "unbelievable" response to the shooting of Yosif Al-Hasnawi.

Witnesses question what they say was an 'unbelievable' paramedics response

Flowers for Yosif Al-Hasnawi lay outside the Al-Mostafa Islamic Centre. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Witnesses including a local Muslim leader say paramedics told a dying Hamilton man he was shot by a pellet gun and merely acting injured before he died in hospital less than an hour later.

Hamilton's paramedic service Monday announced it would launch an investigation after members of the Al-Mostafa Islamic Centre questioned how emergency responders treated 19-year-old Yosif Al-Hasnawi. An investigation will also be conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

Al-Hasnawi, who was hoping to become a doctor, was shot and killed near a mosque in Hamilton Saturday evening. He lay on the sidewalk for several minutes before he was taken to hospital.

Al-Hasnawi was trying to help an older man he didn't know who was being "accosted" by two other men, police say. When Al-Hasnawi intervened, the men turned their attention to him and shot him around 9 p.m. Police believe the weapon was a handgun.

He told them "I can't breathe.''- Amin Al-Tahir, director, Al-Mostafa Islamic Centre

Witness accounts say paramedics seemed to believe Al-Hasnawi had been shot with a pellet gun.

Amin Al-Tahir, a director at the Al-Mostafa Islamic Centre, said he witnessed paramedics telling Al-Hasnawi he was fine, and that he was acting.

"He told them, 'I can't breathe,'" Al-Tahir said.

Yosif Al-Hasnawi, 19, was shot and killed outside an Islamic centre when he tried to help someone in need, police say. (Al-Mostafa Islamic Centre)

Paramedics initiate investigation

Russell Crocker, deputy chief of the Hamilton Paramedic Service, said in a statement on Monday that the service has initiated an investigation. 

The service is "committed to a high standard of care for all of its residents," the statement said. 

The service notified the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care investigations branch "as a result of information we have received."

The statement said "HPS will ensure that our process is thorough and that all facts are obtained and examined in regards to the event this past weekend.

"Hamilton Paramedic Service sends its deepest condolences to the family of Yosif Al-Hasnawi during this difficult time."

'There was a bullet in his belly'

Al-Hasnawi, a Brock University medical sciences student, was on the sidewalk as paramedics examined him, Al-Tahir said. He was talking and moving, but he was having difficulty breathing.

Paramedics wiped away the blood from where "there was a bullet in his belly," Al-Tahir said. He estimates 20 minutes passed before they put him in the ambulance and took him to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he died around 10 p.m.

"They treated him poorly," Al-Tahir said.

"From the time they received the call to the time they got to the hospital, you will find it is unbelievable."

Investigators work Saturday night in central Hamilton after a 19-year-old man was fatally shot. (Andrew Collins)

Al-Tahir isn't the only witness with a similar account.

Tom Raczynski was watching a movie at home when he went outside and saw a man lying on the sidewalk. Raczynski said he also overheard paramedics say Al-Hasnawi was acting.

"They were telling him it was a pellet gun, that he was fine," Raczynski told CBC News. "And he says, 'Then why does it hurt?'"

Talib Al-Jalili from the Islamic Centre heard the details from other mosque members. He was visibly upset as he described it Sunday.

Al-Hasnawi had just recited the Qur'an as part of a religious celebration at the Islamic Centre, Al-Jalili said. Then he took a break, walked outside and was shot in an altercation. 

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"[Paramedics] kept on telling us that this man is acting," Al-Jalili said. "We argued with them and insisted on taking him to the hospital."

'Promptly taken to the hospital'

Greg Martin, operations supervisor with Hamilton Paramedic Service, said Sunday that he had few details about what occurred during the call.

"He was promptly taken to the hospital, from what I understand," he said.

He referred the questions to Hal Klassen, deputy chief of operations, who said he didn't know the time of the call, nor when Al-Hasnawi was taken to hospital. He wouldn't comment Sunday about this specific case, citing the police investigation.

"The only statement we would have is if anyone has a complaint or an allegation against a paramedic; we take any kind of complaint or allegation seriously and investigate all of those," he said.

'He was a very brave young man,' says Det. Sgt. Steve Bereziuk, 'and unfortunately, it resulted in this.' (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It was unclear why Al-Hasnawi was taken to St. Joe's, rather than the region's trauma centre, Hamilton General, which is closer to where the young man was shot.

Matthew Green, city councillor for Ward 3 where the shooting took place, said he wants answers, too. He's already contacted the paramedic service about the matter.

"Any time there's a situation or a tragedy like this, where the general public has questions or concerns regarding the standard of care, it's important to ensure all protocols and procedures were adhered to," he said.

Det. Sgt. Steve Bereziuk said questions about how the victim was treated at the scene, whether or not the response time was reasonable, and what hospital he was taken to were best answered by paramedics and the coroner.

"That's something the coroner will have to look into at the end of the day," Bereziuk said.

He said police are "happy with the direction" the investigation is going as of Monday morning.

Trying to do the right thing

Bereziuk described Al-Hasnawi as an athlete who boxed, ran and played basketball. His family immigrated to Canada from Iraq in 2008.

"He stepped in in an attempt to calm the situation down, to neutralize it, to do the right thing," Bereziuk said. 

"He was being that Good Samaritan."

We're going to deal with it one at a time. We just need to grieve now.- Amin Al-Tahir

Al-Tahir said the Muslim community is grieving the loss. It will hold a ceremony in Canada before returning Al-Hasnawi's remains to Iraq this week.

As for whether the mosque will file an official complaint, Al-Tahir said no one is thinking that far ahead.

'He's a young hero'

"We're going to deal with it one at a time," he said. "We just need to grieve now.

"He's a young hero."

Police made an arrest Monday, but are still seeking another possible suspect, described as: 

  • A white male, 19, with a medium to darker complexion, black hair and a medium build. His hair was long with a ponytail wrapped at the top of his head. He wore a hood, backpack and jeans.

Anyone with information can call Det. Doug Jonovich at 905-546-4863. 


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca

With files from Kelly Bennett