4 children whose parents were murdered in N.S. shooting spent harrowing 2 hours on phone with 911
WARNING: This story contains distressing details
Four children reported gunshots, saw the shooter driving outside and heard footsteps in the house during a harrowing two hours in which they hid and relayed to 911 information about the man who killed their parents in Portapique, N.S., at the beginning of his 13-hour rampage.
Transcripts of 911 calls, a summary of which was released Monday, shed light on what the children of Jamie and Greg Blair, and of Lisa McCully experienced as they huddled together in McCully's home avoiding windows after the Blair boys witnessed their parents being murdered. They identified the shooter by name, profession and said he was driving a police car.
The details of what two pairs of siblings endured together are outlined in a document released by the Mass Casualty Commission examining the April 2020 massacre by a man disguised as a Mountie that left 22 people dead, injured others and traumatized many more in rural Nova Scotia.
It offers by far the most detail about what happened the night of April 18, 2020, when Gabriel Wortman began killing friends, acquaintances and later strangers across several rural communities.
As the children hid, three RCMP officers who entered the subdivision on foot checked on them three times — urging them to stay in the basement and only open the door to someone with the safeword "pineapple."
Radio transmissions showed the Mounties, who were the first ones on scene and only ones to enter the subdivision for the first hour and a half, repeatedly told superiors they were worried about the kids being alone as they tried to track down the gunman they believed was also on foot.
Records of their communications show numerous times they raced toward the sound of possible gunshots amid the chaos of several burning buildings on otherwise unlit and heavily wooded rural roads.
Another RCMP officer, who for an hour was told to stay at the entrance to the subdivision due to the risk, eventually went in on foot with another constable and then drove the kids out of the community two hours after police first arrived on scene.
The commission's report outlines the gunman's possible movements the night he attacked his neighbours, killing 13 of them in a small corner of Portapique. It all happened over about 45 minutes.
Interviews with police and radio communications show the RCMP did not realize the gunman then drove out of the area, and for hours officers feared that he could be waiting to ambush them or residents.
10:01 p.m. 911 call from Jamie Blair
Jamie Blair was the first person from the community to call for help around 10:01 p.m. as she frantically tried to protect her sons from a man who killed her husband, Greg, moments earlier on their front step. At her urging, the boys, aged 11 and nine, hid behind their parents bed while the gunman shot through the door.
The boys' older brother, Tyler Blair, previously told CBC's The Fifth Estate his brothers kept their wits about them as their home started filling with smoke. The gunman, who had also shot their dog and cat, had pulled logs from the wood stove and strewn them around.
The brothers sprinted next door and at 10:16 p.m., one of the Blair brothers called 911 from the McCully's house. They stayed there with their friends, her two children, until 12:24 a.m.
They never crossed paths with McCully, who by that point had gone outside to check on a large fire burning on one of the gunman's properties, warning her kids not to leave. She never returned and police later determined the shooter killed the elementary school teacher near the fence on her front lawn shortly before the boys arrived.
On the night of April 18, 2020, calls from Portapique were transferred to a specialized dispatcher at the RCMP's Operational Communications Centre in Truro.
Within the first five minutes of the 911 call from the McCully house, the Blairs' older son said the shooter had a "massive gun" and he relayed still hearing shots "going off every 30 seconds." Early on, the two younger kids ventured outside and hid in a ditch, passing on that "he's outside shooting everybody" when they returned.
At 10:30 p.m., the children warned the dispatcher the gunman would blend in because "he has a cop car" with symbols on it and that he had multiple white Ford cars.
Lawyer Roger Burrill, who presented the commission's findings at a public hearing in Halifax Monday, said he has listened to the call numerous times and while it was "alarming," the children were calm, responsive and observant.
"The children's poise, their presence, their capacity, their ability to engage with the call taker is simply outstanding," he said.
"At one point, the kids expressed concern for elderly members of Portapique, given the fires, and expressed concern for officer safety."
Man shot in front of home
Initially, the kids were on the main floor of the house, which had big windows overlooking the front yard. Around 10:40 p.m., they reported seeing the gunman's car pulling out of his garage property and hearing gunshots over several minutes.
Based on the timing and location, the commission believes this is when the gunman shot Corrie Ellison, first from his car and then at close range.
By then the three police officers, Const. Stuart Beselt, Const. Adam Merchant and Const. Aaron Patton, radioed about hearing multiple gunshots at 10:40 p.m. as they were making their way through the woods from a parallel road, Portapique Beach Road, which connects to Highway 2. They found a man's body on Orchard Beach Road close to the entrance of the garage at 10:49 p.m., according to the radio records.
Visits from police
Those officers stopped by the McCully home for the first time at 10:50 p.m. But for three minutes after hearing a knock on the door, the kids stayed quiet, lying on the kitchen floor and the call taker told them not to answer. Eventually the dispatcher directed them to the back door, where Beselt, the first officer to arrive in Portapique, told them to lock the doors and go to the basement.
Patton, who was with him, later said in an interview with RCMP on April 23 that it was sheer luck they told the kids not to open the door to someone even if they looked like police without the "pineapple" password, since he said at that point they didn't realize the shooter may have been in a uniform.
Beselt, Patton and Merchant didn't stay though and quickly took cover in the McCully front yard as they saw a flashlight approaching. They thought it was the gunman, but later learned it was likely Clinton Ellison, Corrie's brother, and that he got scared off. Before his flashlight disappeared, the officers warned their colleagues by radio they were prepared to shoot a possible suspect.
Beselt told RCMP in an interview a few days later that they debated trying to follow the suspect into the darkness but thought the risk of an ambush was too great and decided to go back to the house to make sure the gunman didn't approach it.
Around 11 p.m., the officers radioed back a scenario that happened repeatedly — that they couldn't tell if they were hearing gunshots or explosions from the fires. Meanwhile, Const. Chris Grund arrived at the entrance to the subdivision, where two other officers were checking cars, and radioed asking where else he could help.
Grund later told the Mass Casualty Commission he also tried to call Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, who was the risk manager working at the RCMP Operational Communications Centre and in command, but didn't get through.
Bible Hill Staff Sgt. Al Carroll radioed around the same time that officers needed to be mindful of each other's locations so they did not shoot at each other.
Rehill also told the officers by radio that the emergency response team was on its way and it would be best for them to shelter in place .
Worries about footsteps upstairs
The commission report states the kids thought they could hear footsteps again shortly after 11 p.m., and the call taker confirmed the officers were back. The kids spoke to them briefly before returning to the basement, only to realize they had left the back door unlocked.
Though the trio of officers planned to stay put with the kids, they were redirected after hearing loud pop and a woman called 911 to report her house was about to catch fire.
Around that same time, Grund asked Rehill twice if another team should go in to help out, given there were several officers at the entrance. Sgt. Andy O'Brien said he was worried about sending in a second team if there was a possibility they'd be in a crossfire.
At 11:20 p.m., one of the kids heard "a thump" that sounded as though someone was walking. The call taker advised he was going to have a police officer come back, the commission's summary states.
The three officers in the subdivision sprinted back to check on them, according to their statements and the radio logs.
But they wouldn't stay there for long after a 911 call from a couple who lived on Faris Lane, on the opposite side of the subdivision, reporting someone was knocking on their doors.
The officers set off on foot, checking their phones' maps when they became disoriented on the heavily treed lots, and eventually cleared that property and monitored as another family, a couple and their adult son, drove out.
While there, they noticed a new house on fire and Merchant and Beselt both radioed back that it would be good to send officers to the kids at the McCully house on Orchard Beach Road.
By that point, five officers were standing at the entrance of the community about 1.5 kilometres away with others posted at other points on the highway. The three Mounties on Faris Lane were trying to alert homes with vehicles to get out of the area.
Driven out around 12:24 a.m.
At 11:47 p.m., Rehill then agreed that someone should go in, advising officers to stay with the kids if they couldn't take them out safely. Based on his comments on the radio, he didn't appear to know they'd witnessed their parents die.
Grund and Const. Bill Neil, who had driven in from Pictou, set out on foot, stopping to talk to a neighbour who refused to leave his property and also to assess whether a sound was gunshots or explosions coming from the gunman's burning garage.
Grund later told the Mass Casualty Commission, in an August 2021 interview, that he struggled waiting for the go-ahead to help and that his decision to walk in, as opposed to taking a cruiser to the McCully house, was partially thinking of how RCMP vehicles had been targets in the Moncton shootings.
It was 12:20 a.m., when the two officers met the children at the back door. Grund drove them to safety in McCully's car. First they went to the Great Village Fire Hall and then ambulances took them to hospital in Truro.
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